Names in this article have been changed to conceal the identities of gay persons mentioned.
Jerome, 16, strides like he is a supermodel on a runway. He has a slender body, and his hair is cut short. The fashionable teen is wearing denim jeans. A white polo T-shirt bathed in dragon designs reveals his bare chest. From his slippers peek red painted toenails.
The soft-spoken teen gestures with his hands nervously. He is full of suspicion of his surroundings. Jerome says he is gay, a realization that came to him when he was much younger.
“When I was much smaller, I felt different from my other cousins who were boys,” says Jerome. “I felt I was a girl, so I always acted like a girl. Then when I started growing older, I found friends who were also like me. We started doing things, and that’s how I became gay.”
Although no one has come out as a homosexual in Liberia to date, there are several activists working on behalf of gay rights. Though not gay themselves, activists like 27-year-old University of Liberia student Abraham Kamara say the treatment of homosexuals in Liberia is unjust. They say homosexuals do not choose to be gay and that the acts of two consenting adults should be no business of state.
“We need to respect gays and lesbian rights in this country,” Kamara says.
Kamara and fellow gay rights activist Archie Ponpon have been attacked for their advocacy. In January, Kamara narrowly escaped an angry mob of students after speaking out at the University of Liberia’s Capitol Hill campus.
“This is Africa,” says Kamara. “We understand that many people are not educated to that level, so when you get into the advocacy, many people tell you that you are also gay.”
Kamara says he simply wants to see Liberia transition from being a closed society to one that is free for all.
“These are people who are very proud of who they are, and because of society discriminating against them, frowning on them, I think they are suppressed,” he says. Heterosexual and a Christian, he started advocating for gay rights in December of last year. In a country of deeply rooted Christian and Islam tradition, he says homosexuals are a target for hate crimes.
Ponpon has paid a high price for his work. In recent weeks, his mother’s house was set ablaze and his daughter and her mother were chased out of a local church because he has been campaigning for the rights of gay people.Jerome plays nervously with his fingers as he tells of his heartbreak that a recent relationship ended because of intolerance against gays.
“I was in a relationship with a boy and we wanted to get married, but people heard about the wedding,” he says. “The day of the wedding meeting they came and disturbed us. The police came, arrested us and took us to the police station. People jumped on me to fight.”
The young gay teen says the breaking up of his marriage has devastated him and he has become emotionally depressed.
“I was sad; I got sick and was indoors for two days,” says Jerome. “My man left. Since then, I haven’t seen him. The worst part about it is that he even has a relationship with one of the persons who helped to break up the marriage and the person is a boy.
Tyrese, 29, says he is also gay and is proud to be the way he is. He says his trouble began when his partner, who is older, decided to throw him a birthday party.
“I had my first birthday party, and some people heard it and started to spread rumors that two gay people were getting married,” says Tyrese. “I told my fiancé that I wasn’t feeling safe in the area. So we moved to my mother’s house.”
Tyrese, who runs his own catering business, says he started to feel emotions for men at a very young age and he knew he was different.
“I realized it ever since when I was small and I started by hiding and sneaking,” he says. “But what actually exposed me is when I started living with this older man who was a gay. Everyone who saw us said he was my husband.”
Tyrese says his mother and sisters were shocked when they found out he was gay but they later accepted him as he was. His eldest brother, however, does not speak to him, because he cannot stomach being related to a gay person.
“When we meet anywhere, as soon as he notices me, he turns his back until I pass,” says Tyrese. “But all my sisters and my mother know.”
Jerome says his mother was shocked and in a state of disbelief when he told her he was gay.
“People told her, but she could not believe it, so she asked me and I said ‘Yes, I’m gay’,” he says.
Tyrese says being gay in Liberia is very difficult. He says many times homosexuals are rejected by their communities and have to go underground.
“It is too hard for us because they don’t accept us,” says Tyrese. “The only way we can have small freedom is when we meet in the club and the music is loud. Sometimes we have closed door parties; then we have small freedom. But when you come outside, there is no freedom.”
Tyrese says the pressure from his community caused his partner to abandon their relationship and leave him for a woman.
“We were together and everything was fine, but then he started cheating with a woman, and I could not stand it,” he says. “He was giving 75 percent of his time to the woman and was giving me 25 percent, so we started to fuss.”
Tyrese and Jerome, both high school dropouts, say there are many gay people in Liberia who want to come out but are afraid of the backlash from their communities.
“We only want peace and freedom,” says Jerome. “I feel disappointed because they have no business troubling anyone; everyone has their lives to live in any country.”
Jerome’s face lights up when he talks of his time in the Ghanaian capital Accra.
“I was in Ghana for two years; I had freedom,” he says. “I went about freely. I even took part in a beauty pageant – ‘Miss Gay Liberia’ – and I came second. I think they should let us have our freedom.”
Many gays like Tyrese and Jerome say they face threats on their lives on a daily basis.
“Anywhere you go, they threaten you and say ‘It will not hold; we will stab you with a knife or we will burn your house’,” says Tyrese. “These people you find out are the same ones who have had affairs with you, so it is hard for us.”
In other parts of Africa, gays have been killed or brutally maimed. The heat surrounding the current debate has some experts worried that same violence could happen here. The debate over gay rights in Liberia is likely to remain complicated for some time.
Wade Williams is a fellow of New Narratives, a project supporting independent media in Africa. See more at www.newnarratives.org