Opposition to homosexuality remains strong in most of Africa. Many people have been beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation. But an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) group in Sierra Leone is pushing for more awareness and protection of LGBT rights.
Life for George Freeman has not been easy.
He says he always had feelings for men but it took him years to admit he was gay, even to himself, because homosexuality in the West African nation of Sierra Leone is illegal.
During Freeman’s teenage years people made fun of him because he never had a girlfriend and they suspected he was gay.
“It was really horrible for me, I suffered a lot of violence in school, bullying from other heterosexual kids,” Freeman said.
When he got the nerve to tell his family he was gay he said they could not accept his lifestyle and he spent several years on the street as a teenager.
He did not officially come out in public until 2007 on a local radio station and says when he did it was a relief .
“When I was on the radio and came out a gay person, it encouraged other people to come out and go for HIV/counseling and testing services,” Freeman said.
After he revealed his sexual orientation he also started a West African chapter of the organization Why Can’t We Get Married.com. Freeman says the organization originally started in Australia but is currently not operating there.
His chapter also advocates for LGBT rights in other African countries. Early next year, Uganda is expected to vote on an anti-homosexuality bill. This would impose stricter punishment for those caught in homosexual activities. Freeman says his organization has signed an online petition to support the Ugandan LGBT community’s struggle to fight the measure.
Freeman says Why Can’t We Get Married.com is making headway in Sierra Leone and slowly changing attitudes.
??His co-worker and friend Bernard Wilson says he was homophobic. It was a long time before Wilson knew Freeman was gay. He says it was hard to accept at first but he eventually decided to learn more about it by working for Freeman’s organization.
“It’s not something of the devil, it’s something, he (Freeman) actually opened my eyes that some people are born with it,” Wilson said.
The two friends are now working on an awareness campaign.
They have created workshops focusing on education about LGBT issues and they are training people across the country.
Freeman says his staff is also monitoring and documenting alleged human rights violations of LGBT people in Sierra Leone.
The main goal is to come out with a human rights report based on LGBT issues that will be presented to the government, the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights and the United Nations Human Rights Council sometime next year.
Freeman says people are still afraid to speak out for fear of being arrested, but testimonies are slowly starting to come out.
“There’s a lot of torture, in terms of psychological torture, through their testimonies we hear high rates of discrimination from the health care system, from education system and society as a whole,” Freeman said.
If people do start officially reporting LGBT violations, Sierra Leone is obligated under international law to protect its victims.
Henry Mustapha Sheku is the senior human rights officer for public information with the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone.
He says they have not received any official complaints from LGBT people yet but would work to defend them if they did.
“If you are someone of a different sexual orientation you have a right to life, to health, to freedom of expression, speech and the like, therefore no one has the right to take your life because of your sexual social orientation, you will be protected,” Sheku said.
Back at George Freeman’s office, he says he will continue his campaign work and hopes to see his country, one day, follow in the footsteps of South Africa. It is the only country in Africa that has legalized same sex marriages.
He says he has no regrets on coming out and hopes he can continue to inspire others.
by Nina DeVries
Source – VOA