Nobel Peace Prize winner defends anti-gay laws

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf waves at her home in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, Oct 7, 2011. AP Photo

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf waves at her home in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, Oct 7, 2011. Africa's first democratically elected female president, a Liberian campaigner against rape and a woman who stood up to Yemen's autocratic regime won the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of the importance of women's rights in the spread of global peace. The 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award was split three ways between Sirleaf, women's rights activist Leymah Gbowee also from Liberia and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, the first Arab woman to win the prize.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf waves at her home in the city of Monrovia, Liberia, Oct 7, 2011.
AP Photo

(CBS News) As traditional African society lurches its way slowly into a halting embrace with the modern world, few arenas create more tension than gay rights.

Across the continent, being gay doesn't just mean a constant struggle for acceptance. It usually means a constant struggle to stay out of jail or away from the lynch mob. While there are many modern thinkers on gay rights in Africa, their voices are often the quietest, and they rarely if ever hold positions of power. Even the most progressive African leaders have been known to hold views on gay people that would give Rick Santorum pause.

In an interview with The Guardian, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf defended her nation's laws which makes the committing of homosexual acts - "voluntary sodomy" - punishable by up to one year in prison.

"We like ourselves just the way we are," Sirleaf told the Guardian, when asked about the law, as well as proposals for even stricter anti-gay legislation. "We've got certain traditional values in our society that we would like to preserve."

Sirleaf has long been held up as an example of progressiveness in Africa. She was the first woman elected president in modern Africa, and she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 because she "contributed to securing peace in Liberia," promoted "economic and social development," and strengthened "the position of women."

Across Africa, many of the more traditional societies have been pushing back against gay rights since U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in December of last year that U.S. foreign aid would be used to promote rights for gays and lesbians abroad, including combating attempts by foreign governments to criminalize homosexuality.

Homosexuality is illegal in as many as 38 African countries, according to the BBC. In 3 countries, it is punishable by death, while the rest impose punishments that range from life sentences to probation for simply displaying sexual intentions with someone of the same sex.

  • Joshua Norman

    Joshua Norman is a Senior Editor at CBSNews.com.

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