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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.'

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But not all African nations are alike. South Africa has gone the opposite direction, becoming the first country in the world to include in its Constitution specific protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Even so, according to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, social attitudes lag behind the nation’s liberal laws, and many gay men and women find themselves the victims of “discrimination, harassment, and violence at the hands of private individuals and sometimes state agents.”

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Some African leaders, such as Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, say that homosexuality is a Western invention, brought to Africa from outside, and that it must be expelled.

 “[Homosexuality] degrades human dignity. It’s unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people to behave worse than dogs and pigs,” said President Mugabe in 1995, after shutting down a Harare book exhibition organized by the group Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe. “If dogs and pigs do not do it, why must human beings? We have our own culture, and we must rededicate ourselves to our traditional values that make us human beings…. What we are being persuaded to accept is a sub-animal behavior and we will never allow it here.”

What seems likely is that African societies are confronting the issue of homosexuality because their once-closed societies are opening up more. With more public forums, including Internet chat rooms and social media, those citizens who happen to be gay or lesbian are beginning to make their voices heard, and to demand rights they see existing in other countries and in international law.

But when outsiders – from Christian conservatives to human rights activists – enter this debate, they bring with them their own mental baggage and expectations for how this debate should play out. In some cases, such as Uganda's death-penalty proposal, this makes things worse.

Keep Calm, a winking reference to the World War II slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On," is a new blog that aims to provide a bit of context to help make sense of confusing news events.

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