Ghana's emerging LGBT movement battles with hostility

Accra (AFP) –


When activists in Ghana opened a support centre for the local gay community, they expected some pushback in a religiously conservative West African country where homosexuality is illegal.

But less than a month after its opening, the centre was forced to close and its founders driven were underground after a wave of homophobia swept the country.

Activists with LGBT Rights Ghana opened the centre on the outskirts of the Ghanian capital Accra on January 31 to provide community service and a "safe space" for LGBT people.

The outcry came quickly. A major religious lobby, the Catholic Church of Ghana, and even members of the government all came out to demand the centre close down.

After three weeks of an intense media offensive, security forces closed the centre on February 24, less than a month after it had opened.

The government has not commented on the centre, but the building owner told AFP that he could not "tolerate" such activities on his property.

"A wave of homophobia was expected, but not on such a large scale," Abdul-Wadud Mohammed, communications director of LGBT Rights Ghana told AFP.

"We've been communicating about our activities for a long time, but it had never become a matter of national interest."

- 'Our time will come' -

The collective's strategy had been to grant as many interviews as possible, he said, in a bid to "educate the population and advocate our cause".

But since the closure of their premises, the group's 13 executive members, who usually campaigned openly on social networks, have been forced to take precautions.

"Our names and faces are known, we receive very specific threats. We are no longer safe," said the activist.

During the uproar Gender Minister Sarah Adwoa Safo said the continuing criminalisation of homosexual practices was "non-negotiable" while another minister called for tighter legislation to sanction even those advocating and promoting LGBT activities.

Still, Mohammed says he remains optimistic. Despite the pressure and threats, he says he has no regrets.

"It was about time we had this discussion. It's been almost a month that the whole country has been talking about the LGBT community," he said.

"For me this is a victory. We are sure that our time will come."

The collective has also received messages of support, particularly from the Ghanaian diaspora, and also from American and British personalities, many with roots in Ghana.

Actor Idris Elba, model Naomi Campbell and designer Virgil Abloh all signed an open letter of support and expressed "profound concern" at the situation faced by LGBT+ people in Ghana.

"It is unacceptable to us that you feel unsafe," said the letter, which drew international attention.

"It is not good publicity for Ghana," Mohammed said.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for President Nana Akufo-Addo, who is reaching out to the African-American community and the Ghanaian diaspora through his programme of "The Year of Return," to encourage them to return to their ancestral country.

After staying quiet on the matter, the head of state finally spoke at a religious ceremony to remind people that it "will not be under the Presidency of Nana Addo Dankwah Akufo-Addo that same-sex marriage will be legal."

- 'Season of homophobia' -

In Ghana, 87% of the population supports the ban on LGBT people holding public meetings, and 75% approve of homophobic statements by state officials and religious leaders, according to a survey by the Africa Center for International Law and Accountability, ACILA.

In recent weeks, activists say they have seen a surge in homophobic acts.

"I'm afraid to go out. I am used to being mocked because I am effeminate, but now I am afraid of being targeted and beaten up," one young homosexual man told AFP asking his name not be used.

"I know it has happened to others, there are videos going around. You can see people being forcibly stripped naked, beaten and humiliated."

Last week, six MPs took steps to sponsor a bill in Parliament aimed at proscribing and criminalizing the advocacy and practice of homosexuality.

For Kwame Edwin Otu, professor at the University of Virginia, who specialises in LGBT issues in Africa, "homosexuals make ideal scapegoats" especially in times of crisis.

Ghana, which recorded among the highest growth rates in the world last year, has slumped into its first recession in 37 years because of the pandemic, and has struggled with a period of political tension since Akufo-Addo's re-election was challenged by the opposition.

It is "the season of homophobia", Otu said.