“The vast majority of people in Sierra Leone look at homosexuality and transsexuality as a perversion of nature, a bit of a freak-show,” explains documentary photographer Lee Price. “Being a heavily religious country, people are taught that being gay is a sin, and this is the view that most – though not all – people hold.”
As part of Hull’s UK City of Culture programme, Price spent a total of two and a half weeks in Freetown – Sierra Leone’s capital, and Hull’s sister city – over two separate trips. As one of 77 countries in which engaging in homosexual acts is still illegal, those caught risk a maximum sentence of life imprisonment; while, in practice, this is rarely enforced, Sierra Leone’s LGBT community still find themselves subjected to threat, harassment, eviction, violence, and ridicule. For Price, it was about telling their story.
“(The community) told me about the daily struggles of being LGBT in Sierra Leone, such as the difficulty in accessing medical care, how they’re turned away from shops in fear of their money bringing bad luck, how some of them have been excluded from their families” – Lee Price
During his time in the country, he was introduced to a young transgender woman living in Freetown; upon visiting her, he soon learned that her house was acting as a secret, self-constructed LGBT sanctuary, in which young people that felt endangered or persecuted for their sexuality could live, exist and take much-needed refuge: they call it the “House of King and Queens”.
“I spent a lot of time at the House of Kings and Queens, speaking with the people who live there, and learning not only about the hardships they face as people of sexual minorities, but also the security and strength the house has given them,” he explains. “They told me about the daily struggles of being LGBT in Sierra Leone, such as the difficulty in accessing medical care, how they’re turned away from shops in fear of their money bringing bad luck, how some of them have been excluded from their families.”
For residents, the house is a place of safety and affection, “to dress, look and act however they want to” without fear of any kind of repercussion. The loneliness experienced on the outside world is countered with a strength and togetherness within the house (“despite all of the prejudice they face from the outside world, they never feel lonely because they always have each other”), in which they’ve built a network and family.
“I became fond of everyone who lived there but particularly close to the House’s owner, who I can’t name for safety reasons. She’s one of the boldest and most courageous people I have ever met, and refuses to let fear compromise her identity,” he says.
“On my last day at the house, she said to me ‘If they had a knife to my throat, I would still say I am a gay’. And while that may be a dangerous attitude to have in a place in which LGBT people are so frequently preyed upon, I can’t help but feel a huge amount of admiration for her fearlessness in the face of animosity.”
While the images in the series strike a somewhat juxtaposing chord in their recognition of a hostile outside world, House of Kings and Queens ultimately responds to the notion of a beautiful kind of unity in the face of such oppression; a call-to-arms for that solidarity to transcend borders. With Hull having hosted the UK’s first ever national pride parade last week – 50 years since the passing of 1967 Sexual Offences Act – the tale of two cities makes for the starkest of contrasts.
“The upcoming anniversary (of the act) is an important one with regards to UK gay rights and allows us to reflect on just how far we have come as a nation on this particular issue. That being said, it’s also important for us to look beyond our own borders and remind ourselves of the work still to be done in other parts of the world.”
House of Kings and Queens will be on display at Humber Street Gallery's gallery four in Pier Street from Thursday 27 July until Sunday 24 September. The exhibition will also be the subject of a Moved by Art ' session on Thursday 17 August from 5pm-8pm
Follow Niall Flynn on Twitter here @nwflynn