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 institutionalized homophobia in Ghana, this year marks the first time that the state and the clergy have worked together to sponsor a bill to criminalize the existence of LGBTQI people. The draft bill would impose prison sentences for being LGBTQI, for advocating for gay rights, as well as for providing health services and support for LGBTQI 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 LGBTQI Ghanaians. The media has played a major role in promoting this form of institutionalized homophobia.
Ghana became independent from British rule in 1957. The new state retained elements of British colonization in its laws, including anti-gay statutes. A law that punishes “unnatural carnal knowledge” has been interpreted by some as a criminalization 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 behavior. 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-LGBTQI 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 criminalization of LGBTQI 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-LGBTQI 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 LGBTQI people.
Politicians have learned that anti-LGBTQI messages can tap into popular currents. In 2012, Ghana’s then-president, John Atta Mills, used his position not only to promote homophobia but to openly support religious institutions and organizations in their efforts to dehumanize LGBTQI Ghanaians. He took this stance following his return from the African Union Assembly of Heads of State and Government meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where then-U.N. 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 LGBTQI people in public discourses, urging Ghanaians to avoid speaking about same-sex marriage and related issues. The Ghana Education Service in 2015 also framed LGBTQI 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, then-Speaker of Parliament Mike Ocquaye openly endorsed homophobia in Ghana and disavowed the idea that a human rights agenda required recognition of LGBTQI 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 is complicit in perpetuating harmful narratives about expanding gender and sexual expressions. The media helped set the agenda for discussion by painting the very humanity of LGBTQI people as a topic for public debate.
Following the shutdown of the LGBTQI resource center in February, a group that calls itself Journalists Against LGBTQ Plus added its voice to the ongoing polarizing 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-LGBTQI 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 criminalize 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 criminalize queerness. It “imposes a duty on every citizen and in particular, parents, guardians, teachers, churches, mosques, other religious and traditional institutions or organizations, the three arms of government, the media and creative arts industries … to promote and protect proper human sexual rights and Ghanaian family values.”
Whether the bill is signed into law or not, activist and feminist organizations and everyday Ghanaians must work toward 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.