On my first day of work, I was asked how I felt about having a gay president.
The question was referring to President Obama’s announcement in support of gay marriage; my reaction was some combination of nervous laughter, discomfort, denial and correction. It was the first of many conversations about Ghanaians’ attitudes toward homosexuality, which would unequivocally be deemed homophobic in North America.
It is getting close to election time here. The 2008 election had a high voter turnout – 72.91%, compared to the United States’ 56.8%. Mills’ peaceful victory was considered a redeeming display of African constitutional democracy after the corrupt elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Does a high turnout and lack of military coup during elections translate to a fair democratic state? The Constitution claims to have a commitment to “the principle of universal adult suffrage” and “the protection and preservation of fundamental human rights and freedoms.”
There are various documented ramifications of being gay in Ghana. On May 21, Joy FM aired a documentary called “The Gay Next Door” which explores the gay community in Jamestown, Accra. After the recent discovery of a “lesbian party”, gay men and women were beaten, threatened and bullied. Police officers stood by, and when victims went to police headquarters seeking justice, they were refused.
“All these gay people who are making noise are doing so because there is no law that says that it is criminal. Parliament should look at that if possible,” one listener chimed in.
The broadcaster agreed. “If the majority of people feel that it is something that is wrong and it should be criminalized, you ask your lawmakers to amend the criminal code and add it to the sexual offenses act.”
Supporting gay rights in Ghana is political suicide. Official statements against homosexuality have been made by people at local and national levels of government. In 2011, the Western Regional Minister called for the arrest of gays, and President Mills has dismissed international pressures to legalize gay rights on multiple occasions.
“Ghanaian society frowns upon homosexuality and everybody has been telling us that democracy means governance for the people, by the people in the interest of the people,” President Mills commented.
On June 4, NPP Youth Organiser in the Ashanti Region, Collins Randy Amankwa, called for a harsher statement from Mills: “Ghanaians must open their eyes wide because our president may surprise us all just like Obama did to the Americans. He went there several times to seek for help before Obama made that declaration. What if he is given a huge assistance just so he will declare our support and recognition for homosexuality?”
Regardless of the religious and cultural contexts, publicly denouncing a faction of the constituency is a way to alienate certain citizens from the political process, and I wonder if this violates Ghana’s democratic principles.
In a background note published by the UN, Diana Ayton-Shenker addresses the potential conflict between human rights and cultural diversity. “The right to culture is limited at the point at which it infringes on another human right.”
Ghana will see a different political climate in fifty years – the same amount of time that made President Obama’s election possible. In Ghana’s relatively new democracy, I ask a question that few nations can answer affirmatively: is it possible for a publicly gay person to be elected to office?
My colleague – the staunch opponent of legalizing homosexuality who asked me the opening question – thinks it is possible.
“I’m sure, with time. The younger generation is more liberal than the previous one. In the next fifty years, we may not have a gay president, but we will have a community that generally accepts gay rights.”