Nobel Peace Prize Winner Defends Criminalisation of Homosexuality

We praised her before as an under-appreciated hero. So it’s even sadder to read this.

The Nobel peace prize winner and president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has defended a law that criminalises homosexual acts, saying: “We like ourselves just the way we are.”

In a joint interview with Tony Blair, who was left looking visibly uncomfortable by her remarks, Sirleaf told the Guardian: “We’ve got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve.”

26 thoughts on “Nobel Peace Prize Winner Defends Criminalisation of Homosexuality

  1. This is an extremely difficult thing to face for feminists in the west but I think what we have to do here is try and empathise with the job of the president of Liberia. She isn’t in charge of a nice western culture that has had a 100 years of cultural change pushing forward the politics of inclusion for women, gays, transgendered, and (lately) neuroatypical peoples. Her country is still strongly machismo and if she pushes for change that is too advanced to be accepted by her people then there is a big risk that what will happen is a huge backlash, a civil war, and she would be stripped from power. What good would that do anyone? It took almost 80 years of active political campaigning in the west to see a change in attitudes towards gay people. We cannot, therefore, expect change to happen overnight just because a women leads Liberia now. We must put away our disappointment and be more than fair weather friends to Liberia. They will come to see the justice of things in time. Change of this sort is always incremental, little by little, bit by bit.

    And remember – just because Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said there won’t be any new laws made at this present time, it does not mean that other effort of a less confrontational nature and with a little more velvet aren’t gong to be encouraged, or at least not objected to by the state. Liberia is a complex country with an interesting balance of dynamics… and when working for change… sometimes a blind eye is a good as a permit. Always in these situations you have to ask – what can I get away with when it comes to the battle in order that I may win the war?

  2. Blair has great teeth. I wish that I could afford his dentist.

    There are ways for any skilled politician to hint at supporting positions that he or she cannot publicly support in a forthright manner.

    I come from Chile and Michelle Bachelet, if asked about legalizing abortion in Chile (which is completely illegal), would have found a way to hint, if only through her tone of voice, that although due to lack of political support, she cannot endorse legalized abortion, personally she sympathizes with a woman’s right to choose. By the way, Bachelet is not noted for her political courage.

    So the Liberian president either lacks political skill or the courage to defend gay people.

    No excuses….

  3. I’m not sure why it’s taken for granted that Sirleaf must be a tacit supporter of gay rights who is merely hamstrung by political circumstances. In the video here, Sirleaf appears almost disgusted by the question posed to her.

    Isn’t the most parsimonious reading just that Sirleaf is flat wrong on the issue?

  4. Yes, Tony Blair’s body language demonstrated that this is an awkward issue for him, but he’s doing what he has to do for the moment. Madame President is much more difficult to read. At least she said that she wouldn’t be looking at any new legislation, which says to me that the proposed tougher jail sentences won’t pass. “We like ourselves just the way we are” at least says that they don’t plan to enact legislation that would be even more damaging to LGBT Ugandans.

    This is very sad for LGBT Africans in all 37 countries. A Nobel Prize winner’s lead will be followed. I agree with your principles, SW. But in practice, to avoid mass lynchings or civil war, non-interference in LGBT Rights issues is the best policy at this time. You know my views and my usual argument style. Those words leave a bad taste in my mouth, but too many lives are at stake right now.

  5. Oops. I know we’re talking about Liberia, not Uganda. I was looking at the list of countries where human rights abuses are taking place when that little brain-flip happened. All 37. Tragic.

  6. Xena:

    Alrah says that her comments are designed to avoid a civil war. I admit to knowing nothing about Liberia, but would a president hinting, by body language or tone of voice, that she is, let’s say, uncomfortable with sodomy laws lead to a civil war?

    Now, it could be that her political enemies in a demagogic fashion would use any pro-gay rights comments on her part to foment a civil war. Mass hysteria, especially
    that provoked by sexual repression (I suppose that homophobia has a lot to do with repression of homosexual impulses) combined with religious puritanism, is a terrible force.

    Given my complete ignorance of Liberia, I’d best shut up.

  7. Here is some more background on Charles Taylor (my refusal to use any of his titles is deliberate):

    I’m seeing some striking parallels to the position Benazir Bhuto was in a few years ago. President Johnson Sirleaf is wise to learn from Bhuto’s mistakes, imo. I’ll take the charitable position on her stance, given that she stated that the Liberian legislature would not be reviewing *any* bills pertaining to homosexuality (I’m assuming that also means they won’t be voting on Taylor’s proposals.)

  8. Their sense of self must be incredibly fragile for them to hate and fear gay people so much.

    Mine is pretty fragile, but I realize that I’m Epictetus compared to some people.

  9. There’s some very informative footage covering the civil war on youtube. I thought about posting it here, but some commenters may find it disturbing. Look for a video called Silent River, if you’re interested. The movie, Blood Diamonds with Leo DiCaprio was quite tame compared to what actually happened over there. Cross-dressing cannibals, rape, child soldiers carrying a ‘war trophy’ in one hand, teddy bear in the other…

    I’m still googling to confirm this, so don’t quote me yet. I suspect that some of the homophobia may be from victims of warcrimes, and the politicians who seek to exploit their fears. Talk of “returning to traditional values” is common after a community has been torn apart by war.

  10. It’s disappointing that Sirleaf Johnson would take this position, and it’s certainly not got anything to do with peace. She has some thinking to do, not least of all because of her status as a Peace Prize Laureate, but the most important thing at this point is probably not her but the younger generation.

    I was against last year’s Peace Prize award, but not against Johnson Sirleaf. Instead, I thought the award diminished the contributions of women. If you’re interested, have a look at “The Nobel Peace Prize’s problem with women” at

  11. The mere fact that a nation is in Africa and has a “non-Western culture” is hardly sufficient for excusing these sorts of comments. It might be helpful to contrast these comments with the situation in South Africa. South Africa is hardly a paradise for gay people, but its constitution certainly reflects much more attention to gay rights than Johnson Sirleaf is advocating.

  12. I’m not in favour of simplistic generalizations, but I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised that no one mentions that unfortunately, homophobia is rampant on the entire continent, and her comments might simply reflect that she is no exception.
    About her status as a winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace: Desmond Tutu has publicly said that homophobia is as bad as apartheid and that he wouldn’t worship a homophobic god, and he has endorsed the work of Amnesty International about this.
    Here is the op-ed he wrote 2 years ago:

    (I can’t help but wonder how this has affected the perception of Tutu)

  13. Aimee,

    That’s at least what I intended by #3.

    As an aside: I’m also curious about many of the reactions expressed in this thread, which note ‘sadness’ or ‘disappointment’ and reach for some sort of plausible justification of Sirleaf’s remarks in the context of the Liberian political milieu, rather than simply observing that her view is repugnant. It occurs to me that when conservative politicians in the US deliver indistinguishable remarks, we do not attempt such herculean feats of charity.

    What accounts for the difference? Is it not a form of condescension to suppose that Sirleaf either doesn’t know better, or would face political suicide for taking the right position? Both of these arguments would seem to work just as well for conservative politicians at home, so why do they only succeed for her?

    Perhaps I have misread the sentiments expressed above, but I don’t think I’m alone in observing the soft-pedaling and explaining-away of some seriously execrable views when the speaker happens to be someone we’re otherwise inclined to be sympathetic towards. Apropos of recent conversations on this blog, isn’t there something Fishian about that?

  14. Aimee? I stated in #4 and #5 that the situation in 37 African countries was tragic for LGBT people, and had to correct my own brain-flip that happened as a result of the tragedy overload. (The Human Rights abuses I was referring to were the mass lynchings and the state sanctioned persecution of gays in every one of these 37 countries, up to and including the legal execution of gays in some countries.)

    The linked article in #7 discusses some of this rampant homophobia as well.

    Desmond Tutu has been criticized for his views. However, this matters less in his position. He doesn’t have to worry about paramilitaries blowing up his workplace. He doesn’t serve on a council with the friends of the war criminal he just replaced, as Madame President does. People who are competing for religious offices don’t often use violence or attempt to assassinate bishops to get them out of the way. Church leaders, especially those who have been gvt. officials can influence politics. But the President is the one with the veto power. Like I said, she is wise to learn from the mistakes of the former President of Pakistan, Benazir Bhuto, who was assassinated for her frankness.

  15. South Africa is very different in its attitudes towards gay people than other African countries, although far from liberal.

    Click to access 258.pdf

    The data is from 2007, but it gives a general idea of attitudes.

    See page 35.

  16. Yes, S&S, you have misread my comments. I am anything but condescending toward President EJS. I admire her accomplishments, her intellect, and know durn well that she has more knowledge of the political climate in her country than any one of us coddled westerners. This is not about any namby-pamby metaphoric “political suicide”. It’s about actual gruesome death, destruction, dismemberment and war.

    Many Liberians are the proud descendants of slaves freed after the American Civil War and sent back to Africa during the American Reconstruction. If you’re brave enough to go over there and tell them that they should once again kowtow to their colonizers, be my guest. I’m also a great admirer of British MP Peter Tatchell and his amazing detachable lower jaw. If you were to jump into the Liberian controversy, as Mr. Tatchell has done in other places well known for brutality against gays, I’d hold you in the same high regard, missing limbs or not.

    I, however, am not so brave. And I don’t blame President EJS one bit for not wanting to see herself and who knows how many others brutalized and/or martyred for this cause.

  17. Exactly how oppressed do you have to be before calling for equal protection before the law, no matter how cautiously or indirectly, becomes “kowtowing to colonizers”?

    There are two interpretations of Sirleaf’s comments. The first is that she actually believes what she says. The second is that she’s a secret supporter of gay rights, but occupies too precarious a political perch to say so outright. What actual evidence is there for the second interpretation?

    Furthermore, in order to interpret Sirleaf’s plainly antagonistic comments as covert support for gay rights–let us call this “the Straussian view”–what kind of interpretive strategy must I undertake? What alternate reading wouldn’t such a strategy support? By the same sort of reasoning, why couldn’t I conclude that Sirleaf’s actual political positions are Whiggist, or Bakuninist, or whatever else I personally wished that Sirleaf believed, simply because the threat of assassination is non-zero? Doesn’t that strategy prove too much?

    On that score, couldn’t Johnson have reasonably concluded that Kennedy’s (extremely tepid) stance on civil rights got him shot, and therefore that he had license to quietly ignore “the Southern question”? Would you be impressed by such an argument?

  18. Like I said, S&S, I’m impressed by people like Peter Tatchell. It’s easy for us to sit here in our ivory towers, criticizing people in countries we’ve never set foot in. This is not a textbook list of theoretical “ought”s. We’re talking about a country that just ended 13 years of bloody civil war. President EJF’s life is not the only one at risk. If the leader of some other country bothers you so much, go and put yourself into the fray to protest. Then I’ll be impressed.

    Lyndon B Johnson’s position on the Kennedy assassination is a disanalogous reference. If you want to compare apples and apples, I think we’re a little closer to Andrew Johnson’s position on the Lincoln assassination, here. The question is not whether I agree or disagree with Johnson. The question is whether I believe that Queen Victoria and Napoleon III should have stepped in after the Civil War and pressured the Americans to deal with their Reconstruction just as the French and/or British had dealt with their post-abolition issues. The answer is absolutely not. These are different countries with entirely different histories. It’s not about One Morality Fits All.

    It is absolutely not up to me to pressure somebody into dying for a cause, no matter how worthwhile, if I would not die for that cause myself. I’ve had my butt kicked for speaking out in my own country. I’ve had a gun pointed at my head for being happy to walk through a racist American suburb with my African-American friend. Have you? As someone who shares my views on the finality of death, can you grasp my views on non-intervention where interference could plunge a country back into civil war?

  19. Again, my proof of her stance on secretly supporting gay rights, as I said before, was her assertion that the legislature would not be reviewing *any* bills pertaining to gays. If you’d read my link on Taylor and the appalling wishes of the war criminal’s ex, you would have seen that this qualifies as EJF’s assertion that gays will not be legally executed in her country while she’s in office.

  20. And before somebody jumps on me about this too, let me correct another typo. Benazir Bhuto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, not the president.

  21. My question, which echoes Aimee’s, is an epistemic one: why should we not simply think that Sirleaf’s comments reflect her sincere views? I frankly find your reading of that interview strained: Sirleaf said that she wouldn’t sign “any law having to do with that area“, where the referent is the decriminalization of homosexual acts. Her remark: “quite frankly, I’m not quite sure if we’re going to see a law go through our legislature on that” pertains to the same referent. The more stringent anti-gay laws, as I understand it, have already been introduced, making it even more implausible that Sirleaf is referring to the criminalization bills. It’s not like she didn’t have three or four chances to make her position clear to the interviewer.

    Further, every news outlet that I’ve seen basically shares my interpretation of her remarks. If her phrasing was intended to be a dog-whistle, it was a very high-pitched one indeed.

    Whether it’s a politically wise to push on the gay rights front at the current moment in Liberia is an entirely separate question on which I have no particular expertise. But here’s an open letter written by the Liberian-American LGBT activist Stephanie Horton to Leymah Gbowee, the peace activist who shared Sirleaf’s Nobel. The recommendations seem optimistic, but pretty reasonable to me. With your expert finger on the Liberian political pulse, would you agree, or do you really believe that Horton is risking plunging the country back into civil war?

    Regarding the remainder of your comment, such as it is, I’ve never asked for your esteem or permission for thinking through global issues in public, especially inasmuch as they are affected by my state’s foreign aid policy. Although the relevant details are googleable if you knew my real name, what the police have and haven’t done to me for speaking up is not your business, let alone a defensible criterion for speech.

  22. S&S, it IS Stephanie Horton’s business to comment on her own people’s plight in an open letter. I have no problem with allowing the Liberians to speak for themselves and influence their own leaders. Ms. Horton’s is exactly the kind of gentle voice that leads hatemongerers to change their views, bit by bit.

    If President EJS is a homophobe, I guess we’ll find out if or when she passes that legislation to execute gays. If this happens, I suspect the folks who awarded her that Nobel Prize will have something to say about it. Madame President is still under enough pressure that it is unlikely that the legislation will pass.

    As I stated in #18, paragraph 2, it is NOT the business of a foreign government to pressure a wartorn region to conform to said foreign government’s morality. Kudos to Tony Blair for offering help&advice where it’s needed, and leaving Cameron’s gvt. out of it when their help would not be wanted.

    That crack about my expertise in Liberian politics was pretty funny. I was actually a much better anthro student than philosophy student, before things turned sour for me. The whole point of going back to school in my 30’s was to get a degree in Sociocultural Anthropology so I could work with refugees here in Canada. Hence my preference for ditching the jargon and communicating in plain English. While my knowledge of Liberia is self-taught, I’m still examining other cultures through the lens of a solid Social Sci foundation, including a 5-point model for examining cultural disintegration.

    You’re telling ME to mind my own business while you support these ham-fisted policies YOUR gvt. advocates? If it is not my business to ask you to pull your head out of your textbook and draw on whatever personal experiences might allow you to empathize with people who are actually suffering due to the increase in homophobic attacks since Clinton put African LGBT populations in the spotlight, then this discussion is finished. I have other things to do, including a meeting with my favourite transchick about some activist work to promote a transfriendly environment in Toronto’s homeless shelters. I prefer useful practice over pointless preaching.

  23. I’m not telling you to mind your own business. I’m telling you that I don’t agree with your opinions for reasons I’ve outlined above. Confusing the two is a category mistake.

    I think there must still be some grave misunderstanding. I don’t know how else we could have moved from a discussion of what Sirleaf actually meant by her comments, and how we should regard them, to accusations of “stepping in[to Liberian affairs]” and “pressuring somebody into dying for a cause”. As I understand them, the issues are these:

    1) Does Sirleaf sincerely endorse the plain interpretation of her remarks?
    2) If so, how should decent people regard her and/or respond, if at all?
    3) If not, is her gambit politically optimal, given the circumstances?
    4) Is the US State Department’s directive to link foreign aid to gay rights a good idea?
    5) Who is allowed to have an opinion at all about this?

    I would have thought that the answer to (5) was obvious, but I’ll throw it on the pile since you brought it up. Why does one need to be Liberian in order to think that Sirleaf’s comments are indefensible? (As we’ve spent far too much time discussing already, I admit the conceptual possibility that being Liberian might clue one in to some double-super-secret Liberian realpolitik that forces her to constrain her remarks, but that’s not the case here.) Moreover, parochialism can be the last refuge of a scoundrel: every group that has ever been forced to abandon its bad practices by an outside group has appealed to the norms of local control and autonomy, protesting that the outside group isn’t from around here and just doesn’t know how things are round these parts. It is not at all difficult, for example, to imagine Sirleaf’s comments in the mouth of a Southern sheriff, circa 1960. Generations of prominent Southerners pressed for a century for non-interference, with strikingly similar rhetoric. I don’t think they had the best of that argument.

    Even if you accept cultural relativism and allow that only Liberians can comment on Liberian moral issues, you face the insuperable challenge of specifying who belongs to the culture. Does Stephanie Horton? For many Liberians, being a lesbian is deeply un-Liberian. What about ex-pats? College-educated women? There’s no answer to whether Horton is ‘Liberian enough’ to comment because the property of being ‘sufficiently Liberan’ is incoherent.

    Moreover, you suggest later on that foreign influence might not be so bad after all, if Sirleaf actually signs the bill. Then, as you say, members of the Nobel committee and other groups like Amnesty International might try to exert some pressure before anyone actually gets killed. But isn’t “exerting pressure” just another name for the “interference” you’ve been so critical of? At this point your position is even less clear to me than when we began.

    As for question (4), I’ve never mentioned any support of the State Department’s policy. Linking foreign aid to human rights goals is a tricky business: if it is to be effective, then the threat of withdrawing aid must be credible, which might ultimately require a demonstration. When you consider, though, the contemptuous geopolitical aims to which the State department has yoked foreign aid in the past (consider the case of Mauritania in 2003 for a representative example), pressing for progress on gay rights is like the least nefarious thing State has ever done with the aid budget. Sure, there will be unintended consequences at the margin, but it doesn’t strike me as an obviously bad policy. It can also give cover to politicians like Sirleaf (at least according to your interpretation of her) who would privately prefer to see justice done, but can’t make it happen without losing an election. Sometimes appearing to have no other option can be very politically useful.

  24. Also, execution for sodomy isn’t on the table. It’s a 5-10 year prison sentence. Still bad, of course, but we might as well have the facts straight.

  25. From the AP:

    Meanwhile, Liberia’s former first lady, Senator Jewel Taylor, submitted a bill last week that would prohibit same-sex marriage and make homosexuality a first-degree felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

    “We are only strengthening the existing law,” she said. “Some media are reporting that I said anyone found guilty of involvement in same sex should face the death penalty, I did not say so, I am calling for a law that will make it a first degree felony,” she told the Associated Press.

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