By Sheriff Mansaray
Homosexuality is illegal in Sierra Leone and most gay relationships are carried out in secret. Many hotels and guesthouses will refuse to let same-sex couples share a room, let alone being spoken about on the radio. So many media houses frown at LGBTQI reporting, because the act is considered illegal.
The general perception of same-sex relationships in Sierra Leone is that it is practiced by foreigners, especially by white people. And the black people in same sex relationships are not many. Most people were shocked when some of their compatriots want same-sex relationship recognition.
The LGBT issue became topical in 2004, when Fanny Ann Eddy, founder of Sierra Leone’s Lesbian and Gay Association, was murdered. LGBTQI sympathizers claimed Ms. Eddy was killed because of her sexual orientation. There is a law that criminalizes gay practice in this country. This law is section 61 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. The constitution does not offer protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. A law from 1861 still in force prohibits male homosexual acts; however, there is no legal prohibition against female-to-female sex. The 1861 law carries a penalty of life imprisonment for indecent assault upon a man or 10 years for such an attempted assault. However, the law was not enforced in practice, due to the secrecy surrounding homosexual conduct and the tendency for communities to discriminate against individuals rather than to enforce legal codes.
Since independence, government and society have preferred to deny the existence of lesbians and gay men. Presently the issue of homosexuality has become a conflict between old biblical/koranic colonial ideas and progressive human rights activism. Sierra Leone is no exception and today male same-sex sexual activity is illegal with possible life imprisonment as punishment.
Our cultural, traditional and religious practices frown at LGBTQI issues. This country’s two main religions; Christianity and Islam, discountenance same-sex activities. Despite all these drawbacks on LGBT issues, gays and lesbians have made themselves heard.
There are now several organizations and associations that speak on behalf of gay rights. Strides have also been made in the diplomatic circles. Sierra Leone has also hosted the global rights institute. There is also cooperation between LGBT organizations and the National Aids Secretariat (NAS).
The truth about LGBT is that Sierra Leoneans are far behind on the road to LGBT rights. Talking openly about LGBT rights is still a taboo, let alone admitting that one is a gay, bisexual or lesbian. At present, persecution, molestation and provocation are what LGBT`s or their sympathizers face.
There were a few organizations working to support gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender persons. Because such individuals were not culturally accepted, particularly among men, the groups had to remain underground and hidden for fear of discrimination or violence against their members. Gay pride parades and other public displays of solidarity could not safely take place, let alone engage in partying or any other gathering would be considered illegal.
There were unofficial reports of beatings by police and others, particularly targeting men dressed as women, but formal complaints were not filed due to fear of reprisal. Lesbian girls and women were also victims of planned rape that were initiated by family members in an effort to change their sexual orientation. Social discrimination based on sexual orientation occurs in nearly every facet of life for known gays and lesbians, and many choose to have heterosexual relationships and family units to shield them. In the areas of employment and education, sexual orientation is the basis for abusive treatment, which has led individuals to leave their jobs or courses of study.
It is difficult for gays and lesbians to receive the health services they need, due to fear that their confidentiality rights would be ignored if they were honest about their ailments; many choose not to be tested or treated for sexually transmitted infections. To secure housing is also a problem for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender persons in Sierra Leone. Gay children frequently are shunned by their families, leading some to turn to prostitution to survive. Adults can lose their leases if their sexual orientation becomes public. Even Journalists that reports frequently about them were physically and verbally abused. That’s why most journalists in Sierra Leone are afraid to discuss and report about the issue of LGBTQI or even be trained on how to report issues relating to gays and lesbians.
Research has proven that there is a high level of ignorance because sexuality and sexual rights issues are not openly discussed. The implication of this ignorance is that intolerant behaviors have developed against sexual minorities and same-sex sexual practices, including those that do not infringe on the rights of others in Sierra Leone.
The legal, policy and knowledge climate must be made conducive to create the requisite environment for sexual minorities to be free from discriminatory practices and human rights violations.
The most notorious event in the history of gay Sierra Leone was the murder of an outstanding and outspoken lesbian activist in 2004 Fannyann Eddy. She broke the silence for us all. She courageously brought the struggle for freedom and dignity in Sierra Leone to the world stage. Still there is tendency for more activists to be killed or persecuted.