A few days ago I went to see a performance at a neighboring school. It was original oratory, meaning an original speech on some heartfelt subject presented as dramatically and persuasively as possible. The students did well, keeping the audience's attention while they spoke about such things as embracing change, showing respect, the power of love, and not being judgemental. Since they are just young high school kids, I doubt they have been seriously challenged in any of these areas yet, but it is nice to know that they are starting off life in roughly the right direction. As an educator, I look for hopeful things in the next generations.
However, there has been a conversation started about the generally appalling state of LGBT rights in Africa. Much of the discussion has been about the influence of western Christian ministers starting anti-gay crusades there. While this is unquestionably an issue, there are often other roots to the problem. The Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, recently made headlines both for winning the Nobel Peace Prize and for refusing to consider decriminalizing homosexuality. Her reasoning? “We have certain traditional values in our society that we'd like to preserve.”
The “traditional values” she is referring to were actually imported under European colonialism along with the anti-sodomy laws that are still on the books in more than 30 sub-Saharan African countries. Some older tribal cultures of Liberia were accepting of trans or gay identities. A Liberian boy's adult initiation ritual included temporarily cross-dressing as he symbolically transitioned through a volatile androgynous zone into manhood. Civil rights activism is not a new concept in Liberia either, since the nation was founded by abolitionists as an independent colony for freed slaves. So what made the nation reject these cultural roots?
Post-colonial Liberia suffered from coups, embezzling leaders, and tribal resentments. After yet another rigged election and failed coup, a few tribes united behind Charles Taylor (allegedly a C.I.A. informant trained by Gaddafi). He encouraged his teenage and child soldiers to wear wigs and dresses as a scare tactic. In Liberian culture this would tell the enemy: “I am in a volatile state, be very afraid!” He then got them high on drugs, supplied them with guns, and went on a rampage of massacre and rape. The ensuing wars lasted from 1989 to 2003. Then Charles Taylor was arrested