ON THE RISE OF HOMOPHOBIA IN A DEMOCRACY
By Frankie Edozien
Thursday, August 11, 2011.
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 and 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 to test the waters and try to pick up companions of the same sex.
In conservative Ghana, it seems that gays and lesbians are taking steps out in the public domain, at least at night.
But since late May, the backlash to gays has spilled out onto the radio. Hours are spent debating whether gays should be allowed to exist here.
And then Ghanaians wake up to the national headlines screaming that gays can be tried or are dirty and sinful and ought to be locked up.
This West African nation is having a gay dialogue moment and 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 and lifelong resident of Accra.
“It’s these evangelicals who are looking for Satan everywhere, in everybody 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,” the former mayor adds.
The recent hysteria began when a front-page article in the Daily Graphic, Ghana’s largest circulation newspaper claimed that 8,000 gays -- many infected with HIV -- had been registered by organizations doing health work in two regions.
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 told a local journalist.
Amartefio, 67, and other noted 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, he believes the moment will pass quietly. He doesn’t expect a ‘Kill the gay’s legislation 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 voice of those opposed were what was trumpeted in the dailies frequently.
Breda Atta-Quayson, 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 antigay. That is why 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, very few voices for LGBT rights could be heard.
One popular radio journalist, Ato Kwamena Dadzie, spoken out and devoted two articles supporting Ghana’s gays.
The response was vitriolic. He was branded as gay 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 34, says.
The former country director of Journalist for Human Rights adds the piling on is a direct result of poverty.
“If I struggle to get one meal a day and I have 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.”
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.
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.
“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 but I’ll be surprised if in my lifetime we talk about same sex marriages in this country.”
Still gay Ghanaians interviewed said they 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.
Edozien is the Director of New York University Journalism’s Reporting Africa program and editor of The AFRican magazine.