Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Gay Man In Africa

The Welcome Sign in Accra Airport Immigration
Arriving on the plane from London via Istanbul, I was incredibly excited to finally be in Ghana: everyone I had spoken to had told me how friendly and welcoming Ghanaians are. I was a little taken aback therefore, to be greeted by an enormous sign in the immigration hall, only seconds after stepping off the plane, telling me that as a gay man I was not welcome in Ghana and that if it was my intention to come to Ghana to be a 'sexual deviant' then I should "go elsewhere”. I had known that homosexuality is not culturally acceptable in most countries in Africa, and that the act is illegal in Ghana, but I had not expected such an aggressive and blunt statement the moment I stepped off the plane.

Since that moment, Ghanaian’s have been nothing but friendly to me and the rest of the cohort, but it has made me think about the issue and about how lucky we are in Britain to now have almost equal rights, regardless of sexuality (heterosexuals still cannot have a civil partnership, and sexually active gay males cannot give blood). I have been researching LGBT rights in Ghana and Africa and have been both saddened and encouraged by my findings.

Museveni signing into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act
As I’m sure you will be aware on 24th February, Ugandan Prime Minister Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act 2014. This “draconian”[1]   and “odious”[2] law orders the death penalty for the crime of ‘aggravated homosexuality’ and states that anyone aware of a homosexual who not report them within 24hrs can face up to 3 years in prison. The law even orders the extradition of homosexual Ugandans who have fled abroad in order to face “punishment”. The response of the international community has been encouraging with many countries suspending aid to Uganda or shifting it to NGOs who haven’t supported the law, but the law follows a deeply disturbing trend across Africa of increasing violence and stigmatisation of homosexuals: Nigeria has also recently enacted harsh new laws against homosexuality. In fact out of 54 countries in Africa, the only one where homosexual acts are legal is Republic of South Africa.

In 2011, the gay Ugandan activist David Kato was beaten to death in his home after a newspaper published his name and called for his execution as a homosexual (and that of 99 others). Such outright hatred and fear has become all too common across the continent. In some instances, signs point to both the church and the state across African nations sponsoring persecution in order to draw attention away “from the main problems we face today – poverty, lack of electricity and services, corruption, mismanagement, and so on”[3]. The situation in Nigeria is now such that despite the insurgency in three major Northern provinces, gays and lesbians are being harassed, beaten and arrested merely because of President Jonathan’s “bankruptcy of ideas”[4].

Openly gay Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina
There are however, the green shoots of a backlash against the wide stigmatisation of homosexuals. High Profile, award winning Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina came out in response to the Ugandan and Nigerian laws and has received “thousands of messages from Africans all over the continent…telling me: ‘you have my support’”[5]. Anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Tutu has long been an advocate of LGBT rights, likening the fight against homophobia to the fight against apartheid: “For me, it is at the same level”[6]. He echoes the privately held views of many middle class Africans, that the continent faces far more pressing issues than the issue of whom one loves in the privacy of one’s home. Jackie Kay, the openly lesbian Scottish-Nigerian poet, was recently invited to Nigeria: “I wouldn’t have gone to South Africa under apartheid, nor to Chile under Pinochet. Should I now be in the position where I feel like I can’t visit the country I come from?”[7]  The international community is also responding to the wave of homophobia. In 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, David Cameron made an impassioned speech in support of human rights in general and gay rights in particular, suggesting that UK Aid in the future would be conditional on respect for all human rights.

The situation in Ghana is complex: there is an increasing debate in the country about LGBT rights. Many Ghanaians that I and others have spoken to are unwilling to talk about the subject. I have however had a couple of discussions on the subject, including one lively debate in the office. I’ve heard views from homosexuality being inherently wrong all the way through to being told that ‘if’ I was gay they would pray for me. Religion plays a strong part in Ghanaian life with only 5% of respondents to the 2010 census admitting to having no religion. Whilst views of homosexuality are not necessarily directly linked to religion it is clear from discussions with Ghanaians that their views on many social issues stem from their religion and are strongly influenced by who they worship with: both the Qur’an and the Bible (nearly 90% of Ghanaians are either Christian or Muslim) can be interpreted in such a way that homosexuality is against the will of god.

Minister Lithur giving a speech
Homosexuality has come up in several high profile instances in the country, most significantly an uproar’ involving President John Mahama. The President thanked his friend, American international gay rights activist Andrew Solomon, in his memoirs for his help in promoting them. Some in the Ghanaian media accused the president of taking Solomon’s help in return for pushing a gay rights agenda in Ghana. He has since said that “people must not be beaten or killed because of their sexual orientation, but in [Ghana] there is a strong cultural hostility towards it.”[8] When asked whether he would support gay marriage in Ghana in the future he said “It is difficult for me…I would rather not comment”[9] Nana Oye Lithur the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection has in fact openly said that she supports the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Similarly the Constitutional Review of 2010-12 actively did not include a provision to “expressly exclude same sex marriages in Ghana”[10] citing that such a move would “not be worthy of a progressive state.” Statements like these, and from some other private conversations that I have had, show that there is a change in people’s mind-sets in private, even if it is not yet politically prudent to back LGBT rights in public.

In some ways Ghana is a very tolerant country and whilst views of homosexuality may be some way behind those in the UK and Europe, I believe that there is hope for the LGBT community in the country. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in much of Western Europe in the 1960’s and nationwide in the US in 2003, so we need to acknowledge the gains that have been made, and help our Ghanaian brothers and sisters to see that none of us is free, when the rights of one of us are restricted.

This blog brought to you by Jon

[1] Baroness Ashton
[2] President Obama
[3] Nigerian Musician Femi Kuti
[4] Nigerian novelist Helon Habila
[5] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/21/kenyan-writer-binyavanga-wainaina-declares-homosexuality
[6] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-23464694
[7] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/27/nigeria-anti-gay-law-critic-adichie-kay-habila
[8] http://76crimes.com/2013/10/04/ghana-president-anti-gay-anger-blocks-even-talk-of-change/
[9] Ibid.
[10] http://ilga.org/ilga/en/article/nDHWPkQ13B


  1. An insightful and thought provoking blog Jon. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. It reminds us of the oppression and discrimination faced by many people- not just in Africa - but all over the world. But it seems there are some promising signs in Ghana. Lets hope that positive change follows.
    CEO, International Service

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Jesus told the Story of the Good Samaritan when a lawyer asked him “How do I get to Heaven?” The Samaritans were the most hated; if a Jew drank from the same cup he would have to go to the Temple to be cleansed. Jesus drank from the same cup of a Samaritan woman at the well. In the Story of the Good Samaritan, a man is beaten up and left to die by two Jewish priests. They knew the Scriptures but had no love in their hearts? Is your pastor/priest like this? Jesus told us to love our neighbour and not to judge! He told us to ‘turn the other cheek’ not to batter a gay man’s cheek and face. In a letter to President Museveni of Uganda, over 60 scientists/doctors/psychiatrists wrote this: “Homosexuality is not a disease, mental illness or perversion. It cannot be reversed or changed so it is NOT a choice.” Homosexuality is an abomination in Leviticus, but so is eating pork or cutting your hair or wearing two different fabrics on your body. Leviticus also does not let people who are diseased or blind to enter church.

    Here’s the people God does not want coming into his churches: People with blemishes, blind people, the lame, those with flat noses, dwarves, people with scurvy, people with bad eyes, people with bad skin, and those that “hath their stones broken.” Given that God is technically responsible for giving people all of these afflictions in the first place
    (Leviticus 21:17-24)
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  4. Dear Dr. Laura:
    Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God's Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and I try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When people try to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate.
    I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how to follow them:
    a) When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Lev.1:9).The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
    b) I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7.In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
    c) I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanness (Lev.15:19-24).The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
    d) Lev.25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can't I own Canadians?
    e) I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
    f) A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev.11:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don't agree. Can you settle this?
    g) Lev.21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
    h) Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?
    i) I know from Lev.11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
    j) My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev.19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread cotton/polyester blend. He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them (Lev.24:10-16)? Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev.20:14)
    I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God's word is eternal and unchanging.

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