Giving a voice and nuanced understanding to gay rights in West African media

By Robbie Corey-Boulet | April 09th, 2015

One afternoon in early 2012, I met with a reporter from Liberia’s New Dawn newspaper in a café in downtown Monrovia. It was one month after the Obama administration had unveiled a new policy to promote the rights of sexual minorities abroad, with then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring in a speech that “gay rights are human rights.” For weeks, talk of the policy and its implications for Liberia had dominated local headlines and radio call-in shows, fueled partly by a group of local activists that had launched a campaign for same-sex marriage. An audacious move in a country that criminalizes voluntary sodomy. 

In the week before our meeting, the New Dawn reporter had written a story that featured a startling claim: It said up to $4 million had been pledged by Western lobby groups for lawmakers willing to support a same-sex marriage bill in Liberia. According to the story, the effort was being led by the “California-based ‘Foundation for the Protection of Gay Rights’”.

Many Liberians were already concerned about the possibility of undue influence from Western gay rights campaigners. “The so-called developed world is doing everything within their power to coerce the rest of the world to allow homosexuality to be practiced, referring to it as ‘gay rights,’” read a fairly typical editorial published by the National Chronicle. The New Dawn story, therefore, played right into readers’ suspicions.

The problem, however, was that there was no evidence the “Foundation for the Protection of Gay Rights” actually existed. The organization had no online footprint, and the reporter’s sources had furnished no proof of the alleged payments. During our meeting, the reporter told me he received his information from three lawmakers who spoke to him anonymously. He conceded he had probably been duped. 

The error came in the midst of a media frenzy that jolted Liberia’s underground LGBTI community, which had previously attracted little attention. Newspapers were running alarmist front-page headlines above photos of black men kissing. Women Voices, which bills itself as “Liberia’s Most Equitable Newspaper,” published an editorial titled “Gays & Lesbians Must Not Be Given Any Right.” Only one newspaper, FrontPage Africa, went to the trouble of interviewing any gay people. The rest seemed content to publish seemingly groundless reports of homosexual “recruitment” put forward by religious leaders and other homophobic public figures. 

Liberia, of course, is not the first sub-Saharan African country where media outlets have gone out of their way to antagonize sexual minorities. Nor are these offenses the most brazen; they fall short of the Ugandan tabloids that have purported to “out” scores of gay people and/or openly called for them to be hanged. 

But the Liberia coverage fit into a broader pattern of West African media outlets denying gay people any kind of say in how they’re portrayed. While regional papers and radio stations have, for the most part, refrained from matching their Ugandan counterparts’ appeals for mob violence, the coverage of sexual minorities in West Africa has often been similarly dehumanizing. Like other manifestations of homophobia in the region, including the enforcement of existing anti-gay laws and the adoption of new ones, the hostile coverage can be seen partly as a backlash to global LGBTI rights gains as well as to more organized local LGBTI rights movements that have emerged over the last decade or so. 

In Ghana, public debate about homosexuality exploded in 2006 after participants in a radio discussion said a conference for sexual minorities was to be held there.3 The resulting outcry was so strong that the government reportedly banned the conference, despite the fact that -- as the BBC indicated -- the whole thing may have been a mere rumor.4

In a book chapter published last year, Kathleen O’Mara at the State University of New York at Oneanta listed some of the more unfortunate stories that subsequently appeared in the Ghanaian press. A December 2006 article on the sexual exploitation of children, for example, was headlined “Gays Raid Kids’ Butts.”5 In 2008, The Mirror newspaper sent a journalist to report on male prostitution. The headline of that article -- “Male prostitutes practice openly in Accra” -- suggests it would have been fairly easy to interview one, but instead the journalist decided to go undercover as a prospective client, spend a few minutes negotiating prices and then drive off. The rest of the story deals mainly with noise pollution from a bar where “men of all shapes and colours” gather.6 

The following year, a radio journalist who snuck into a “gay party” in the Ghana city of Takoradi also decided to forgo interviews and instead simply chronicled his impressions. “I was amazed at what I saw,” the journalist reported. “A young man joined me at the table and after sitting for a few minutes, he pulled out a handbag and a make-up pack and started applying make-up just as the women do. At this point I could not stay any longer, so I quietly walked out.”7

When Senegal went through its own moral panic over homosexuality beginning in 2008, the coverage was more sinister. As Human Rights Watch documented in a 2010 report, a monthly Senegalese gossip magazine single-handedly forced the issue into the spotlight in February 2008 by publishing photos of what it described as a “gay marriage” ceremony that took place in 2006. The photos were subsequently published by other outlets, and the resulting crackdown led to arrests despite the fact that no homosexual acts (punishable by up to five years in prison under Senegalese law) had been documented. Hysterical media coverage of LGBTI issues continued with the arrests in December 2008 of nine members of an HIV/AIDS organization.8

According to Human Rights Watch, the reporting on these two cases was “overwhelmingly one-sided” and “almost entirely ignored” the viewpoints of members of the LGBTI community and their supporters. It was also often “loaded with negative value judgments (through the use of pejorative language, for instance), with newspaper editorials themselves calling for violence or fueling hostility.”

While these cases from Liberia, Ghana and Senegal point to clear problems, it would be wrong to conclude that all coverage of sexual minorities in the region has been bad. Earlier this year, a more encouraging spate of articles appeared in newspapers in Côte d’Ivoire after the headquarters of that country’s most prominent LGBTI organization was ransacked -- a rare episode of anti-gay violence in a country where homosexuality is not criminalized. 

For reasons that go far beyond the scope of this article, Côte d’Ivoire has generally been more tolerant on issues of sexual rights than many of its neighbors. However, local coverage of last year’s marriage-equality debate in France showed that there are more than a few homophobic journalists and editors in the national press corps.  

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Alternative, though, several outlets ran stories that included, and in some cases seemed to be largely driven by, input from the organization’s executive director, Claver Touré. One interviewer, for example, gave Touré a chance to communicate directly with members who no longer had a headquarters to go to; he advised them to remain calm and promised he was sorting out a temporary solution. Many of the articles included rebuttals from Touré to the claims being made against Alternative -- including that members were kissing openly in the streets and leaving used condoms scattered in front of Touré’s home. Others had detailed descriptions of the organization’s public-health work. And finally, pieces like the one that ran in the Feb. 12-18 issue of Star Magazine, a weekly tabloid, were little more than celebrity-style profiles, identifying Touré as “president of the homosexuals” on full-color photo spreads. 

This type of coverage conferred legitimacy to Abidjan’s sexual minorities, presenting them as engaged, articulate and, crucially, Ivoirian. Nowhere in the dozens of articles I reviewed did I come across the common claim that gay people are “un-African.” To the contrary, a prominently placed op-ed in the March 12 edition of the state-run newspaper, Fraternité Matin, said such claims in other countries highlighted a need to “take passion out of the debate.”

Much of this is Touré’s doing, as he was the one sitting for interviews and posing for photos, clearly eager to influence how the incident was reported. And one could argue that he’s in a better position to undertake this kind of media outreach than activists in countries where homosexuality is punishable with jail time. 

But an increasing number of activists in more hostile countries are also engaging with local media outlets -- despite the obvious risks. In Liberia, Stephen McGill, executive director of Stop AIDS in Liberia (SAIL), said his organization had participated in multiple events with the press since gay rights became a subject of widespread debate in 2012. (SAIL is the only local Liberian NGO working directly with sexual minorities, focusing on gay men.) During meetings with a collective of local human rights journalists and also with the Press Union of Liberia, McGill has decried, among other things, homophobic language and stories “outing” public figures. 

The response from the journalists, McGill told me, has been largely positive, with some expressing a willingness to change their approach and work with SAIL on coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity issues. The head of the press union even attended the launch last year of a report SAIL produced with Human Rights Watch describing an increasingly threatening landscape for Liberian gays.

Diouf, head of an HIV/AIDS organization in Senagal whose members were arrested in 2008, also said he has hosted multiple events with journalists in recent years to discuss their coverage of sexual minorities. 

So far, it’s unclear what tangible effect these interventions have had. The Senegalese press remains virulently homophobic, and McGill said stories in the Liberian papers in the run-up to Senate elections scheduled for this year have featured plenty of gay innuendo surrounding a handful of candidates. 

It would be tempting, after being burned so many times, for West African activists to write off local media altogether. But McGill, Diouf, Touré and others appear to have concluded that such a move would be a tactical error. 

Despite the increasing use of social media across West Africa, newspapers and radio programs remain hugely influential sources of information, often driving public debate. And while the international press has certainly shown interest in covering LGBTI issues on the continent, these stories often paint a picture of Africa as uniformly homophobic, rarely taking into account differences in the origins and manifestations of homophobia from country to country. Having covered this issue myself for the international press, I know that in general it’s the story of African homophobia that sells overseas -- not its country-specific variations. 

As South African human rights lawyer Sibongile Ndashe has written, this “single story of ‘African homophobia’” hinders the work of local activists by ignoring on-the-ground progress that doesn’t align with the established narrative.9 Given the impression that no one is defending sexual minorities, foreign actors then feel empowered to step in, potentially harming local processes even when they’re motivated by the best of intentions. 

It is still far too early to say how successful local activists’ media outreach efforts will be. So far, fair coverage of sexual minorities in the region remains the exception. But by speaking to local media, local activists think there’s at least a possibility their messages -- in all of their nuance and complexity -- will reach the public, supplementing more fundamental aspects of their work such as documenting rights abuses and improving health outcomes. And Diouf told me he believes the more experience activists get dealing with the press, the more they’ll be able to identify outlets willing to give them a hearing while filtering out those with whom it makes no sense to engage. 

Just as importantly, Diouf said, the presence of local activists’ voices in these debates undermines one of their opponents’ most nefarious claims: that gay Africans have imported their identities from elsewhere. 

“The goal is to explain to the journalists that in their country there are people who are homosexuals,” Diouf said. “Organizations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have their limits. It’s not Amnesty that can come here and explain that there are homosexuals in Senegal. It’s us who need to do that. If we don’t, then those who are against us can say, ‘It’s those Western groups who pushed you to do this.’”

(References)

Presidential Memorandum -- International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Persons. Dec. 6, 2011. Accessed: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/12/06/presidential-memor...

BBC. Hillary Clinton declares ‘gay rights are human rights.’ Dec. 7, 2011. Accessed: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16062937

O’Mara, Kathleen. LGBTI Community and Citizenship Practices in Urban Ghana. Sexual Diversity in Africa: Politics Theory and Citizenship.  McGill-Queen’s University Press. October 2013.

BBC. Ghanaian Gay Conference Banned. Sept. 1, 2006. Accessed: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5305658.stm.

 GhanaWeb. Gays Raid Kids’ Butts. Dec. 11, 2006. Accessed: http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=115434

The Mirror. Gay Prostitutes Practice Openly in Accra. June 28, 2008. Accessed: http://www.modernghana.com/lifestyle/376/16/male-prostitutes-practice-op....

GhanaWeb. Gay Party in Takoradi. Aug. 27, 2009. Accessed: http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=167646

Human Rights Watch. Fear For Life: Violence Against Gay Men and Men Perceived as Gay in Senegal. Nov. 30, 2010.

Ndashe, Sibongile. The single story of ‘African homophobia’ is dangerous for LGBTI activism. Queer African Reader. Fahamu Books & Pambazuka Press. April 2013. 

So here in Africa, what measures should we take to reduce the risks of choosing the wrong leaders?

The first type of mechanism, and one that is ongoing, consists of

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