What Ghana’s anti-gay bill means for PanAfricanism and the African Return Movement

In Season 2, To Be by TRAD

Ghana made headlines at the end of July when the draft of an anti-gay legislation bill was submitted to its Parliament, proposing up to 10 years in jail for anyone identifying as gay or even advocating for LGBTQ rights. This bill seeks to legalize conversion therapy and force intersex people to undergo “gender realignment” surgery and emerges after a year of increased violence in LGBTQ spaces across the country.

The country’s first LGBTQ community center was forced to close just a few weeks after it opened after vilification from nearby tenants, church leaders and politicians. So what do these crackdowns mean for Ghana as a country, and its reputation as the birthplace of Pan Africanism, and its place as a refuge for Africans in the diaspora?

The Legal Environment

The laws prohibiting homosexuality are located in Section 104 of Ghana’s Criminal Offences Act, which identifies anal penetration as proof of “unnatural carnal knowledge,” which is punishable by several years of imprisonment. The current laws of Ghana identifying male homosexual relationships as “unnatural carnal knowledge” make them akin to bestiality in that they go “against the natural order of things.”

While a vote has not yet been scheduled on the titled “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill,” it has the support of the public, religious leaders, and many parliamentarians, including the current president Nana Akufo-Addo.

The bill continues to be protested by the LGBTQ community in Ghana and their allies locally and the diaspora. In addition, renowned Ghanaian entertainer Sister Deborah and Queer Musician Wanlov the Kubolor have voiced their opposition. There has also been strong opposition from Amnesty International and the Ghana Center for Democratic Development.

The Cultural Context

Speaking to me over Zoom, Val, the Director of Communications at LGBT Rights Ghana describes his experiences growing up “in Ghana, traditional households don’t talk much about these things,” He adds that most queer Ghanaians report living in deeply religious Christian or Muslim household that leave no space for the discovery of their identities.

“The idea of queerness itself met with a forceful silence, pushed away as if the mere thought of straying from the norm is not only preposterous but terrifying.” As a result, Ghanaians who identify as LGBTQ are made to discover and learn about their identities on their own.

Founded in 2017, LGBTQRights Ghana is an organization whose mission is to defend and advocate gay rights in Ghana through protests and education for the general Ghanaian population about queerness. Other groups in Ghana conducting advocacy and education activities around gender and sexual minority issues are Action Aid and Young Urban Women and Girls.

By creating spaces where queer Ghanians can talk about their experiences, share advice on how to survive as a queer person in African society, educate Young Ghanaians about their right and reproductive health, LGBTQ rights Ghana is on its way to push real social change in an otherwise tense climate.

When asked how LGBTQRight Ghana conducts its advocacy and education initiatives, Val points out the importance of “starting out with the younger generation.” He adds that older Ghanaians are often harder to communicate with.

Global Context

Barely two years ago, Ghana made a name as a global destination for diasporans with its Year of Return initiative. Ghana was presented as a destination where one could find an accepting community and rediscover their roots and create a new life for themselves freely. However, Val insists the initiative did nothing for the Queer community in Ghana.

“A lot of queer people did not show up to our events during the Year of Return as they had heard rumours about the police targeting the queer community. They knew there were a lot of foreigners around, which they could use as a scapegoat for their violence”.

He adds, “I think that the diaspora who like to visit just for tourism, should take a lot of things into consideration.”

On the African sexual tradition.

Accounts from European explorers from the 15th to the 19th centuries recorded (with great condescension) homosexual relationships within the African societies they found themselves in. Writers on the mainland who had heard about this incorporated them in their works as proof of African “beastliness” (Epprecht, 59).

The idea of a “natural African sexuality” emerged from the observations of an 18th-century English explorer who observed the Middle East and North Africa, whom he noted, “rarely practiced pederasty” (Epprecht, 59). From there, the idea gained traction as European expansion efforts expanded into the continent. Christian missionaries at the forefront of this movement set out to eradicate this “vice” as part of many other heterosexual “vicious propensities” we possessed (Epprecht, 59).

These missionaries and the religion they brought are primarily to blame for the vilification of African sexual freedom. But, equally, the sub-Saharan region’s pre-colonial ties to the Middle East and the North created negative portrayals of Black African sexual practices of all kinds (including both heterosexual and homosexual practices) as far back as the 9th century.

This narrative of an African “tradition” has been shaped by a variety of religious interactions over the centuries but only truly took root near the end of colonization and into the independence era: heterosexuality in Africa as we know it when tied to discourses of identity, is deeply tied to postcolonial political regimes, as standardization of African sexuality has benefitted the project of postcolonial nation-building, of creating a “proper national citizenry” (Palgrave, 1178) that would stray from the “primitive” image given to us by Europeans. It would then be correct to see Queer bodies as “sites for the construction and manipulations of discourses about African-ness and its precarity in our postcolonial moment” (Palgrave, 1180).

Queerness and Independence:

After independence, Ghana sought to create a “proper national citizenry” that would stray from the “primitive” created by Europeans. Queerness became convoluted with primitiveness, and to be more modern, Ghana had to be less queer. So while we can attribute the beginnings of homophobia in Ghana to colonial influence, we cannot continue to blame our colonial past. As Ghana made various attempts to distance itself from imperialism post-independence, it chose to maintain a legacy of sexual discrimination, and even worse, to intensify it.

What does it mean for a nation to promote Pan-Africanism while choosing which Africans do or do not deserve protection? When Ghana seems to be protecting a tradition, a “nature” that was never really traditional or natural in the first place.

A path forward

Breaking away is possible. Shortly after the prime minister of Barbados announced it would no longer hold the British Monarchy as its head of state, its government announced that it would hold a referendum on the topic of same-sex marriage. Even though some members of Parliament publicly opposed the Prime Minister herself, Mia Mottley declared the country open to LGBTQ tourism and immigration.

Whether we look at questions of identity, language, culture, history, or sexuality, we are the only ones who have the right to define what it means to be “African.” It is time we let go of the metaphorical chains robbing us of the agency to do so.