ACCRA, Ghana — Weeks before parliament resumed, a group of queer Ghanaian activists gathered in a safe house to strategise against a bill that would criminalise their existence.
Introduced in August, the controversial draft law contains a laundry list of offences including identifying as queer and any advocacy, media or materials that could be considered support for the LGBTQ community. Prison terms could last 3 to 10 years depending on the offence.
The safe house meeting was led by Sparta GH, a project of LGBTQ Rights Ghana, a queer advocacy group. Their community centre, a first in Ghana, opened in January, sparking outrage from religious, traditional and political figures but especially from the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values, the bill’s namesake.
Within weeks, the centre was raided and shut down by authorities.
After receiving death threats, several of its members, including communications director Abdulwadud Moh, fled to safe houses. “The whole year has been one huge rollercoaster for the queer community in Ghana,” Moh told VICE World News.
Following the centre’s closure, there was a spike in media reports of anti-queer violence. Moh says things only got worse after the bill had its first reading in Parliament. “The attacks are already happening,” Moh said. “People are spewing homophobia every day on TV and radio and nobody is saying anything. The police are arresting queer people and processing them for court.” Most recently, video emerged Saturday of an alleged gay man being stripped, beaten and nearly burned with an iron in Nkawie, a town in southern Ghana.
LGBT+ Rights Ghana says it assisted with at least 50 relocation cases this year for queer Ghanaians who had to leave their families or communities. Among them are Kwesi* and Joyce*, both queer Ghanaians who spoke to VICE World News under the condition of anonymity. They were arrested in May along with 19 others at a paralegal training on how to report human rights abuses of queer people. They were charged with unlawful assembly and held without bail for several weeks.
“We were virtually left to our own messes,” Kwesi said. “Nobody feed you or give you water or anything. Luckily, we had the community leaders and people who came with food and water that they were giving us.”
The case was dismissed in August because “there was no evidence whatsoever to link the charge to the grounds on which they were arrested,” said Julia Selman-Ayetey, one of the defence lawyers.
But their lives had already been upended.
Like several other defendants, Joyce’s arrest outed her to family and friends. “I can't go back home because home is no longer safe for me.”
Ghanaian law doesn't explicitly ban homosexuality but it does consider “unnatural carnal knowledge” an offence. The latter is a colonial-era term defined in penal code as “sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner or with an animal,” which is often interpreted as an anti-gay provision. Prosecutions under unnatural carnal knowledge are actually rare but activists say the law’s existence fosters a climate of discrimination and hostility.
Like Ghana, many former British colonies inherited vaguely worded codes or anti-sodomy laws that still impact queer communities today.
“What we are seeing right now is due to colonial import,” says Moh. “But the general Ghanaian population doesn't appreciate that. Because we've accepted [Christianity and Islam], there is no way we can blame the very thing that brought it to us.”
The U.K. acknowledges this colonial legacy. In 2018, then British Prime Minister Theresa May told leaders of Commonwealth nations, “I am all too aware that these laws were often put in place by my own country. They were wrong then and they are wrong now.” She pledged to support legislative reform in former British colonies.
Tension around defining Ghanaian values and Western influences have been a constant in debate around the bill.
The bill’s supporters, namely leading conservatives, insist LGBTQ rights are part of a Western imposition on Ghanaian culture. “In the Western world, a man is supposed to marry one woman,” said MP Emmanuel Kwesi Bedzrah, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “There's no polygamous marriage in Europe. They cherish it...We also want to maintain our culture, our sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.”
Several of the queer activists we spoke to say the crackdown they’re experiencing has international support. They’ve alleged the US-based conservative group International Organization for the Family (IOF) had a hand in the bill. In 2019, it hosted a regional conference in Accra as part of its global World Congress of Families project to protect what it calls “the natural family.”
Brian Brown, IOF’s president, called the allegations “absurd.”
“Africans have the right to decide their future,” Brown told VICE World News. “They reject same sex marriage. They reject the LGBTQ, etcetera, agenda. The people in Ghana or the people in Nigeria, the people in any African country or any country in the world doesn't need me or anyone else from outside their country telling them what they should be doing in their parliament.”
As Ghanaians in the diaspora organise protests in North America and Europe, UN human rights experts have called on the Ghanaian government to reject the bill, calling it “a recipe for conflict and violence.”
Current president Nana Akufo-Addo, a former human rights lawyer, recently called for civility and tolerance as parliament considers the bill. "I think it will be a credit to Ghanaian democracy if this matter is handled in the correct manner," he told radio station Peace FM.
The timeline for debating the bill is unclear, but the parliament speaker Alban Babgin intends to move swiftly. “We will not allow people to delay the process to determine the outcome of anti-LGBTQ bill,” he told MPs on the 26th of October. Babgin emphasised all legislative debate around the bill would be public.
Joyce said the time for action against the bill is now before the situation worsens.
“I walk around scared, knowing that someone can just hit me and go scot-free just because of a bill that is yet to be passed,” she said. “We are just surviving. There's no freedom and there's no safety.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.