Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Analysis

Homosexuality isn't alien to Ghanaian society

Ghanaian politicians stick their heads in the sand when they claim that homosexuality is merely a Western import

Nana Agyeman
17 March 2021, 7.00am
Independence Arch in Accra, Ghana
Olivier Asselin / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

An often-repeated argument in the ongoing resistance to gay rights advocacy in Ghana is that ‘gayness’ is alien to Ghanaian culture. Critics of gay rights advocacy in Ghana suggest that the practice is a foreign import.

The variety of people making this claim in churches, streets, marketplaces, parliament and cabinet meetings is remarkable. In 2006, the Spectator, a Ghanaian newspaper, interviewed Ghanaians on their views on homosexuality. Almost all the respondents responded in the negative and branded homosexuality as foreign. Aaron Mike Oquaye, a former speaker of the Ghanaian Parliament, said Ghanaians are “increasingly becoming fed up with external forces trying to force alien cultures on them”. Arthur Kennedy, another influential politician in Ghana, claimed to not understand why advocates of gay rights are “forcing Africa to embrace homosexuality”. And just a few weeks ago, the president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, Paul Frimpong-Manso, called on the Ghanaian government to summon foreign diplomats supporting homosexuality.

I have researched the dynamics of gay rights advocacy in Ghana, and the evidence that I and others have gathered suggests that such ideas are misinformed. The anthropologist James Christenson, who published what is probably the first-ever study of homosexuality in Ghana in the 1950s, established that “men who have sex with men” were an integral, but obscured, part of Ghanaian culture and sexual relations. In my research, an elderly interviewee disclosed that the practice of supi and piu (by-words for gay and lesbian sex in Ghana) amongst students was not unheard of, especially in single-sex schools, when they were children in the 1970s.

The notion that same-sex relations simply 'appeared' in Ghana as a Western import or through contact with (white) foreigners is cast into further doubt by Dela Attipoe, a Ghanaian expert who has similarly studied the history of homosexuality in Ghana. He concluded that “It is not a recent phenomenon being visited on Ghana and Ghanaians by ‘whites’ or foreigners”, and that “It is practically happening everywhere, particularly where people gather for celebrations and merry making in urban areas, along with other places most people would never suspect.” A research participant of mine similarly exclaimed when I asked about the oft-stated view that ‘gayness’ is foreign to Ghanaians:

If they say that, I ask them whether having sex is foreign. Because these sexual orientations have always been there. You talk to people, old and young and you would know that it has always been around ... It has always been in the schools and universities. It has been with us.

In 2017, the Ghana Aids Commission estimated that approximately 1% of the adult male population – some 55,000 people – are gay men. This figure is likely to be much higher when we consider the silences and hidden nature of same-sex relations in the country. This view is supported by the vast number of Ghanaian gay men seeking lovers on websites such as Friendfinder, Gay-datanta, and others. The issue, therefore, is that social and political constraints have made it difficult for gay men to openly declare their status. In my research, many indicated that they prefer the silence because ‘coming out of the closet’ could provoke family and public backlash. The ongoing furore about the opening of an LGBT+ office (which has since been closed down by the authorities) shows their fears were not unfounded.

I liken the situation to that of the proverbial ostrich. The pretence that homosexuality is a foreign import is an attempt to avoid acknowledging the obvious in a society that is deeply conservative and religious. It also shows a lack of awareness of the colonial footprints in how same-sex relations came to be regarded as a criminal offence in a way that supi and pui were not. And it represents the quest to nullify the sexual rights claims of the thousands of Ghanaians who identify as homosexuals. Attributing LGBT+ identities and sexualities to a ‘foreign attack’ on Ghanaians provides a convenient basis from which to deny such demands.

Setting the record straight by showing the place of these groups within Ghanaian society past, present, and future is, therefore, an important step in the quest to unravel truths and myths on homosexuality in Ghana. In a nutshell, homosexuality is evident in Ghana and is not traceable to foreign infiltration and/or decadence. Ghanaians, like other races, have a wide range of sexual choices before them. Homosexuality is part of those choices.

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