Gays and lesbians in Ghana, where homosexuality is a crime, have been the target of a month-long campaign of homophobia in the media that continues — an attack abetted by homophobic declarations from the Ghanaian government. The climate of hate and fear is so great that the leader of Ghana’s only LGBT group has been forced to flee the country in fear of his life, after receiving a constant stream of threats of violence and death.
The anti-gay campaign began when Ghanaian media began reporting in late August that an “international conference” of gays and lesbians would be held in Ghana, creating a firestorm of protest from newspapers, radio talk show hosts, and religious leaders.
On September 1, the government announced a ban on any such conference, and said criminal sanctions would be imposed on anyone involved in organizing it. Information Minister Kwamena Bartels said that because homosexuality was illegal in Ghana the gathering was not permitted.
“Government does not condone any such activity which violently offends the culture, morality, and heritage of the entire people of Ghana,” he said.
“Government would like to make it absolutely clear that it shall not permit the proposed conference anywhere in Ghana. Unnatural carnal knowledge is illegal under our criminal code. Homosexuality, lesbianism, and bestiality are therefore offences under the laws of Ghana,” the information minister added, calling on the interior minister to investigate and punish anyone involved in organizing or permitting the conference.
But the “conference” which had unleashed weeks of homophobic media comment and religious calls-to-arms turned out to be a hoax. The Gay and Lesbian Association Ghana (GALAG) issued a statement saying it “has never discussed, nor have we ever organised, an international Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) conference in Ghana… We have no hand in — nor the faintest clue about — any such conference to be organised by any group anywhere; neither do we know of — nor have we heard of — any such event. All we know is what is being peddled irresponsibly in the media, apparently oblivious to the journalistic ethical code which calls for confirming such a potentially controversial event with at least two or three reliable sources before putting it on air or in print media as truth.”
The gathering was allegedly going to take place at Accra’s International Conference Centre, but the BBC’s correspondent in Accra reported, “Managers of the International Conference Centre have denied that such a conference was due to take place at the premises.”
Prince Kweku MacDonald, the executive president of GALAG and an HIV-prevention educator, told me, “The truth of the matter is that our gay and lesbian association has not even thought of any conference in the coming months. We do not even have the money or the resources it takes to organize such a big conference as reported by the local media here in Ghana. The problem here is that, they are afraid there might be something of that magnitude coming on in future, and wanted to threaten or caution the LGBT community here in Ghana not to come out at all in future because the people of Ghana hate the association of gays and lesbians.”
MacDonald told of the climate of fear created by the government’s declarations.
“For them to come out to condemn the false conference and go on to condemn the practice of homosexuality in Ghana made it very difficult for gay people to meet these days,” he reported. “The LGBT community in Ghana does not really feel safe to hold meetings and organize parties.”
MacDonald spoke to me from a neighboring African country, which I was asked not to name in order to protect his security.
“I left Ghana because I was receiving threatening phone calls and physical threats where I am living and from the religious group in Ghana, ” MacDonald said. “Would you believe I woke up one day only to find on our office vehicle an inscription that read, ‘burn it up?’ People would walk behind my house and shout, ‘We will stop you; the conference will happen only over our dead bodies,’ or holler, “Now we know you are behind all this and will put you where you deserve to be in this society.’ I felt it would be safest for me to leave Ghana before they do something to me.”
On September 5, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) issued a statement condemning the homophobic media campaign and the government’s ban on the non-existent “conference,” which it called “a red herring, introduced by an unknown source to galvanize resentment against Ghana’s increasingly visible gay and lesbian community.”
“Newspapers and radio call-in shows in the West African country have been obsessed with the topic of homosexuality and the sentiment has been strongly negative and in many cases violent. A number of LGBT leaders have received death threats and many are in fear of their lives,” IGLHRC said, adding, “The focus on the international nature of the conference, which according to the government ‘would have brought gays and lesbians from all over the world to Ghana,’ seems designed to play into nationalist sentiments and reinforce notions of the ‘unAfricanness’ of same-sex desire and behavior.”
The anti-gay hate campaign has continued in the time since IGLHRC’s statement. A week after the BBC exposed the “conference” as a hoax, the Accra Daily Mail reported on September 7 that major religious leaders had called a large public demonstration against “gay and lesbian activities in Ghana,” with Vice President Alhaji Airu Mahama having agreed to help lead it.
In calling the demonstration, the head of the Presbyterian Church in Ghana, Right Reverend Yaw Frempong Manso, denounced homosexuality as “detestable behavior… unnatural, abnormal, unBiblical and filthy;” while Reverend Dr. Lawrence Tetteh, head of the Protestant fundamentalist Worldwide Miracle Outreach sect, called gays and lesbians “sinful and shameful” and warned Ghanaians that “freedom for us in Ghana should not be a license to hell.”
The demonstration was also supported by Ghana’s national chief imam, Sheik Nuru Sharabutu, and by the Ga Mantse, or paramount chief of the Ga people, the large tribe after whom the country is named. Ghana’s population is about 63 percent Christian and16 percent Muslim, while 21% believe in indigenous religions.
A column on homosexuality in the September 14 Accra Daily Mail cited the laws against homosexuality and declared, “The practice does not have any space within the Ghanaian cultural context.” The Mail’s columnist went on to say, “Although the Constitution guarantees freedom of association and assembly, one should not be myopic to think and believe that such a right is absolute,” adding, “Congregation in furtherance or perpetuation of an illegality [like homosexuality] is criminal.”
On September 11, the daily Ghanaian Chronicle in Accra prominently featured a major statement by the national president of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Augustine Sarkwah, who declared that ” 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.”
On September 14, the same newspaper editorialized, “Our society in Ghana is gradually mushrooming a gay and lesbian caucus, which would in the future raise serious and ethical questions.,” adding that the government’s decision that “Ghanaians would not allow their soil to be used for this conference” has “received a chorus of approval from all Ghanaians…”
There are many, many more examples of the Ghanaian media fanning the flames of anti-gay sentiment in these last weeks.
In the face of this ongoing hate campaign, GALAG’s MacDonald appealed to Western gays and lesbian activists “to support the LGBT community in Africa.” He told me, “The struggle is not perfect if the rich is not taking care of the poor and the strong not taking care of the weak. We should remember we need each other to survive and win the struggle against homophobia in the world. Africans need information and documentation of the problems that we are facing here. We need the support from Western governments to tell our governments that the LGBT community taxes contribute to the loans they get in Africa from time to time and needs to be respected if the government really wants to continue receiving funding for their development. Woe unto Ghana if it decides to rule its people based on a religious book and not on a natural course.”
MacDonald, who is 29, hopes to return to Ghana when the climate permits, and said, “I promise Ghanaians that we will remain strong and do more in terms of support for the LGBTI community with the needed information to live their lives as normal Ghanaians.”
RELATED READING: Officially approved homophobia is impeding Ghana’s fight to prevent the spread of AIDS. The Toronto Star had a superb report on this problem last month. For example, the Star notes that, “Based on media reports, as well as posters and billboards sponsored by the Ghana AIDS commission and UNAIDS, gay Ghanaian men and women got the impression that AIDS was confined mostly to prostitutes and cheating husbands and wives.” To read this report on how AIDS prevention among gays has been forced underground in Ghana, click here.
Doug Ireland, a longtime radical journalist and media critic, runs the blog DIRELAND, where this article appeared September 20, 2006. This article was written for Gay City News, New York City’s largest gay weekly, Sept. 21, 2006.