Institutionalised homophobia in Ghana
On February 24, a resource centre and safe space for LGBTQ people in Ghana was shut down by the state. Since then, there has been a concerted effort to dehumanise and harm queer and transgender people in Ghana. In May, police arrested 21 LGBTQ activists and detained them for weeks in Ho, in the Volta region, simply for organising a workshop.
These events did not spring out of nowhere. They are the result of a deliberate plan to strip away the dignity and rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex Ghanaians. While there has always been institutionalised homophobia in Ghana, this year marks the first time that the state and the clergy have worked together to sponsor a Bill to criminalise the existence of LGBTQ people. The draft Bill would impose prison sentences for being LGBTQ, for advocating for gay rights, as well as for providing health services and support for LGBTQ people.
Since the early 2000s, Ghana has been hailed as a beacon of freedom and democracy in Africa, boasting a robust public sphere and a relatively free media system. In recent times, however, there has been widespread erosion of freedoms in the country, disproportionately affecting LGBTQ Ghanaians. The media have played a significant role in promoting this form of institutionalised homophobia.
Ghana became independent from British rule in 1957. The new state retained elements of British colonisation in its laws, including anti-gay statutes. A law that punishes “unnatural carnal knowledge” has been interpreted by some as a criminalisation of same-sex desire as well as gender-nonconforming people. This law remains on the books but has been rarely enforced.
Laws aren’t the only way that a society or nation dictates norms and acceptable behaviour. Many Ghanaian institutions have upheld heterosexual and cisgender norms — from policies in schools to the media, to religion, to politics.
But efforts to embed homophobia in Ghana’s education, religious, health and political institutions have ramped up in recent years. This rise in anti-LGBTQ attitudes and discourses has worked hand in hand with the growth of evangelical religious groups that have gained institutional power and garnered tremendous influence to shape policy.
Religious institutions have been the biggest opinion leaders and sponsors of homophobic discourse in the public sphere. In the past decade, the Christian Council of Ghana has spearheaded campaigns to set the agenda on sexualities in Ghana. The Ghana Christian Council and the Office of the National Chief Imam have repeatedly expressed open support for the criminalisation of LGBTQ people. Groups such as the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values, which is supported by White-supremacist and American Christian-right groups such as the World Congress of Families, piggyback off existing patriarchal values to promote anti-gay rhetoric. It is therefore unsurprising that this is the group after which today's anti-LGBTQ Bill is named.
That religion occupies an integral part of everyday life in Ghana makes these pronouncements by religious institutions alarming and emboldens homophobes to attack LGBTQ people.
Politicians have learnt that anti-LGBTQ messages can tap into popular currents. In 2012, Ghana’s president at the time, John Atta Mills, used his position not only to promote homophobia but to openly support religious institutions and organisations in their efforts to dehumanise LGBTQ Ghanaians. He took this stance after returning from the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon condemned the widespread discrimination against gay, bisexual and trans people in many African countries.
Seeing leaders embrace homophobia encouraged it in the country. In 2015, the vice-chancellor of one of the country's leading universities, William Otto Ellis, called for the erasure of LGBTQ people in public discourses, urging Ghanaians to avoid speaking about same-sex marriage and related issues. The Ghana Education Service in 2015 also framed LGBTQ identities as a mental illness. More recently, in 2019, efforts by the Education Service to introduce a comprehensive sexuality education policy in the primary school curriculum was thwarted by various religious groups spearheaded by the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values.
In 2018, Speaker of Parliament Mike Ocquaye openly endorsed homophobia in Ghana and disavowed the idea that a human rights agenda required recognition of LGBTQ rights.
Radio news reports from 2014 to 2016 revealed not only that all these institutions are working together to entrench homophobia but that the media are complicit in perpetuating harmful narratives about expanding gender and sexual expressions. The media helped to set the agenda for discussion by painting the very humanity of LGBTQ people as a topic for public debate.
After the shutdown of the LGBTQ resource centre in February, a group that calls itself Journalists Against LGBTQ Plus added its voice to the ongoing polarising discussions in the media about queer and trans people. This action is in direct contravention of the Ghana Journalists Association Code of Ethics, which stipulates that journalists may not produce material that can fuel hatred on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. But the GJA and the regulatory body, the National Media Commission, have been silent on the violations.
Letting homophobia fester across Ghana’s institutions has emboldened homophobic attitudes while laying the foundation for Speaker of Parliament Alban Bagbin to present himself as the champion of the anti-LGBTQ Bill that is being sponsored by some members of Ghana’s Parliament. Ghana’s chief psychiatrist, Akwasi Osei, has used his position to pressure Parliament to criminalise homosexuality.
Clause 4 of the draft Bill demonstrates the confidence that the sponsors of the Bill have in the ability of all these institutions to collude to criminalise queerness. It “imposes a duty on every citizen and in particular, parents, guardians, teachers, churches, mosques, other religious and traditional institutions or organisations, the three arms of government, the media and creative arts industries . . . to promote and protect proper human sexual rights and Ghanaian family values”.
The Bill threatens the very existence of LGBTQ people, meaning that they are perpetually put in a position where they are subjected to physical and psychological violence endorsed by the state. It also compels Ghanaians to police gender and sexuality in their homes, workplaces and everyday lives.
Whether the Bill is signed into law or not, activist and feminist organisations and everyday Ghanaians must work towards the collective freedoms of all Ghanaians. It is imperative that this type of advocacy focuses on coalition-building so disenfranchised people can work side by side for those freedoms.
• Wunpini Fatimata Mohammed is an assistant professor of global media in the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia