On particular midweek nights, throngs of men and women gather at a few particular clubs to dance the night away to pulsating beats, and sometimes live music. The men dance provocatively close to each other, with reckless abandon. The few women around do the same with each other. Kisses are even exchanged.
At seaside dance parties where beer and reggae flow to all and sundry, it’s no longer uncommon for men and women in Ghana’s capital city, Accra, to test the waters and try to pick up companions of the same sex. Even in conservative Ghana, it seems that gays and lesbians are taking steps out in the public domain, at least at night.
But like elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, a backlash to that new openness has erupted as well. Since late May, it has spilled out onto the radio. Hours are spent debating whether gays should be allowed to exist here. Then Ghanaians wake up to national headlines screaming that gays and lesbians are dirty and sinful and ought to be locked up.
The pattern is becoming a familiar one throughout sub-Saharan Africa. As evangelical Christianity has seen its fastest growth on the continent, gay communities have simultaneously grown more open. The parallel developments have led to a growing list of countries in which politicians and media outlets have both incited and exploited social panic around sexuality. In the late 1990s, a beleaguered Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe drew global attention as he invited violence against gay people and blamed the country’s growing troubles on the European deprivation he said they symbolized. Since then, similar moments have struck in places stretching across the continent. Most recently, Uganda has been embroiled in controversy over a proposed law that would, among other things, allow the death penalty as a punishment for homosexuality. The authors of that law are closely tied to the U.S. religious right.
Now, this West African nation is having its own gay-dialogue moment and, once again, much of it has been unsavory, with religious leaders and some politicians stoking the flames.
“Gay bashing had never been a feature of the Ghanaian social landscape until, oh, I would say the last 10-15 years. And it came with the evangelical Christians,” says Nat Amartefio, 67, a historian, lifelong resident and former mayor of Accra.
“It’s these evangelicals who are looking for Satan everywhere, in everybody’s drawers, who have created this specter of an expanding gay universe. In all fairness, maybe they see things that those of us who are not involved cannot see. But they are the ones who are driving this hysteria,” Amartefio adds.
The recent hysteria began when a front-page article in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest circulation newspaper, claimed that organizations doing health work in two regions had “registered” 8,000 gays—many supposedly infected with HIV. The claim was taken from a participant in a workshop for health workers to assist them in dealing with patients with sexually transmitted infections, particularly HIV. The U.S. government, through its Agency for International Development, sponsored the training.
Religious leaders took to the radio to denounce the gays and ask the government to intervene, with one cleric saying he didn’t want Almighty Allah to destroy Africa. The Bureau of National Intelligence claimed it was investigating, and one Presbyterian leader branded gays as “unbiblical, un-African, abnormal and filthy.”
Each week in June brought a slew of new headlines with one legislator, David Tetteh warning that gays could be lynched like robbers.
”You cannot trace this act to any of the settings in Ghana. So this is foreign and I am I saying that Ghanaians cherish our culture a lot so for anybody to adulterate the cultural setting in Ghana … I have the fear that people could take the law into their hands in future and deal with this people drastically,” he suggested to a local journalist.
The “un-African” claim has recurred in each anti-gay backlash that’s hit the content, despite mounds of historical research showing that, in fact, gay and lesbian people have been part of many African cultures for centuries. Rather, homophobia was imported with European colonialism—and today’s growth in evangelical Christianity. Amartefio and other noted Ghanaian intellectuals have pointed out that gay men have been in the society from time immemorial and are sometimes referred to as ‘Kodjo Besia.’
Despite the rhetoric, Amartefio believes the moment will pass quietly. He doesn’t expect a “kill the gays” bill like what was proposed in Uganda. “I don’t believe it will lead to an open pogrom. There just are so many gays in this society who are in all walks of life, in all stations of society who don’t draw any attention because nobody is looking out for them.”
But the daily newspapers trumpeted a different perspective—the voices of those most virulently opposed to sexual freedom. Breda Atta-Quayson, a Daily Graphic deputy editor who wrote many of the headlines that had “Homos” in bold type, says the paper has no anti-gay agenda but wants the issue discussed openly.
“Unfortunately the stories we are getting are the ‘negative’ ones. But it’s not that we are putting it there because we are anti-gay,” he told Colorlines.com. “That is why we have refrained from even writing editorials. We wanted it to be in the public domain for discussion.”
Nana Banyin Dadson, a senior editor at Graphic Communications, adds that interest is high. “Editors are supposed to have a pulse of readership. It is what is strange that sells. It’s strange because this is the first time that it has come up as a subject of discussion openly.”
Against the onslaught from the religious leaders in the media, however, very few voices for LGBT rights could be heard.
One popular radio journalist, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, spoke out and devoted two articles supporting Ghana’s gay community. The response was vitriolic. He was called gay himself and many wrote in response that was the reason he had gone through a divorce.
“One of the jobs of the journalist is to give voice to the voiceless and one of the most deprived people in this country—in terms of voice—is the gay community in the country and I’m more than delighted to speak for them,” Dadzie says.
The former country director of Journalist for Human Rights adds that the piling on is a direct result of poverty. “If I struggle to get one meal a day and I have a band of homosexuals coming into my community and I’ve been told that this band of homosexuals cause God to come and take away the single plate of food that I have, I would fight,” Dadzie says.
Ghana has a high unemployment and nearly 30 percent of the populace lives below the poverty line, according to figures from the CIA World Factbook.
Accra resident Atta-Quayson, 59, says the frenzied coverage is ultimately good. “This topic is going to lead into a liberal society. Now that it is coming to the fore, a lot of people will want to find out what it is. Even though the religious right is so anti-gay.”
Dadzie believes that as the country grows more prosperous, society will be more open. He’s putting together a “coalition of the willing” to challenge the current interpretation of the unlawful carnal knowledge law, which criminalizes homosexual sex acts.
“We’re not going to get to the point of same sex marriages soon, but we’d get to a point where people will decide, ‘He’s gay so what.’ Maybe when I’m dead and gone we can get to same sex marriages,” Dadzie jokes, “but I’ll be surprised if in my lifetime we talk about same sex marriages in this country.”
Still, gay Ghanaians interviewed by Colorlines said they are waiting for the government to offer some protection and leadership in turning down the volume.
“This is what we are praying for,” says one corporal in the army, who has lived with a partner for two years. They would like to move openly into the barracks one day, where the accommodation is free. But for now, freedom on the dance floor is the only option.
Frankie Edozien is a New York City-based journalist who is the director of New York University’s Reporting Africa program.