Over the weekend, Ghana celebrated the 64th Independence Day from colonial rule, a day which typically would be widely celebrated given how far the country had come since then. For a silent minority of Ghanaians, though, the day passed quietly and painfully, as they are still reeling from violent erasure by a homophobic state bent on harming and persecuting them.
On the surface, Ghana as a nation has developed vastly since its independence back in 1957. The country has been synonymous with revolutionary African freedom, and widely celebrated for its rich culture and peaceful society, in addition to boasting one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa. In 2019, there was a notable and impressive explosion of entertainment, art and tourist activity spurred on by the Year of Return initiative, which was orchestrated by the country’s incumbent President, Nana Akufo-Addo. The year-long programme of activities was to commemorate 400 years since the first slave ships travelled to Jamestown, Virginia, U.S.A, and the cultural initiative sought to nurture relationships and connections which were lost as a result of slavery. This positioned Ghana as a key holiday destination and investment hub at the time, however, the attempt at refixing its past did not extend to all colonial imports, as the country continues to hold on to historically ingrained homophobia by subjugating their LGBTQIA+ community.
Just days before the weekend celebrations and the swell of collective national pride on social media, this marginalised group of Ghanaians experienced several targeted and violent attacks to their safe spaces and existence. As a result, it’s no surprise that these citizens have found it increasingly difficult to find something worth celebrating about their country.
Public outrage about queer Ghanaians first re-emerged back in January, after a community resource centre was opened by LGBT+ Rights Ghana, a grassroots organisation led by Alex Kofi Donkor in the nation’s capital city Accra. Instead of focusing the nation’s attention on more pertinent public issues — government deals gone awry, the increasing number of unemployed graduates due to COVID-19, or even the dismissed petition to recount Ghana’s 2020 election votes — parliament, media and expert personalities rather took to public forums to once again deny the humanity of thousands of queer Ghanaians.
During ministerial vetting proceedings, when asked whether the queer community living in Ghana deserved protection, Parliament members on live TV mocked the existence of queer Ghanaians, denying their humanity and place in society. This culminated in further attempts of erasure by media organisations such as Joy FM, Peace FM and Pulse, who gave platforms to known homophobes like Moses Foh Amoaning, a Ghanaian albino lawyer with ties to the far right coalition known as the World Congress of Families. By doing so, Ghanaian media contributed to a relentless news cycle of vitriol, spreading further misinformation about the queer community to an already misinformed public.
Some of the press went as far as to organise a hate group called Journalists Against LGBTQ+, pressuring the Ghanaian government to demand apologies from international ambassadors who attended the opening of the resource centre, and for showing their support to the queer community. All these instances aggravated an already present atmosphere of violent homophobia in the country, smearing the opening of the LGBT+ office as a place of indoctrination, rather than a necessary safe space for queer Ghanaians to find communal support.
— LGBT+ Rights Ghana (@LGBTRightsGhana) February 22, 2021
These events would not have been possible without Ghanaian society’s reliance on section 104 of the Ghanaian Penal Code, a colonial era law which has been used to justify a continuous and mounting attack of its queer citizens. The code which prohibits “carnal relations” between a man and another man has long been a source of justification for the targeted maltreatment and violence against all queer Ghanaians. Using this law, employers, government, the police and the public at large are able to deny queer Ghanaian citzens access to the most basic human rights and freedoms, which include housing, employment, dignity and respect. This law in turn, has permitted and encouraged media companies, public figures and church leaders to promote and peddle homophobic content to the masses under the guise of maintaining national values.
By the end of February, the LGBT+ Rights centre had been raided by authorities on the order of President Akufo Addo in form of a televised spectacle, warning and reminding all queer Ghanaians of their second class citizenship and lack of protected status in their own country. Given this, it is unsurprising that many queer Ghanaians do not see Independence Day worth celebrating. For Ethel, the threat of constant violence has left her feeling numb to the festivities that often frame Ghana as a fun, peaceful and safe country.
“I dont feel anything, not patriotism, no excitement, i dont feel anything really, because this is a country that hates me, that would rather see me dead because I am queer, I don’t have any love to share, no nothing — I can’t feel anything” — Ethel**
This latest wave of homophobia has also fuelled an increase in profiling by authorities and the general public. Young Nigerians know all too well the inhumane treatment and effects of violent profiling, exposed in the youth led #EndSARS protests last October. In the same vein, many young Ghanaians now face instances of kidnappings, beatings and murder, as their reality for even seeming to appear “queer” in public. Men deemed too expressive, or effeminate and too soft spoken, women and men who prefer to dress in androgynous fashion, and essentially anyone who may express themselves differently is in danger of facing unrelenting attacks and abuse from homophobes who are being egged on by the current hateful, national rhetoric.
Bigoted comments like those of former President John Agyekum Kufuor, “Why would a man decide to sleep with his fellow man when God created a woman for that purpose”, further confirm that the oppression of queer Ghanaians does not exist in a vacuum, and that many other traditionally marginalised groups could face mounting pressure during this current national debate. The former president continued to make a connection between working mothers, women who “pursue economic wealth”, as abandoning their true moral purpose of raising children, which in his view is leaving more children susceptible to the “+LGBTQ” and other such “vices”. Women do not solely exist to be wedded and bred, and as disturbing as former president’s comments are, it is unsurprising that those who believe the queer community is an abomination would also hold onto outdated and sexist views on gender roles and the position of women in society. Suffice it to say, these sentiments demonstrate the kind of expired, patriarchal thinking that is being relied on throughout the country, which leaves the queer community and other marginalised groups at risk.
This violence meted out against the community, public beatings handed out by strangers, blackmail by malicious police officers and opportunistic individuals barely scratches the surface of the abuse and violence facing queer Ghanaians and those unfortunate enough to be labelled as queer by our society. Mel , shares what being a masc-presenting woman is like in Ghana. “The profiling by [Ghanaians] in public spaces has been detrimental to my everyday life, which threatens my safety constantly, I am always looking over my shoulder,” she tells me. “Celebrating Independence makes me wonder; are we really independent, though? Are we really free? Free to express ourselves? Free to love whoever, free to identify however? If we as a people aren’t free, our country isn’t and I believe that’s what “independence” should be about”.
Dear President @nakufoaddo
— LGBT+ Rights Ghana (@LGBTRightsGhana) March 10, 2021
For a country that boasts of its strong democracy, and positions itself as an innovative hub where youth culture is respected and allowed to thrive, it is incredibly appalling that Ghana continues to mete violence against members of its country. From violent public stripping, to the threats of homophobic rape and societal discrimination, it is clear that my country has little regard for queer lives. To celebrate Independence Day as the state continues to sanction violent erasure and prosecution of these members of its society, is a heavy but necessary reminder that Ghana is far from the free and independent state it purports to be.
Queer Ghanaians are not trying to turn your son/daughter/nephews and nieces gay, nor are they trying to initiate everyone into their “cult”. No one can be turned gay. Sexual orientation, is not something that can be taught or forced on anyone. Queer Ghanaians are simply citizens looking for community, they are searching for a safe existence without having to face unmitigated violence at their every turn. Queer Ghanaians are searching for solace, a right to exist without fear and intolerance. In an ungraceful attempt to assure Ghanaians that their so called liberal president still aligns with good Christian values, President Nana Akufo Addo sidestepped the brutal reality facing queer members of our society. Instead of asking the general public to cease violence towards this group, in line with Article 17(2) of the constitution of Ghana to treat ALL its citizens equally before the law, the president opted to declare that same sex marriage would not happen in his presidency. In a statement released via the LGBT+ Rights social media pages, the organisation detailed a number of rights violations against queer people since the community became a topic for national debate. The organisation also made it clear that they are not requesting for same sex marriages but rather the chance to feel safe in a society so obsessed with their suppression, urging Ghanaians to move forward with tolerance and empathy.
So, yes, Independence Day passed quietly and painfully for queer Ghanaians. Freedom from colonial rule means nothing to a section of society who constantly live in fear for theirs and their loved ones’ lives. For other young Ghanaians like Ms Dee*, Saturday’s festivities meant very little to her, she explains: “Well I honestly don’t care about Independence Day. Why should I care about the Independence Day of a nation that refuses to acknowledge my existence as a queer Ghanaian? Freedom and justice where? My community doesn’t have freedom and there has been no justice for us either so I don’t care for 6th March”. Aku Shika*, another queer Ghanaian woman who was recently outed to family members, also believes there is nothing worth celebrating saying, “I cannot recognise the independence of Ghana as anything worth celebrating, a country with such a large portion of the population in poverty, or cannot afford healthcare, and a good percentage of these people are queer. This country has done nothing for me and goes to great lengths to make sure I am targeted and unsafe. March 6th is like any other Saturday to me”. Like Aku, other queer Ghanaians chose to rather spend the moment with their chosen family and community with whom they have created safe spaces with, where they can relax and not worry about the threat of violence, imprisonment or sanctions from the general public, authorities or their family members.
“Independence day has held very little significance for me personally. This year I’m spending independence day with my girlfriend. It’ll be our first together, so that’s what i’m looking forward to.” — Nana B.
— LGBT+ Rights Ghana (@LGBTRightsGhana) February 22, 2021
For Kweku*, the current situation has fuelled their drive to continue to push for better community organisation, saying: “I would love to be in a space where I do not have to shrink myself or hide a part of myself just to exist. Independence is synonymous with freedom but as a queer person living in Ghana, this is only a dream. I will spend the day with other queers reflecting on our nationalism and ways to create queer-friendly spaces.” When being confronted with these overwhelming homophobic sentiments, it’s easy to feel as if rights for queer Africans are unattainable. It is also easier to feel defeated, and that the community’s cries for dignity and respect go unnoticed. However, as the years go on, more and more nations are beginning to recognise that queer lives do indeed matter in the fight for global justice. In these parts, countries such as Angola, have taken fairly recent measures to overhaul a century-old legislation that criminalised homosexuality, in addition to passing new laws to prohibit discrimination against sexual orientation in the country. Progress is slow-burning but it is definitely building.
So what would it take for Ghana to get to this point after so many authorities and public figures continue to be steadfast in their hate? For Angola, one of the first steps seems to have been the legal recognition of Associacao Iris Angola, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group in 2018. In Ghana, organisations such as LGBT+ Rights are often side-lined or denied access to legal representation in parliament or other public forums, despite advocacy not being a crime. Another huge difference is that in Angola, there has been a level of awareness fostered and tolerance towards same sex relations that does not seem to exist in Ghana at the present moment. In reality, queer Ghanaians are constantly vilified and dehumanised for having same sex relations. In fact, queer Ghanaians must constantly deal with the hyper-sexualisation of their orientation, since one of the ways traditional media justifies its homophobic sentiment is by constantly reinforcing the “perverted” nature of the LGBTQ+. Derogatory phrases like trumu boys — trumu meaning asshole — are commonplace and used to paint queer Ghanaians, specifically gay men, in a demeaning light further warranting public disapproval and mistreatment.
Fundamentally, it seems that Ghana will need a good deal of cultural and systemic overhaul; educating the public against this kind of salacious misinformation is a start. Though strong anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments exist in Ghanaian society, with more allies speaking up, awareness about the injustices currently facing queer Ghanaians is building. Celebrities like musicians Sister Deborah, Stephanie Benson, Wanlov, politicians and other public figures have come out criticising the continued mistreatment of the queer community. Civil groups like LGBT+ Rights, Courageous Sister and SOLACE_Ghana and more have been putting in the work to create safe spaces for queer Ghanaians and the more support they get, the easier their jobs become.
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— LGBT+ Rights Ghana (@LGBTRightsGhana) February 22, 2021
Parts of Ghanaian diaspora and the African community have also come out in support of queer Ghanaians. With global figures like Naomi Campell, Edward Enniful of Vogue, and Boris Cudjoe already showing solidarity by a letter to the Ghanaian government to recognise the rights of queer Ghanaians, raising international awareness about the situation as it unfolds. With Ghana making such a large commitment to reacquaint itself with its diaspora community, pressure from this group is sure to add to the growing mass of voices that cannot be ignored, that are currently speaking out for change. The Silent Majority, a group of Ghanaian feminists, have also lent their voices to the cause, petitioning government and the public ,drawing attention to the rights violations facing queer Ghanaians. Amongst the youth, collectives such Moongirls GH and DramaQueens have been centering and celebrating queer Ghanaian realities through art, educational events and playwriting, demonstrating a shift in values no matter how slight. It is no small feat to teach tolerance and awareness in our society and as time goes on, one can only hope that more people begin to engage and empathise with the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community in Ghana. One thing is clear, queer Ghanaians and their allies refuse to allow local media and government to silence them, taking to social media, international publications to raise awareness about this current onslaught.
As long as people keep speaking up against this hateful rhetoric, queer Ghanaians continue to find ways to pick themselves up from the events of recent weeks and months. At the moment, 8 Ghanaian MPs have now moved to sponsor a private members bill to criminalise homosexuality and prohibit advocacy against homophobia, placing further restraints on the already meagre lives that members of the LGBTQ+ community in Ghana face. It is time more than ever for other members of the Ghanaian public at large, especially allies, to speak against such violent actions and call for better treatment, empathy and the overall protection of this marginalised group. And just maybe, by doing so, we can begin to break these cycles of misinformation and bigotry after decades of practiced homophobia passed on by previous colonial rule.
Because as Kweku echoes, “Whether people like it or not, queer Ghanaians exist”, and they are not going anywhere any time soon.
"You cannot stop people from advocating for something to be recognized by the law" – MP for Bawku Central, Hon Mahama Ayariga speaks against anti-LGBT attacks and closure of our office in parliament. #GhanaSupportsEquality#GhanaGetsBetter#QueerGhanaianLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/y8SraVZ0xL
— LGBT+ Rights Ghana (@LGBTRightsGhana) March 6, 2021
[Featured Image Credits: Web/Essence]