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Liberia's President Sirleaf defends country's anti-gay laws

Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defends Liberia's anti-gay laws, underlining persistence of colonial laws and 'traditional values.'

By Scott BaldaufStaff Writer / March 20, 2012

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf arrives for a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Nigeria's capital Abuja last week. In an interview with London’s Guardian newspaper on Monday, Sirleaf defends the countries anti-gay laws, underlining persistence of colonial laws and 'traditional values.'

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

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When Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf talks about democracy, economic reform, or good governance, Western diplomats swoon. But when President Sirleaf – this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate -- talks about homosexuality, Westerners look for ways to change the subject.

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On Monday, London’s Guardian newspaper published an exchange between its reporter Tamasin Ford and Sirleaf, with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair present. In the interview, Sirleaf defended her country’s law banning “voluntary sodomy,” which is punishable up to one year in jail, saying, “We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve. We're going to keep to our traditional values."

Ms. Ford then turned to Mr. Blair for comment, but Blair stayed on message. "One of advantages of doing what I do now is that I can choose the issues I get into and the issues that I don't," said Blair, who was visiting Sirleaf in his capacity as founder of Africa Governance Initiative (AGI), a charity that aims to strengthen African governments. “For us, the priorities are around power, roads, jobs delivery.”

On homosexuality, Blair wouldn’t comment.

Understanding why the issue of homosexuality causes such discomfort across the African continent requires a cursory knowledge of the legacy of European colonialism and of Christian missionaries, and also the growing assertiveness of today’s African leaders to determine what is and isn’t appropriate in their countries. Some African leaders, including Sirleaf, argue that Western opinions are unwelcome when it comes to social issues, while Western historians noted that many African societies didn’t even have a name for homosexuality, let alone the stigma attached to it, until the arrival of Christian missionaries in the late 1800s. Regardless of who is right, it is an issue that leaves both sides befuddled and defensive, and that has the small number of African gay rights activists increasingly worried.

At least 30 of Africa’s 54 nations have laws that criminalize homosexual behavior, laws that have largely remained in their current form since they were written by British, French, German, Portuguese or Belgian colonial powers.

At the extreme edge is Uganda, where lawmakers have tried, twice, to enact a law that would make homosexual behavior – which is already illegal in Uganda – punishable by the death penalty. Ugandan gay rights activists have recently filed a civil tort case in the United States, charging that American missionaries, including the Springfield, Mass.-based Rev. Scott Lively, stirred up antigay violence and sentiment by giving sermons that demonized homosexuality.

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