The New Anti-Gay Bill Proposed in Ghana Will Destroy Lives

July 29, 2021
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Stories coming out of Africa about the LGBTQ community fill me with dread. I read them with bated breath, certain the most recent one will be far worse than the last. I was kidnapped and tortured in my home country of Nigeria for being gay. Reading the news in constant panic is what happens to you when you have lived through the violence of state-sanctioned homophobia and barely escaped with your life.

To date, Africa ranks as the worst continent for queer people. In a 2020 report released by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, nearly half of the 69 countries where homosexuality is still criminalized are African countries. Although views surrounding the rights of queer people are advancing around the world, the majority of African politicians are still finding ways to limit the rights of their queer citizens.

Stories coming out of Africa about the LGBTQ community fill me with dread. I read them with bated breath, certain the most recent one will be far worse than the last. I was kidnapped and tortured in my home country of Nigeria for being gay. Reading the news in constant panic is what happens to you when you have lived through the violence of state-sanctioned homophobia and barely escaped with your life.

To date, Africa ranks as the worst continent for queer people. In a 2020 report released by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, nearly half of the 69 countries where homosexuality is still criminalized are African countries. Although views surrounding the rights of queer people are advancing around the world, the majority of African politicians are still finding ways to limit the rights of their queer citizens.

For the LGBTQ+ community in Ghana, the first half of 2021 has been nothing short of devastating. In less than six months, the community has come under intense and repeated attacks from politicians, the police, religious groups, and anti-gay organizations, including a heavily biased media committed to pillorying and misrepresenting an already marginalized group. There has been a slew of government-backed harassment unleashed against the community in a bid to restrict or completely prohibit queer rights advocacy in the West African country.

In May, 21 LGBTQ+ activists in Ghana were arrested and detained in Ho, the capital of Ghana’s Volta Region. They were human rights advocates and organizers who had convened for a paralegal training on best practices for documenting and responding to emerging human rights abuses targeted at sexual minorities. Instead, the activists were accused of promoting an LGBTQ+ agenda and charged with unlawful gathering. For nearly three weeks, police held and remanded them to court, their bail pleas repeatedly denied.

In February, a community center that provided health care services and emergency shelter to sexual minorities was raided and subsequently shuttered by the police. News of the police raid at the community center brought the world’s attention to the ongoing human rights abuses targeting Ghana’s queer community. In photos shared on Twitter by LGBT+ Rights Ghana, a coalition of young Ghanaian queer activists, police officers could be seen within the center’s premises, armed with guns and locking up the building’s entrances with iron chains.

The suddenness, scale, and severity of these threats and harassment have thrown Ghana’s LGBTQ+ community—already disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic—into a deepening crisis with no end in sight. Activists and organizers like Alex Kofi Donkor, head of the community center, have received death threats and a barrage of online harassment. Donkor has since relocated to a safe house.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have condemned the ongoing persecution as a human rights violation. In an open letter signed by celebrities, such as Michaela Coel, Idris Elba, and Naomi Campbell, the government of Ghana was called to respect the rights of sexual minorities.

And yet, Ghanaian politicians, egged on by conservative civil and religious groups, have only doubled down. A draft of a new anti-gay bill sponsored by private members of parliament was recently sent to the speaker of the Ghanaian parliament. Titled “The Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill,” it proposes harsher treatments against the LGBTQ community in Ghana, including jail terms of up to 10 years for those in same-sex relationships. If it succeeds in parliament, it will be a crime to engage in any form of LGBTQ+ advocacy. Even acts of solidarity from allies of the LGBTQ+ community would become jailable offenses.

Homosexuality is already outlawed in Ghana under a colonial-era law passed by the British colonial government in the 1860s. Like most African countries, Ghana maintained this ugly legacy of British colonialism even after independence. Compared to its current anti-gay law, this new bill proposes more draconian and far-reaching consequences. It will legalize conversion therapy for queer people and force intersex people to undergo surgery in what the bill calls “gender realignment.” Sharing queer-affirming content on media or digital platforms could result in prison terms. Parents who support their queer kids would also be prosecuted.

Possible knock-on effects from the bill include a predictable surge in citizen attacks, harassment, and blackmail of queer people or those perceived to belong to the LGBTQ+ community. It is well documented that hateful rhetoric directed at marginalized groups, especially from public office, almost always leads to a spike in targeted violence against such groups. Anti-gay laws make the LGBTQ+ community vulnerable, exposing them to extreme and rampant discrimination and abuse.

Homophobic laws, when enacted, achieve nothing else except stoking fear and imperiling the lives of queer people. It happened to us in Nigeria.

Barely weeks after then-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act into law in 2014, there was a historic spike in reported cases of extrajudicial killings, extortion, and torture of people perceived to be members of the LGBTQ+ community.

A report released in 2016 by Human Rights Watch highlighted a particularly chilling incident outside Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, where a violent armed mob of more than 50 people went from home to home, dragging out and beating individuals suspected of being gay. The African Commission’s special rapporteur on human rights defenders in Africa, Reine Alapini-Gansou, confirmed an “increase in cases of physical violence, aggression, arbitrary detention and harassment of human rights defenders working on sexual minority issues.”

I was a victim of the anti-gay law too. The gang that abducted me in 2017 and tortured me for three days did so because its members knew the law was on their side. Four years on and after filing multiple police reports, my assailants are yet to be arrested, least of all prosecuted by the state.

In the wake of this relentless violence, members of the LGBTQ+ community fled the country en masse to seek asylum in Europe or North America. Most of them made these trips through treacherous routes that exposed them to further danger. It’s not easy to tally the human cost of restrictive laws targeting queer Africans. And what is more, the yearly loss of human capital does not augur well for the continent’s struggling economy.

There is something morally reprehensible about legislating laws against consensual relationships between two adults; such laws devalue our collective sense of human worth and dignity. And no—homophobic laws do not represent nor uplift African values. Homophobic laws do not preserve family values either. It estranges queer people from their families and loved ones. It feels particularly bothersome, shameful even, that in a year marked by the impact of a significant pandemic, politicians in Africa are plotting ways to make the lives of their people more miserable instead of proffering solutions to the continent’s hydra-headed challenges.

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