The Realities of Queer Life in Ghana
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in 2007 about the plight of queer (gay) people in Ghana. Ten years later, most of the authors findings are still relevant. As a religious nation, Ghana is still struggling to come to terms with a phenomenon most consider “alien.” Nevertheless, the reality of the situation is that, Gay people do exist in Ghana. The contentious issue is whether gays have equal rights as all other citizens to live freely? If they do, have they been given equal protection under the laws as international human right laws prescribe? This is a conversation we need to continue to have as people. Denying the facts would not help us, beating and killing gays cannot eliminate them. I believe continuous education about this topic and honest conversations are the few ways forward to finding common-ground.
By Mark S. Luckie
The streets of the business district of Accra were silent Saturday night, except for a faint dance beat that pierced the night air. The music shook the sliding glass door of Henri’s, a small club no larger than a spacious walk-in closet, where gay men in Ghana come for a rare chance to meet others like themselves.
The men grind passionately against each other, seemingly unfearful of the laws that make homosexuality illegal in Ghana, or their neighbors who would have them thrown in jail.
Many Ghanaians in the deeply religious nation consider homosexuality evil and disgraceful. Many blame gay men for AIDS in Ghana and label them as promiscuous, pedophiles or criminals. Any public display of affection or an accusation of homosexuality could mean swift arrest and jail time under Ghanaian law.
About ten percent of the Ghanaian population – or approximately two million Ghanaians – have been involved in same-sex relationships, according to estimates by the Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana. There is no official government count of gays in the country.
Queerty, a popular U.S.-based gay blog, named Ghana one of the unfriendliest countries for gays, along with four other African nations: Uganda, Egypt, Nigeria and Cameroon.
“Ghana is probably not one of the worst nations out there for queers,” Queerty bloggers who visited the country wrote, “but our intimate talks with Ghanaians during our stay revealed a single general theme: they don’t like the gays.”
In most Western countries, gay men and women wear and fly the rainbow flag as a symbol of pride, without fear of harassment. For many Ghanaians, however, this is just a faraway dream.
Crime and punishment
The majority of gay men and women in Ghana do not profess their sexuality because of section 104 of the Ghanaian Criminal Code that makes “unnatural carnal knowledge” a crime.
The law defines unnatural carnal knowledge as “sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner or with an animal.” Past criminal cases have defined sodomy and more specifically gay sex as a crime.
Thus while the criminal code does not explicitly say that homosexuality is illegal, many gay men and women have been arrested and imprisoned under the interpretation that homosexuality is “unnatural.”
Four gay men were jailed for two years each under the law for “indecent exposure” and “unlawful carnal knowledge” in 2003. The men were arrested while picking up a package in which customs officers found photos of the men in “compromising homosexual acts,” according to the Daily Graphic, the government newspaper.
The young men told police they had a penpal from Norway who asked them to take the pictures and send the negatives to him. The penpal, Suein Hugo Lie Pedesen, then posted the pictures on the Internet and sent the young men the hard copies, Chief Superintendent Jonathan Yakubu told the paper.
According to the newspaper account, Pedesen also reportedly sent the young men shoes and used clothing regularly, as well as a Norwegian credit card.
Yakubu “expressed regret that homosexuality is becoming prevalent in the society and urged parents to take interest in what their male children do in their leisure periods,” according to the article.
Like most of Ghana’s Criminal Code, section 104 is based on British common law.
Other archaic Ghanaian laws include a ban on drumming with the intent to provoke disorder and support for settlement of private disputes by the affected community.
The criminalization of homosexuality is not unique to Ghana. Most of the former British colonies including Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda, make “carnal knowledge against the order of nature” illegal, though homosexuality was decriminalized in the United Kingdom in 1967.
With the exception of South Africa, where gay rights are specifically guaranteed by the constitution, no African country guarantees its citizens protection from sexuality-based discrimination.
In Ghana, there is also no legal recognition of same sex couples. The two ordinances that govern marriage, CAP 127 (Marriage Ordinance of 1951) and CAP 129 (Marriage under the Mohammedan Law), both dictate that marriage should be between “man and wife” and a “bachelor and a spinster.”
The laws in Ghana have not eliminated homosexuality, but they have forced gay men and women in the closet.
“Repressive societies have not been able to eliminate or even reduce gay sex, it has simply gone underground,” said K. Mensah, a Ghanaian newspaper columnist who uses a nom de plume to hide his identity. “No one can be ‘de-gayed’ by the law”
Conference causes unrest
Until about a year ago, many Ghanaians blindly believed homosexuality did not exist in their country. But when Ghanaian media reported in late August 2006 that an international conference of gays and lesbians would be held in Ghana, public outrage sparked an intense national debate that brought homosexuality to the forefront of the national agenda.
The government announced a ban on any such conference and said criminal sanctions would be imposed on anyone involved in its organization. Minister of Information and National Orientation Kwamena Bartels issued a statement condemning the conference.
“The government does not condone any such activity which violently offends the culture, morality and heritage of the entire people of Ghana,” the statement read. “Supporting such a conference, or even allowing it, will encourage that tendency which the law forbids.”
“The government (would) like to make it absolutely clear that it shall not permit the proposed conference anywhere in Ghana,” the statement continued. “Unnatural carnal knowledge is illegal under our criminal code. Homosexuality, lesbianism and bestiality are therefore offences under the laws in Ghana.”
Ghanaian newspapers, which often feature columns by someone with high social standing with an opinion on a moral issue alongside regular news articles, pounced on the issue.
A few days after the government announcement, The Chronicle, a widely read Accra-based newspaper, prominently featured a statement by Augustine Sarkwah, national president of the YMCA, that blasted the conference.
“The news about a planned international gay conference that would be held in the country has equally affected the moral fabric of some of the youth since some of them would like to understand the evil practice and possibly indulge in it, which would have negative effect on their growth and development,” Sarkwah said.
Police must arrest and prosecute gays and lesbians whose existence in the country “pose a great threat to the moral fiber” of the nation, wrote Ghanaian solicitor Adja Codjo a few days later.
“Since they have tasted the temper of the law with their failed conference, they must be made to face the full rigors of the law with no reservation,” Codjo said.
If the conference had been allowed to take place, it could worsen the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV/AIDS in the country, UK-based evangelist Rev. Lawrence Tetteh said at a press briefing.
“I thank the government for its initiative but we need a massive and united front to combat these unacceptable practices and lifestyles,” Tetteh said.
Amid the media frenzy and finger pointing, there was one problem: there was no conference.
The Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana, the largest and the only such organization of any stature in the country, never organized or discussed a gay and lesbian conference in Ghana.
“This conference appears to have been the brainchild of someone’s vivid imagination,” GALAG president Prince MacDonald said in a press release. “As an association, we are not prepared to organize such a conference anywhere in Ghana, let alone any part of the universe, at this point.”
Not only did the conference not exist, but under Ghanaian law, the conference wasn’t necessarily illegal. Even though homosexuality is against the law, meeting about it is not.
Ghana’s Constitution gives its citizens the right of freedom of association. However, the rights and freedoms granted by the Constitution are “subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest.”
The government invoked this clause in condemning the conference.
“It is not illegal for them to meet and talk, but we in Ghana don’t want to encourage it. They can go and do it elsewhere,” Bartels said.
The public outrage over the conference was a hard setback for HIV/AIDS outreach groups who found it even harder to reach out to the gay community. Most gay men and women were driven even further underground for fear of attack or public ridicule.
Travis Sherer, founder of the Health Equity Project, spoke briefly on the BBC World Service about the need for resources for gay Ghanaians and those infected by HIV. After the broadcast, the local press used the story to lambaste the gay community and called for the extrication of gays and lesbians in the country.
“It really put a damper on our efforts and we’re even still reeling from it,” Sherer said.
MacDonald, who appeared frequently in newspapers and on the radio to legitimize gay men and women in Ghana, no longer conducts interviews with local media.
“No matter how you say it, Ghana media will turn it around,” MacDonald said. “You can’t express your views when people are calling for your head.”
Traditional values mark country
The adherence to old laws that govern homosexuality may be a reflection of the values of the highly religious country.
Many of the thousands of taxis in Ghana are emblazoned with short Bible scriptures or religious iconography. Barbershops and beauty salons include a nod to Christianity in their names. In His Name Salon and God’s Grace Barbershop are typical names of businesses in Accra.
The majority of Ghanaians are Christian and less than half of the country is either Muslim or of indigenous belief, according to the CIA World Factbook. Most religions in Ghana do not condone homosexuality and view it as an abomination.
Opponents of homosexuality often use the Bible to condemn the “lifestyle.” Gays are blamed for the destruction of the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and many believe the same could happen in Ghana if homosexuality penetrates the country.
“The act itself defies common sense, it affects procreation and God seriously abhors it,” said Rev. Samuel Otu-Pimpong, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference, at a recent press conference in Accra.
“All Christians and Ghanaians must therefore speak against that practice before it gains roots in the country,” Otu-Pimpong said.
MacDonald decried the use of religion as a method of attack against the gay men and women of Ghana.
“There are a lot of things against religion but people still do it,” MacDonald said. “Who decides what is wrong? People are just using religion to fight their own cause.”
On first glance, it might appear that gay men are everywhere in Ghana. Well dressed men in tight jeans and body-hugging shirts walk down the streets hand in hand. Young gay men dance together at nightclubs or sit in each other’s laps without inhibition.
This, however, is merely a sign of camaraderie in Ghanaian culture and is not homoerotic in any way.
“It’s a way men show affection for each other,” said Anthony Harbour, a former student at the University of Ghana. “They hold hands, they’ll hug each other, they’ll sit in each others laps, sleep in the same bed and it not be sexual any way.”
Gay men have been able to thrive under this social system, and affectionate gay couples are often seen as no more than good friends.
Any man who is obviously effeminate or does things women are traditionally expected to do is called “kojo besia,” which literally means “man-woman.” Braided hair, multiple earrings, makeup or generally behaving like a woman is seen as gay and is cause for public ridicule.
A young Ghanaian man was nearly beaten to death in 2003 after he courted another man while wearing women’s clothes
Chester Osei Koranteng, 18, was assaulted by a crowd and handed over to police after his would be suitor discovered his “breasts” were unusually soft, according to The Mirror, an Accra-based newspaper.
Harbour, an American student who studied in Ghana whose dark chocolate skin allowed him to blend with other Ghanaians, was confronted several times about his multiple earrings while in the country.
The earrings were a telltale sign that Harbour was gay according to Ghanaian custom. “It means that you want to be a woman,” Harbour said.
It wasn’t until he spoke that his accusers realized he was American and left him alone.
Many gay men and women develop sexual relationships at a very young age as they matriculate together through boarding school. The adolescent love developed in school is locally called supi, but is considered temporary and not discussed publicly.
“A lot of them go to boarding schools and sleep with each other and they build these romantic relationships with each other,” Harbour said. “Everyone acts like it doesn’t exist, but it’s so evident.”
Female homosexuality is practiced by a few students in girls’ boarding schools “who want to release tension,” but are either afraid of getting pregnant or have no access to male partners, according to the International Encyclopedia of Sexuality. It is quickly forgotten once the girls leave school, according to the document.
Some Ghanaians continue homosexual or lesbian relationships after boarding school and into their adult life despite popular attitudes. If their sexuality is called into question during their tenure at school, gay students face ostracism or expulsion.
A male student at the University of Ghana was recently caught having sex with another man in the school dormitory and was promptly expelled from school, Harbour said.
Poverty is a common problem among gay men and women because many have been ostracized by their families. As a result, most gay men are not “out” to their relatives and friends, according to a 2004 study of gay men on Ghana commissioned by the West Africa Project to Combat AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections.
“The current gay has become the 21st century leper, banished to the closet of pain, despair and separation,” writes Ghanaian columnist Sena Afari. “Many are torn and need genuine help to break through yet they cannot find willing ears to listen; hearts to love them as they are and words to encourage them to be who they ought to be.”
Gay life is mostly private and most gay people meet at house parties organized by friends all around the country. Thus gay men and women often do not arouse suspicion at all and blend in with their heterosexual counterparts.
“As an African man, I have no wish to proclaim my private, adult, consenting bedroom life from the rooftops. And quite frankly, it is no one’s business to come digging, anyway,” said Mensah.
Most gay men are not looking for the right to walk down the street and hold hands because men can already do that and not be suspected of being gay, MacDonald said. They are also not looking for laws that legalize same-sex marriages like in South Africa.
“We’re not fighting for rights. We already have rights,” MacDonald said. “We want the right to be out. We are looking for people to accept that there is diversity in society and diversity in Ghana.”