DAKAR, Senegal — Lawmakers in Ghana have proposed a bill that would punish displays of same-sex affection and advocacy for LGBTQ rights with up to a decade in prison. On the list of potential offenses: organizing efforts to support sexual minorities, donating to such causes and posting encouraging messages on social media.
The draft legislation has created a furor in the West African nation, where free speech is protected in the constitution and visitors from socially liberal countries drive the tourism industry.
Although same-sex relations have been illegal in Ghana since the 1960s, arrests tied to sexual orientation are rare. Yet campaigns to help the LGBTQ community this year have collided with fierce opposition, unleashing what activists describe as the worst crackdown in years.
Same-sex relations are banned in more than half of Africa’s 54 nations. Some countries, including Botswana and Gabon, have moved recently to decriminalize homosexual relations, but others have stuck with penal codes inherited from former colonial powers. Researchers say the proposal in Ghana casts an unusually wide net for possible transgressions: A pro-LGBTQ tweet, for instance, could be a violation.
Word of the Ghanaian bill went viral after it leaked online this month, and local media reports quoted the speaker of Ghana’s parliament, Alban Bagbin, likening LGBTQ “activities” to another pandemic.
The increasing scrutiny of sexual orientation poses dangers, activists say. Members of the LGBTQ community already face harassment, blackmail and violent attacks. Vigilante groups are known to lure people on queer dating apps then beat them.
“The bill will just empower more people to hurt us,” said Danny Bediako, director of Rightify Ghana, a human rights group in the capital city, Accra. “It will threaten the organizations that help us. It will encourage a wave of homophobic bills across West Africa and the continent at large.”
Ghana’s minister for information, Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, said the president will wait to see the version of the bill that advances through parliament. Analysts give it a 50 percent chance of getting that far.
“The position of Ghanaian law on sexual orientations, preferences and practices has been quite clear for some time now,” Oppong Nkrumah said, “and the executive branch led by the president has also been clear that it does not intend to amend or alter the current position of Ghanaian law on these matters.”
Ghana has maintained an old British prohibition of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” and gay sex is punishable with up to three years in prison.
Advocates have long rallied against the law, calling it a discriminatory leftover from a painful past. Yet hostility to homosexuality has persisted in the predominantly Christian nation of 30 million: Only 7 percent of Ghanaians surveyed in a 2019 Afrobarometer poll said they’re tolerant of same-sex unions.
The tension boiled over in late January when an LGBTQ community center opened in Accra. European diplomats attended the ribbon cutting, sparking ire from some Ghanaian leaders, who saw their presence as a political jab. The center was forced to close less than a month later.
“None of those diplomats would try that in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Sam Nartey George, one of the eight members of parliament who drafted the anti-gay bill. “Why would you disrespect Ghana in that way?”
The lawmakers floated the proposal to protect the country’s values, George said, adding that the text condemns “unacceptable foreign influence.” They’ve sent the bill to the government press, he said, which will produce an official version that lawmakers could review as early as August.
Activists in Ghana have accused the authors of working with the World Congress of Families, an American group that campaigns internationally against same-sex marriage and held a conference in Accra two years ago.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the organization a hate group, citing its push to shape foreign legislation — particularly Russia’s 2013 law outlawing “propaganda” of same-sex relationships.
George, the lawmaker acting as a spokesman for the text, denied involvement with the American organization. “I just heard of them last week,” he said.
The president of the organization did not respond to requests for comment.
The 36-page draft prohibits certain forms of same-sex intimacy and gender expression, including “intentional cross-dressing.” Advocacy through “media,” “an electronic device” or a “technological platform” is barred, as are organizations that assist sexual minorities.
“It criminalizes everything,” said Wendy Isaack, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who studied the bill this month in Accra, “from being a person who engages in same-sex conduct, to identifying as a transgender person, to being an ally of LGBTQ individuals. People are absolutely terrified.”
Some are worried about fear hurting business.
Nana Kwadwo Amankwa, who runs a tour company in Accra, said most of his clients come from the United States.
One of Ghana’s signature tourism programs, the Year of Return, invited African Americans and other members of the diaspora to visit the country in 2019 — four centuries after the first ship carrying enslaved Africans reached Virginia. The effort drew a record number of visitors, prompting leaders to focus on converting guests to citizens.
Amankwa has hosted several LGBTQ clients. Now he’s not so sure about the climate for them.
“Covid has already hit us hard,” he said. “I didn’t work for 10 months. If this bill passes, it’s going to scare even more people away.”
A mass arrest in May had signaled trouble. A group of paralegals were attending a training event on supporting sexual minorities at a hotel in the city of Ho when police burst into the conference room.
Officers arrested 21 people that day on a charge of unlawful assembly — including KK, a 30-year-old lesbian from Accra who spoke on the condition that only her nickname be used out of fear of retaliation.
She was held in detention for three weeks, she said, sleeping on the floor. “It’s hard to find the words,” she said, “except that I am very, very scared.”
KK has always kept her sexual identity secret — even among family — but she felt secure on work trips out of town.
She’d come to Ho to help others navigate the personal risks of being themselves. Many in her community endure abuse from neighbors, friends and relatives.
“Now they are targeting the people who help us, the people who keep us alive,” KK said, her voice trembling. “I’m afraid that I will die.”