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Liberian editor speaks truth to power
11 Questions: Activist Stephanie C. Horton
Horton is the managing editor and founder of Sea Breeze Journal of Contemporary Liberian Writings (SBJ), an e-publication that promotes Liberian arts and culture.
1. Why was Sea Breeze Journal established, and how long have you been in existence?
Thanks for the interview, Ralph, and for shining a spotlight on our arts and culture. I founded SBJ primarily as a platform for creative expression, but also to bring other intellectual works to public attention. This is why the word “writings” in the journal’s name is plural. Not least, the name honors the almost forgotten Sea Breeze folk songs from the 30s through the 60s, sung in English, but patterned after traditional indigenous musical styles. We publish art, creative non-fiction, short fiction narratives, short films, cultural stories, poetry, interviews, book reviews, criticism, theory, and social and political commentaries.
Our first publication was in August 2004. We published quarterly through 2006 until 2007 when we became a biannual publication because of the volume of submissions we received that required extensive editing and revisions. This is an intimate, involved, complex back and forth process between editors and writers. All of our editors are volunteers with demanding careers, and we had to both accommodate their schedules and honor our commitment to work closely with writers through the revision process, so this was why we changed from a quarterly to a biannual publishing schedule.
You can say I conceived of a house, so to speak, in cyberspace, where Liberians at home and all over the world could come to see each other’s work, share their artistry, make connections, form artistic collaborations, and nurture and be nurtured in a creative environment. The accessibility of the Internet, the ease of usage and the ability to reach an audience instantly at minimal cost made it an almost ideal platform. The idea of electronic archives on the Web also appealed to me. I was invested in making that happen for Liberian texts, particularly in the context of the erasure of our intellectual histories and cultural identities; what I see as the disappearance and rewriting of our history before our very eyes from a definitive neo-colonialist perspective, before we have even begun to re-imagine ourselves whole as a whole people.
2. Where is the Liberian Sea Breeze Journal today?
We’re on hiatus and at the moment I can’t say when we’ll be back online. We have some serious database issues and unfortunately our fundraising efforts to address them fell short. The editors, who also function as the board, work on a voluntary basis and have carried all the expenses of the journal. Now we need donations from our readers.
We also suffered a terrible blow with the death of our finance editor Doeba Bropleh, one of our strongest board members and a galvanizing force. He was deeply loved and cherished, we’re all still reeling, and we haven’t yet found someone to replace him. Because we’re a peer-review journal, editors have to have multiple skill sets and it’s been difficult finding someone to take his place who is just the right fit. I’m the coordinating center but the editorial board members are spread across three continents – Africa, North America and Europe. Right now we’re communicating about the practical working out of further fundraising activities.
3. You are an activist and recently wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post. Could you comment on the piece you wrote?
I wrote about gay rights as civil rights and human rights in response to the violence that erupted at home against innocent, powerless people. Disenfranchisement and denying the full humanity of one group or another has been a constant throughout our history, and this was a concern and provoked me to speak out.
What we see happening now is a situation of systemic exclusion, demonization and disadvantage for most LGBTI Liberians; poor LGBTI Liberians to be exact. Social tolerance factors for the elites as always are still in play. But pre-war, there was a predominant social culture of passive tolerance for gays. Some held important government positions and were respected in society. Name-calling on the street such as sissy, fag, punk etc. were not uncommon, but very rarely escalated into the kind of violence we see now, with vicious mob attacks and really very shocking threats and hate speech.
I think we have yet to deal with sexual crimes and sexual violence in our society. Part of the homophobia comes from the unexamined male sexual violence, which is an academic term describing male perpetrators and male rape victims. We now know from several serious studies that have been published that about an equal number of males as females were raped during the war. Emasculation, forced nudity, terror, sexual enslavement, manipulation, these were all aspects of violence during the war against males perpetrated by heterosexual males. This is what we know happened to females. We know that the focus has been on female victims and that male victims face a greater shame and stigma because of how males are socialized. Males are less likely to report or receive counseling and support because of this social conditioning.
There is no difference between sexual abuse of males and females. Rape is an act of violence, power, dominance, humiliation and control. In the same way a heterosexual pedophile’s rape of a girl has nothing to do with him being heterosexual, male sexual violence is not an expression of homosexuality or heterosexuality. A rapist is a rapist; a pedophile is a pedophile, whether gay or straight. But in Liberia today homosexuality has become conflated with male sexual violence. Innocent homosexual males face more hostility than heterosexual men who are known pedophiles. So these are some of the reasons I took the issue on, to stimulate critical thinking and raise awareness. I also wrote two other pieces, “Illegal and Invisible: Sexuality, Identity and LGBT Rights in Liberia,” and “A Piece of the Peace for LGBT Liberians: An Open Letter to Leymah Gbowee.”She didn’t respond, and that’s part of the problem. Prominent Liberians are unwilling to get involved. I felt as a writer that I had to say something.
4. The religious community is also spreading hate against gays, as are policy makers. Why should the ordinary Liberian care about gay rights?
History teaches us that the erosion of anyone’s or any group’s basic rights means our own rights are in jeopardy. That’s why ordinary Liberians should care. If we stand by and allow others to be harassed and persecuted for being born the way they are, then our silence is complicity, as they say in struggle. We must care when our fellow citizens are treated unjustly and their rights are violated, as Angela Davis put it during the Black Power Movement in America, “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you at night.” Once you open the door to fascist policies it’s very hard to close it. That door is swinging ajar in Liberia.
It’s also absurd that now at a time when the UN itself refers to sodomy laws and laws against same-sex relationships as relics of “colonial-era legislation,” backward Liberian legislators are trying to pass more punitive anti-gay laws. The UN’s Yogyakarta Principles were written by an international cadre of human rights experts against discrimination based solely on an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity. The UN should know what they’re talking about when they highlight “colonial-era legislation,” because the UN’s central power structure is composed of imperialist colonizers. But we don’t hear our legislators addressing how neo-colonialism operates in Liberia.
Unfortunately, those religious leaders who are using their influence to demonize and marginalize LGBTI Liberians as un-African, un-Liberian, and ungodly are ignorant. Some are also corrupt, as most of our government leaders are, because it’s well-known that the extremist right-wing fundamentalist American evangelical movement spreads hatred, misinformation and division through funding anti-gay structures across the continent. These are the heirs of those who came to Africa with the bible in one hand and the gun in the other. Do we hear them preaching against how neo-colonialism operates today in Africa?
The online political newsletter CounterPunch has an excellent article by David Rosen on the role of the right-wing US evangelicals called “Doing the Devil’s Work: The Christian Right’s Anti-Sex Campaign in Africa.” The origin of homophobia in Liberia today is American. But the Liberian newspapers do not print anything about these so-called Christian fundamentalist right-wing groups. The New Dawn falsely reported instead that nonexistent gay rights groups in America and Europe pledged to give three million dollars to members of the Legislature and Senate to push through a gay rights bill. That was proven to be a lie. So this is how we are under an avalanche of propaganda, manipulation and thought control. Call me paranoid conspiracy theorist for wondering why American Brigadier General Hugh C. Van Roosen who specializes in Psychological Operations (PSYOP) has been assigned to work in Liberia. Please look up PSYOP and then see if you still can call me paranoid. Wikipedia has a good article with sources cited.
5. Are you surprised at the position President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has taken on the issue, given that she’s a Laureate?
No, I’m not surprised. Given her historical record and observing her actions, nothing our President says or does surprises me. She’s consistent even when she’s being contradictory. I do know that the LGBTI community voted overwhelmingly for her and held rallies during her campaigns, hoping that a woman president would bring sensitivity and compassion to empower their community. They got nothing in return so far but indifference.
6. For those who do not know you and the huge influence of Sea Breeze Journal, who is Stephanie Horton?
Ha, that’s a loaded question because how does one describe oneself in the context of “huge influence” without appearing egotistical and self-serving? I would say I’m a cultural worker, that’s all. I’m interested in our history, our collective beauty, our strengths, how and why we’ve been broken, those wisdom epics, myths and imaginative folktales from the past ever evolving that tell and show us what blood runs in our veins, our extraordinary music, dance and drama, the ancient philosophies running through our days, the stories buried within us, the struggles we now face.
7. The arts and culture have been neglected in the Liberian society, not to mention the national museum and the theater and cinema. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t think anyone would disagree with that assessment. Dr. Elwood Dunn’s Independence Day oration this past July should be mandatory reading for every Liberian, particularly students, because he so brilliantly captures the neglect, the impact, breaking it down and making sense of it. Now when even the Sande and Poro are under political attack, a group was stirred to awakening by his speech – the newly formed Arts and Culture Council of Liberia. I would like to believe that they offer a ray of morning light in the thickening darkness. Many of those involved know what authentic art and culture is, and who the true custodians of those domains are. They also have their own unique talents and vision. They draw from that well.
8. What do you do in your spare time?
I choose to live somewhat of a solitary life. I have many interests and am involved in global and local activism covering human trafficking, labor rights, the environment, social justice, the prison industrial complex, Net neutrality and other things I consider to be critical matters of our times. You won’t find me at parties, weddings, conferences and all the other places most of us generally gather to socialize. You could call me eccentric as I definitely do not conform to norms. I read a lot, fiction and non-fiction. I write. I love the theatre, international films, music, good food, long discussions with a few close friends about books, politics, art, the state of the world and particular places.
9. What do you think about reconciliation in the Liberian society after almost two decades of war?
It’s nonexistent. The disparity in class wealth has deepened and shown us that indigenous elites are indistinguishable from settler elites in selfish avaricious greed. Yesterday’s ruthless warlords are today’s ruthless leaders. Instead of gaining access to capital for self-driven development, people are being displaced off their ancestral lands for foreign interests to exploit, destroy and control during their entire lifetimes.
The educational system is a criminal offence. Students are still taught more about the outside world and everyone else but themselves as Africans. They aren’t learning about Africa or the Liberian world that they can touch, see and feel, its past and pre-Liberian history, the world they need to know and understand to know and understand themselves.
I foresee sweatshops and low wage factories coming soon. We already see the list of job training going on in the oil industry: janitor, cleaner, cook. We see the workers being exploited in all the burgeoning sectors. The youth are still traumatized, neglected, policed, criminalized, dehumanized. Vulture capitalism rules. We are a corporate hegemony with the President as Chief Executive Public Relations Officer, answerable only to foreign shareholders. Our concept of progress is self-destructive. We have regressed and devolved as a nation. Even our sovereignty is imperiled.
10. As an activist intellectual and one with interest in public policy, do you envision holding political office in Liberia?
I don’t think that’s likely!
11. Any favorite quote or leader you admire the most?
I’m almost ashamed to say the writer Bessie Head because she’s not Liberian, nor a leader, but then again shame is impossible for I admire her so. My own sense of self and how I move in the world is shaped by her work. Like her, I am a hybrid by circumstance of birth and nationality, belonging to no one tribe or place. I am part unknown, part Kpelle, part Jamaican, part East Indian, part Native American, part Southern American, and part German, planted in Liberia. Because I am essentially Black and Africa herself embraced me as her child, I have very little choice and no other inclination but to simply be Liberian. Bessie Head was simply African, of no tribe or race. I learned from her how to create my own sense of belonging. This is what her work is all about.