'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' — Martin Luther King
If anyone seemed to believe King's statement, it was Fannyann Eddy. Fannyann was a tireless activist who founded the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association (SLLAGA) in 2002. The group provided social and psychological support to a fearful underground community. Fannyann, however, was a highly visible and courageous figure, lobbying government ministers to address the health and human rights needs of gay men and women.
Fannyann's personal fight for equal rights for Sierra Leone's gays and lesbians came to a shocking and brutal end in early October. The 30-year-old was murdered while working alone in the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association's office. She leaves a young son—and her fighting spirit.
In April, Fannyann was part of a delegation of activists who attended the annual session of the United Nations (UN) Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Windy City Times spoke with Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). She was fortunate enough to meet Fannyann in Geneva.
Windy City Times: Tell me about meeting Fannyann.
Paula Ettelbrick: I first met her in Geneva in April. IGLHRC had coordinated a delegation of about 20 activists from around the world to go to Switzerland, where the UN Human Rights Commission meets each year to decide some of the major human-rights issues. Fannyann was part of our delegation, representing Sierra Leone. This year, the primary goal was to push government representatives on the Commission to vote for the unprecedented Resolution on Sexual Orientation and Human Rights and to speak to human-rights experts within the UN about conditions each of us face in our country. Our delegation stayed in the same hotel, usually ate together and had the chance to really bond. Fannyann and I, along with our friend Aditya from India, ended up spending a lot of our free time together. I found her totally fascinating. Her stories about Sierra Leone and the dysfunctional government were funny and heart-wrenching. Also, what she was doing as the only truly out person in that country was, to be honest, both inspiring and humbling.
WCT: What did she specifically say about Sierra Leone?
PE: Fannyann loved her country. She'd lived elsewhere in Africa but decided to move back there to do her work. Sierra Leone has just come out of a 10-year civil war, so the country's political and social structures are still a bit unsteady. However, at the same time, what I understood from her is that it is a country in which sexuality per se is not really a big stigma. I think that's why people were shocked that [her murder] might be a bias crime. There's a lot of violence there but it's not typical that it would be based on someone's sexual orientation or sexuality, unlike places like Namibia or Zimbabwe, where homophobic leaders actually encourage hatred. However, that's not to say you can be an out activist very easily and I got the sense that Fannyann was the type to really push the envelope.
WCT: Do you know about [SLLAGA]? Are they carrying on without her?
PE: As far as we know, yes. We've been in touch with a couple of other members. They're much more closeted than she was; that's the difficulty. It's like when Brian Williamson was killed in Jamaica. Brian was the one to put his face on TV and name in the newspapers. There's simply no one to fill that void in Jamaica and it's like that in Sierra Leone.
Fannyann was incredibly courageous and tenacious. She was the type not to take 'no' for an answer. When she applied for her visa to join our delegation in Geneva, she sat in the government office until they finally relented and gave her the visa. They tried to intimidate her and she just sat there until they gave it to her. She's told stories of being publicly humiliated or harassed—but told them with great defiance, not defeat.
WCT: Are you concerned about the [progress] for gay and lesbian rights taking a step back because there's no one like Fannyann there right now?
PE: Well, that's always a risk. The community is going through a tremendous and tragic transition. IGLHRC had two major concerns after Fannyann's death. First, we wanted the police to conduct a thorough investigation to make sure nothing was swept under the rug. (Actually, the evidence seems to indicate that it could have been a pure and simple robbery.) Our second concern is about the safety of the remaining members of SLLAGA. We plan on sending a letter to the Ministry of Gender and Women's Affairs as well as the National AIDS Secretariat asking them, in a collegial way, to look out for the other members of SLLAGA.
The police investigation seems to be going along decently. The police could just be giving us a line, but we have no reason to believe that they are right now. The community, of course, is still in shock. Her funeral was [Oct. 7]. They need time to recover. Yet, other human-rights activists in the country have also contacted us wanting to reach out to SLLAGA— groups that never really acknowledged or worked on lesbian/gay issues before. So, that is very encouraging.
WCT: What do you think Fannyann's legacy will be?
PE: You know, it's interesting. Whether this ends up being a hate crime or not, there has been such a global outpouring regarding this case that her legacy will go far beyond what she ever could've dreamed. She was this tiny woman who was very dedicated and who knew that she was an agent for change in Sierra Leone. She worked with LGBT activists in Zimbabwe and South Africa, got advice on how to start her group, and then went back to Sierra Leone in 2002 to start SLLAGA. Personally, I am saddest when I realize that she won't know what kind of an impact she's had. She has spurred people's fighting spirit and reinforced everyone's commitment by not being silent and working for the rights of all LGBT people. That's the message that we repeatedly get from people. People who never knew or met her want to be like her. Her legacy will go far beyond Sierra Leone.
The hard part is that people ask what they can do. Usually, IGLHRC sends out action alerts; we would normally ask people to write Sierra Leone's government and urge it to conduct a full investigation. However, one of the mainstays of human-rights work is to not harass the police if they are doing a decent job. In addition, as a global group based in the United States, IGLHRC respects the decisions of the local groups to take action when they feel it benefits them. Often, local activists fear additional attacks—so a bunch of letters from around the world might have a backlash.
WCT: Have the circumstances of her death been determined?
PE: Well, I was very skeptical of the initial reports. I keep asking my staff where the facts came from and it turns out those early facts were wrong. We don't know how many people were involved and, according to what the police told us was in the postmortem report, she was neither raped nor stabbed; she was strangled.
WCT: What about Fannyann's son?
PE: He's with her parents in Sierra Leone.
WCT: Is there anything you want to say in conclusion?
PE: Fannyann was one of those people who would be so proud to know that she spurred people to action. If she saw us crying, she'd say 'Buck up! Get going! What's our strategy?' She wouldn't wallow in difficulties; she'd press on. Our best tribute to her would be to work harder in whatever country we're in.
See www.iglhrc.org .