When Musa Bobson found out last summer he was HIV positive, he thought his world had ended. Social attitudes toward men who have sex with men in Sierra Leone are loaded with stigma and discrimination, so the 25-year old felt lost and afraid. Many men who have sex with men live a closeted existence in Sierra Leone, and refuse to take up HIV medication for fear of being harassed.
Musa said he would not open up to his own family out of concern they would stop loving him. But thanks to Dignity Association, Musa turned his life around. “My counselor told me that I was a human being and that there was nothing I should be ashamed of. That made me feel very happy. I take my medication and feel I have a normal life.”
Following his experience, Musa decided he wanted to help other young men. As a peer educator for Dignity, Musa searches the streets and bars of the city of Makeni, in northern Sierra Leone, to meet men like him and inform them about the importance of testing for HIV and about prevention. “It is an issue of making them gain confidence,” he said. “I sometimes accompany them to the clinic to get tested. I tell them not to be afraid.”
Dignity Association exemplifies the progress made by the LGBT movement in Sierra Leone. The group was established in 2004 to honor the life and work of Fannyan Eddy, an outspoken lesbian activist who was brutally murdered in the Freetown offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association, the country’s first LGBT group. Fannyan was a tireless advocate who spoke out in favor of the rights and dignity of the LGBT community. “Silence creates vulnerability,” Fannyan liked to say.
Hudson Tucker, the soft-spoken national coordinator of Dignity, has turned those words into Dignity’s mission. “There is a lot of denial. Many young men are too afraid to even talk about these issues, which makes it very difficult for them to be reached.”
According to Dignity figures, there are some 20,000 men who have sex with men in Sierra Leone, and an estimated 75 percent of them lead an “underground life”, which prevents them from accessing lifesaving services and treatment.
HIV prevalence among the general population in Sierra Leone is 1.5 percent. However, it is much higher among key populations, such as men who have sex with men, and female sex workers. According to a 2013 study, HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men is 14 percent; among the transgender population it is 22 percent.
“A lot of men who have sex with men are married to women and have children, so you have a domino effect in terms of an epidemic. You leave one area untouched and you affect the entire population,” Tucker said.
Today, Dignity, which is supported by the Global Fund, works closely with the government’s National HIV/AIDS Secretariat, implements prevention and counselling programs, and promotes HIV testing and treatment services.
Since its creation, Dignity has been a leading voice in the LGBT movement in Sierra Leone, helping change deep-rooted attitudes. In 2011, the government, through the National AIDS/HIV Control Program, conducted its first-ever study of men who have sex with men.
An umbrella organization named CARKAP, which stands for Consortium for the Advancement of the Rights of Key Affected Populations, has a constituency seat in Sierra Leone’s Country Coordinating Mechanism, the body of stakeholders that designs and implements Global Fund programs. Tucker said their next step is to have an LGBT seat at the Country Coordinating Mechanism “so that we speak for ourselves.”
Tucker said attitudes toward the LGBT community have changed significantly in Sierra Leone over the last 10 years – the group’s office and signs in Makeni are visible from the main highway, for example – but added the work is far from over. Certain religious and societal norms are difficult to change. Under Sierra Leone’s law, male same-sex activity is illegal. Although the law is seldom enforced, it has the effect of “a big stick hanging over the community.”
John, a 37-year-old police officer, said Dignity had helped men who have sex with men like him feel part of society. On a recent balmy evening, while he was off duty, John spent time with his boyfriend at a popular bar in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city. The crowds danced to the rambunctious music while he and his boyfriend held hands, kissed and shared a beer. “We are not going anywhere. We are human beings. And I am in love,” he said with a big smile.