Under Ghanaian law, male homosexual activity is officially illegal. Criminal Code 1960 - Chapter 6, Sexual Offences Article 105 mentions unnatural carnal knowledge – and homosexuality is included in this description.
Coming from Canada, one of the most liberal countries in the world (especially with regard to homosexuality see map of sexual freedoms here), it’s almost shocking to me. The topic does not impact my life directly, but I am a definite believer in human rights, and so the subject holds a certain importance.
This topic can spark heated debates if ever broached with Ghanaian colleagues in my office – though I am usually a lone warrior for the cause, inevitably against a tirade of Christian rhetoric about the evils of homosexuality and the belief that it is an illness that can be cured, or at least prayers can be said to cure a person of it.
Today I came across this article on Ghana’s popular Joy FM site. I found it interesting both that the issue is in the forefront of the news in Ghana today, and that there is now an official Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana (GALAG), with a spokesperson who is not afraid to appear in public. This says something.
The article points out that Ghana’s heros have come out publicly in support of gay and lesbian rights,
“Nelson Mandela said that he considered “homosexuality to be just another form of sexuality that has been suppressed for years”; Kofi Annan, a former UN General Secretary, supported gay rights with a move to extend benefits to the same-sex partners of UN staff; and as well as signing the UN declaration calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, Obama also recently spoke at a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Pride event, describing homophobia as an example of “worn arguments and old attitudes”.
Yet deeply entrenched cultural attitudes in Ghana die hard. There is a widespread belief in Ghana that homosexuality is a morally deprived lifestyle choice of the west. That it is not something inherently African, but a cultural export from Europe and the Americas. Interestingly there are more and more vocal African raised advocates for gay rights - including Cheikh Traoré, a half Nigerian, half Mauritian Muslim, raised in West Africa. He is currently an AIDS educator in the UK, and speaks openly on growing up gay.
Locally though, tolerance for diversity can be lacking. A Ghanaian born and bred gay man describes his alienating experiences in this article. BBC even covered an article on the subject last year.
The official line in Ghana – even from the minister of human rights – is that Ghana is ‘not ready’ for Gay and Lesbians as an accepted group. Again, it is individuals that suffer.
My amazement in all this, is that in general, Ghanaians are far more comfortable with human closeness than any western culture. It is a common sight in Ghana to see two grown men, walking down the street hand in hand, or with their hands lingering in embrace when they greet an old friend. None of this is seen to threaten a man’s sexuality. I love this about Ghanaians. In contrast, in North America and the UK, where opinion is supposedly more liberal, straight men would never been seen in such close contact with a male friend. They commonly squirm and cower away from male to male hugs, and insist on a rough pat on the back just to assert their ‘maleness’.
In Ghana, in certain instances, cross-dressing is accepted if not named. In the heart of Jamestown (a rough and poor neighborhood in Accra’s south centre), there is a man I’ve seen many times in wigs and skirts. “He’s a bit mad”, I’m told. It’s all in good fun. No one bothers him and he’s free to be himself. I suppose his perceived mental illness grants him reprieve from societal scorn…
Again, I find it amazing that homosexuality is so abhorred by Ghanaians, when - if any Ghanaian will be honest with themselves - they know all about a common practice called ‘Supi’ – which is basically a condoned (or conveniently ignored) form of lesbian relationship that develops in boarding schools between older girls and the ‘freshers'. It is seen as a way for girls to develop their sexuality, but not viewed as homosexuality outright, despite the physical relationships that develop between the girls. I would love to discuss this particular topic further and encourage my Ghanaian friends and readers to contribute…
The bottom line is that no matter what the law states, or whether outside pressure will convince Ghana to decriminalize homosexuality, it will continue to exist, despite any raging debates in Ghana and beyond about whether being gay is chosen or genetic, cultural or contrived... and individuals will continue to struggle with their identities, mostly in private.
The issue becomes quite difficult for gay visitors or even expatriates who enjoy a level of acceptance in their home countries and find themselves in a place where the very act is illegal! I know legally married same sex couples who have come to Ghana on official government posts, only to be forced to hide their relationship, for the sake of appeasing the laws of the country. Some gay travelers websites warn couples about the laws of Ghana here.
Despite this lack of tolerance though, there is a small but thriving gay community. There are even a few very gay friendly bars. I’ve been to a few ‘gay friendly’ parties, with mostly local revelers, that were some of the most fun and memorable in Ghana. After all, the gays in Ghana are Ghanaians. They have the same innate friendliness and act as ambassadors for the country just as well as other Ghanaians do. They are the sisters, brothers, sons and mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts and others - of the close-minded ones. They are individuals of this society, part and parcel of it. I personally think the place is better off for it.