Posted by Kent Klindera, October 7, 2011
SAIL members marching in the Rally for Unity
I am just back from Liberia, a country that has been ravaged by decades of civil war, but is now struggling to move beyond its transitional status. Liberia’s President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (known as “Ma Ellen”), is Africa’s first female head of state and has recently launched her campaign for a second six-year term. During my visit, her Unity Party hosted a rally, and a crowd of over 50,000 was estimated to have turned out to cheer her on.
I visited Liberia because amfAR supports Stop AIDS in Liberia (SAIL), an MSM-led community-based organization working to inform and empower MSM and other sexual minorities to reduce the spread and impact of HIV. amfAR is SAIL’s only source of funding, and their executive team is made up of three young men who are students with little organizational experience but an abundance of passion. Most of SAIL’s membership supports Ma Ellen, as they see the link between gender discrimination and homophobia, and recognize that having a female head of state helps this ability to fight for LGBT rights. In fact, I helped conduct a mini-workshop and watched these brave young men come up with strategies to reduce homophobia, including coming out to friends and family, learning their own sodomy laws, and informing other MSM and LGBT individuals of their rights.
In addition to providing condoms to gay men and other MSM, SAIL has opened an office that also serves as a drop-in center. I spent one afternoon chatting off and on with about 25 young men, all seeking a space to be themselves, and at the same time gain knowledge about their health and well-being.
Although to date Liberia has not been a hotbed of visible homophobia (like some other West African countries), SAIL has been proactive in order to secure public support. They operate covertly, but are beginning to utilize public spaces (particularly in the public health arena) where coming out is safe and, in fact, needed to help their cause. Once again, the bravery of these activists is so inspiring!