Ghana's Challenges With Homosexuality
One of the themes of Ghana's 50th anniversary of independence was to review the country's progress so far.
[email protected] provided an opportunity to assess the country's progress as an independent nation, with a focus on how to continue improvements and overcome challenges of the future.
Recently there have been accusations that the celebrations were a waste of valuable resources and whether this is true or not, there should also be a reminder of the practical gains that can be made during a period of reflection.
It is important when a review of a country takes place that a critical eye is used to look over the origins and reasons for the values and laws that a society subscribes to, even if some may seem non-negotiable.
The criminalisation of homosexuality has been described by critics as “a relic of colonialism” and it is the status of this law as a remnant of British rule that makes it ripe for criticism after more than 50 years of independence.
This year, Obama, Atta Mills' much-lauded 'other-half' in Ghana's 'partnership for change' signed a UN declaration calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality worldwide.
Partnerships and relationships are about compromise; give and take; and respecting the other person's opinions enough to pay attention.
Therefore, if Atta Mills and Ghana are serious about this partnership being a success, is Obama not owed the common courtesy of having his views listened to and taken on board? At the very least, he should rightfully be honoured with the opening of a discussion.
Speaking to a range of people about their opinions, it amazed me how dogmatic most people were about their views on homosexuality.
There seemed unwillingness for considered thought in response to questions and the answers that came back resembled regurgitated propaganda. Perhaps this is due to a fear that too much reflection would reveal new and unwelcome opinions.
Chris, a pastor from Tema, agreed: “Most Ghanaians are hypocritical and not open-minded. Instead of trying to understand something, they will brand it so that no further discussion is needed.
This does not just apply to homosexuality but anything sex-based and it stems from a lack of education.”
Ghana's discomfort about discussing homosexuality extends upwards to the media and the government.
Newspapers and broadcasting companies are competing to make money and so shy away from challenging their consumers. Instead of presenting balanced and critical assessments of homosexuality, there is sensationalism and reconfirmation of stereotypes.
The President of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Ghana (GALAG), Prince Kweku Macdonald, has had experience of this unfair stance: “The media is not objective so they don't give objective representation.
They want to sell papers so the media also promotes homophobia because if I speak and it is presented the way I said it, they will know what I think and why I do what I do and what the challenges I face are.
But they change it every time. Even on radio because they have me speaking to someone and then they change the story and it's very horrible for us.”
When it was reported in 2007 that GALAG were allegedly organising a conference in Accra to discuss issues about homosexuality it was banned by the government immediately and the Minister of Information and National Orientation, Kwamena Bartels, condemned it as offensive to “the culture, the morality and the heritage of the whole of the Ghanaian people”.
GALAG denied having any involvement with the conference and claimed that it was merely a media construction to cause controversy around the issue of homosexuality.
Whether the conference was planned to go ahead or not, the fact that a civilised meeting of minds brought together to discuss issues surrounding the homosexual community prompted such a reaction is illustrative of the discrimination that is rife.
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”.
However, we are not reminded of these views in the media and instead homosexuality is described as un-African and an unsavoury side-effect of westernisation and globalisation, as Macdonald explained to me: “In terms of stories that come out in the media, it is generally news of a white person having sex with a black person because they try and associate homosexuality with a foreign culture.
But personally I believe there is no such thing as exclusive African culture today because if you look at some streets, there's no 'African culture', there are glass buildings and African culture is houses built with mud, so really the issue of culture should be put aside so that we can move forward.”
It is this sort of hypocrisy that seems to frustrate Macdonald as he tells me that most of the critics of homosexuality that he comes into conflict with use cultural and religious reasons to validate their arguments and yet they do so selectively, choosing themselves which sins hold more weight: “In terms of the Bible, a sin is anything that goes against the will of God.
So if somebody is corrupt, or committing adultery, or masturbating they think they are holy just because they are not having sex with a man. I quote Sodom and Gomorrah's story of the shifting of blame. Everyone is stealing somehow and cheating somehow and yet because they do not choose to have sex with a man they think that it is more wrong.”
Chris, the Pastor, told me that homosexuality is not only an issue of what people do in their own homes: “Homosexuals think that everybody has the right to do what they like in privacy if they're not hurting others but there are other issues.
Mostly, homosexuals are not hardworking and they are lazy people who do not contribute to society and put a strain on the work of others.
The acceptance of homosexuals would be a backward move for Ghanaian society for this reason and it would not be developmental.”
When speaking to Macdonald, the President of GALAG, I did not get this impression. He described to me the difficulties that homosexuals face living in Ghana and the amount of effort they put in simply not to be found out and the immense abuse: “Society puts pressure on you to get married to prove you are not gay, to do so many things that you wouldn't want to if you had your own way.
People will give you pressure to such an extent that they will even fight your friends when they see you with anyone because they think that fighting them will make you stop.”
Whatever the religious or cultural arguments that stem from the topic of homosexuality, one point that both Chris and Macdonald agreed on is the importance of health programmes. Chris told me that “there should be HIV programmes tailor-made for homosexuals and the government needs to make it interesting and relevant for the people they are aimed at”.
Macdonald agrees but he has personal experience of the ineffectiveness of such programmes under the shadow of criminalisation: “In India, where they recently decriminalised homosexuality, it is not because they want men to have sex with men but it is because they want health programmes to reach people.
Ghana is receiving huge amounts of money from the global fund to target, men who have sex with men (MSM) but the government takes the money with one hand and then criminalises people's activities with the other hand.
So how do you reach out to them? Where is the money going to? And this money is specifically for this target population but they will not give it to LGBT groups, they give it to people who do not know the community and who do not know where homosexuals are.”
The fact that the discrimination against homosexuals is so ingrained in the Ghanaian mindset means that it is especially difficult for individuals to look past the common view and think about the issue in an objective way.
However, Macdonald told me that some young people are managing to look at the issue with a fresh perspective: “I think that the youth of today are more intelligent and are more critical thinkers and we have young people coming from the universities who go against things, who challenge their mothers, who challenge their fathers and I think that's the way forward that's the way things will change.
The present government has a few young ministers and I know some people in the government who are good people who have a critical mind and I think that if they will bring those critical minds to bear in terms of their work we will get somewhere.”
In the UK, the decriminalisation process was set rolling after the trial and eventual imprisonment of some well known public figures caused an uproar, leading to a royally commissioned report on the subject.
The report, published in 1957, recommended that 'homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence,' adding: 'The law's function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others. Not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.'
The stimulus for the review of the law in the UK was an insight into the humanity behind the homosexuality: the convicted persons were already known as people before they were known for their crime.
The fact that homosexuals are human beings is what Ghana must realise, as Macdonald put it: “For me, we don't teach people to honour diversity .
Ghana can grow with all the buildings and all the money and then start fighting just like that because we have not learned to honour diversity, to honour differences and know that we are different people, from different areas but at the end of it all we are the same people because it is not what you do on your bed that humanises you. You are human first.”
By Natasha Lewis