Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Ghana’s imported intolerance of LGBT+ rights

Ghana was once more tolerant of non-heteronormative behaviour, but rounds of colonisation changed that

Sam Okyere
10 March 2021, 11.29am
Marko Bukorovic / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved.

The last few weeks have witnessed intensive homophobic rhetoric in the Ghanaian media in response to news that the Ghanaian LGBT+ community opened a new office and held a fundraising and rights advocacy in January 2021. The ‘dress rehearsal’ for the current situation took place in 2019, when the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values (comprising the Christian council, traditional leaders, the Catholic Bishops Conference, Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, Atta Mills Institute, Coalition of Muslim Organisations and others) rose against proposals to include comprehensive sexuality education in the Ghanaian school curriculum arguing that it was an attempt to promote LGBT+ rights in Ghana. The government buckled under the pressure and the proposals were dropped, but the scale of misconceptions peddled at the time and in the ongoing saga demonstrates the sore need for sexuality education and advocacy in Ghana.

Aspects of the commentary are based on the old chestnut that anything other than heterosexual relations and male / female identity is ‘unnatural’, seemingly completely oblivious to the abundant evidence of ‘natural’ same sex relations and intersex births from the dawn of history till present. Others swear to high heaven that LGBT+ are against Christianity, Islam and other religions even as they themselves fornicate, lie, cheat, steal and commit every sinful act forbidden by their religion. They cite passages such as Leviticus 18:22, but fail to give credible responses when asked whether we should also stone non-virgin brides to death (Deuteronomy 22:13–30) or challenge women’s leadership in society as commanded by 1 Timothy 2:12. There is also the no small matter that in a plural society one’s religious belief is a strictly personal matter. It cannot serve as basis for how others should live. Isn’t this what supposedly sets us apart from fanatics such as Boko Haram, who believe that others should adhere to their religious standards or face death?

The fact that January’s LGBT+ event was attended by the Australian, EU and Danish Ambassadors is also presented as a sure sign that rich, powerful Western nations are trying to impose LGBT+ ideology on Ghana. Yet it is prohibitions against same sex relations that are the Western imports. It was British colonisers who introduced ‘anti-sodomy’ laws in the then Gold Coast. So, commentary casting same sex relations as ‘alien’ or ‘foreign’ imports sadly reflect an ignorance of both colonial history and traditionally relatively tolerant attitudes towards differences in sexual and bodily forms such as kwadwo besia and obaa barima (roughly translating as a male with stereotypical female features and behaviours and the reverse, respectively).

The irony is made deeper when such rhetoric is aligned with Christianity and Islam, Western- and Eastern-derived religions which were used by colonisers and slaver traders to delegitimise our indigenous worship forms, systems of marriage, family systems and other parts of our culture. Meanwhile evangelical churches, conservative groups and other actors based in the USA have spent at least $280 million around the world to influence policies and public opinion against sexual and reproductive rights. So much for the argument that LGBT+ advocates are rather being sponsored by the West.

The prohibition of “unnatural carnal knowledge” in the constitution notwithstanding, the legality of same sex relations in Ghana is not settled.

The current situation is a classic example of a moral panic, or when the public is whipped-up into a frenzy or irrational fear that their societal mores, customs and values are under attack and must be defended. The operative word here is ‘irrational’, for moral panics are often based on unfounded fears. They are usually created by influential politicians, religious actors and the media, and the targets are usually relatively powerless and marginalised social groups.

Moral panics involve five key stages, all of which are evident in the ongoing anti-LGBT+ campaigns. First, the community was labelled as deviants and as worse social threats than COVID-19 for the spectacular ‘crime’ of raising funds and opening a community space to offer protection and support to people vulnerable to rights violations. Second, the community was portrayed in caricatured, exaggerated and ludicrous ways to entrench fear and to promote falsehoods about them. Third, these caricatured portrayals fed into public calls for action against the supposed threat.

Four, public officials began to amplify the ‘problem’ and echo the ‘solutions’ being called for. They beseeched the president to stand against gays, close their offices, criminalise LGBT+ advocacy, and remove foreign ambassadors supportive of LGBT+ rights. Finally, the fifth stage of a moral panic is the achievement of the antagonists’ desired goals. On February 24, the police raided and shut down the LGBT+ office followed by a declaration against same sex marriage by Ghana’s president Nana Afuko-Addo.

As disappointing as the situation is, the story is hardly over. It was no accident that the president said “same sex marriage will never be legalised under my tenure” rather than ‘never in this country’. The prohibition of “unnatural carnal knowledge” in the constitution notwithstanding, the legality of same sex relations in Ghana is not settled, as those with a much better grasp of the law have noted.

Today LGBT+ Ghanaians who openly declare their status potentially risk family and social ostracization and even violence. But the march towards LGBT+ rights in Ghana is a movement whose time has come. It will eventually prevail, just as the causes of gender and racial equality, abolishment of slavery and others were also once deemed impossibilities. Already, for the first time in the history of LGBT+ advocacy in Ghana, the community has received messages of support and solidarity from voices from diverse backgrounds.

Such support will only increase as more people understand that one does not have to be gay or lesbian (or be a paid agent as suggested by some commentators) to get involved in LGBT+ rights. It is a simple matter of accepting the basic rights tenet that all humans are equal and must be treated with fairness and dignity regardless of their ethnic, religious, sexual, gender and other identities. Such support is fundamental to creating a just, open and tolerant society.

A slightly different version of this article was first published on Africa Is A Country.

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