“Pedophiles or other sexual deviants are not welcome in Ghana.”
The sign loomed over me as I stood, waiting to get my passport stamped, in line at the Kotoka International Airport in Accra. It was my first, and perhaps most jarring, experience with exactly how different the Ghanaian culture is from my own.
In Canada, the prevailing Ghanaian attitude towards homosexuality would undoubtedly be called homophobic. The attitude, however, is characterized less by phobia and more by a vitriolic hatred.
In Ghana, Christian and Muslim communities converge to condemn homosexual activity; a notion that is reflected in social, political, and legal discourse.
Although litigation is rare, homosexual activity is illegal. The Sexual Offences Article 105 in the Ghana Criminal Code reads, “whoever is guilty of unnatural carnal knowledge” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and can be sentenced to up to six months in jail.
Chapter 5 of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution guarantees the protection of all human rights for Ghanaian citizens “whatever [their] race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, religion, creed or gender,” but does not mention sexual orientation.
There have also been calls to criminalize homosexuality. In June 2011, the minister of Ghana’s Western Region, Paul Evans Aidoo, described homosexuality as “detestable and abominable,” and advocated for homosexuals to be immediately arrested.
Later that same year, President John Atta Mills reiterated his government’s position.
“I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana,” he said in October, 2011.
The leaders’ attitudes reflect that of the citizenry. In March, 2012, a group of young men brutally raided a party with suspected homosexuals, beating them in the Accra neighbourhood of Jamestown.
It is a social climate Samuel, the deputy director of the Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights Ghana (CEPERHG) who used only his first name to protect his identity, is all too familiar with.
“Growing up, I had a lot of friends who are MSM [men who have sex with men]. They faced so many troubles and, knowing their troubles, I was like ‘wow,’” he said.
CEPERGH was established in 2003 to promote sexual minority rights in Ghana. They “envision a liberal society that provides friendly, sexual and reproductive health rights services for all persons regardless of sexual orientation, age, tribe, [and] religion,” according to their mission statement.
Although it now provides a variety of programming, including self-defense courses and HIV/AIDS outreach, CEPERGH started by putting on small, secretive “human rights” workshops for sexual minorities.
“These workshops are aimed at educating sexual minorities on their human rights, to make them feel that they are also humans and that they deserve to live like every normal human being. They have the right to association, they have the right to information… they have the right to live as every heterosexual person lives,” said Samuel.
But it is a very hostile environment in which to advocate sexual minority rights.
In 2006, in a response to a rumour that the group was trying to organise an international gay and lesbian conference in Ghana, one of their staff members was badly beaten. They also had to relocate their head office and, under a constant threat of violence, their director fled Ghana for six months.
“I don’t even want to talk about it… [the people] use such harsh words: ‘they should be broken, they should be killed’ they say,” said Samuel.
“It’s not all that bad though. Over the years, some people have come to be accommodating about the situation. We’ve helped people and we’ve changed some minds,” he added.
“The whole thing is dedication. We are poised to do the work, so no matter what the situation is we will still do our work.”