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CRIMINALIZING COMPASSION

I don’t recognize my own country anymore in Ghana’s new anti-gay bill

@drdanwest
Ghana's proposed anti-gay bill prescribes up to five years in prison and conversion therapy with a 10 year jail term for anyone advocating for the community.
Published

I am a gay Ghanaian. I make this statement with pride, with joy, and with deep gratitude for my freedom, because it was not always so. There was a time when I was so terrorized and afraid, that my jaw would lock up if I tried to say the words “I am gay.” My jaw would lock up because it was my body’s mechanism for surviving my childhood as a gay child in Ghana.

I come from Hian, in the Jirapa district of Ghana’s Upper West Region. I am Dagao. I am also lighter-skinned than a “typical”  Ghanaian because on my mother’s side I am Russian-Ukrainian. But I am definitely Ghanaian.

I was born in Ukraine. When I was born, my mother fell ill and could not breastfeed me. So for the first day of my life I was breastfed by several other new mothers in the hospital. In Ukraine, it is believed that this protects one from curses and the evil eye.

I never got to meet my grandparents on my dad’s side, but I carry a most precious gift from my grandmother, my dad’s mother. He got to visit her before she passed in Hian, Ghana, while I was still a baby. And she chose a name for me: Mwinnasong. In our language Dagaare, Mwinnasong means God will help. That name is a talisman of sorts for me. In difficult times, like this one, I draw on the blessing placed on me by my Ghanaian grandmother through the name she gave me. I am doubly protected.

I was raised by the love of my community and I am blessed with strength from my ancestors.

When I was 3, my family moved from Ukraine to Ghana. From 3 to 19, I grew up in Ghana in different parts of the country, from Bolgatanga in the Upper East Region, to Sunyani in Brong Ahafo (now Bono). I also grew up for a bit of time in Kumasi in the Ashanti Region, and in Accra in the Greater Accra Region.

That’s how loved I am, as a queer Ghanaian, as a Ghanaian child. And that is the love that every person, Ghanaian or otherwise, queer or straight, deserves.

When I was a child in Bolga, my father taught us the traditions of his childhood in Hian, where people raised livestock and farmed crops. I remember a  moment when we had corn growing taller than any adult. I went to visit a friend. I was maybe 6 or 7. It was dusk, and my cousin decided to spring out of the corn and jump out at me as a prank. I thought somebody was out to kill me. My dad heard my screams and he came out running to save me. He didn’t even have a shirt on. And I say this because that’s how loved I am, as a queer Ghanaian, as a Ghanaian child. And that is the love that every person, Ghanaian or otherwise, queer or straight, deserves.

Ghana’s proposed law criminalizes not only the community, but those who show compassion

I am telling my story now as my beloved Ghana is at an inflection point. The continent’s first country to gain independence, the birthplace of the pioneering Yaa Asantewaa and  Kwame Nkrumah, a country that is trying to address slavery’s injustices, by inviting African-Americans to come home, now has a bill making its way through Ghana’s parliament that, among other horrors, prescribes up to five years in prison and torture in the form of “conversion therapy” (a debunked practice) for LGBTQ+ Ghanaians.

The bill prescribes up to 10 years for anyone who advocates for LGBTQ+ people, forced medical procedures for intersex children, a requirement for families and teachers to report queer relatives and students or be subject to jail time, and even an extradition clause to allow the bill to nab Ghanaian activists abroad.

If this bill passes, I would not be able to go home. And I would be one of the lucky ones. Queer Ghanaians, our friends, and our families would not be safe. Already they are not safe, as there have been increased reports of violence being meted out on queer people, following the bill’s introduction to parliament.

I am a gay Ghanaian. I make this statement publicly because an emergency in Ghana has made it necessary for me to come out as loudly as possible. That emergency also requires everyone to come out as an ally of LGBTQ+ Ghanaians. I don’t want to paint a false picture of a childhood Ghana that was fully accepting of my sexuality, but I want to talk about the drastic rise in homophobia that has gotten us to this place and the forces behind it.

When I was a kid, my mom sewed clothes as a business. Her clients would bring their kaba and slits that they liked from other people, and cloth so that she’d sew that for them. And so through that I learned to sew because this gay kid loved to sew dresses. I actually had a doll that was the best dressed doll in the town because I used to make clothes for her. I used to bake cakes to throw her birthday parties. Not every gay boy is into these things, but I was.

In Sunyani, I would go to the market for produce, sometimes with my mom and sometimes alone, and women selling their wares behind stalls would call out as I passed, offering to marry their daughters off to me. They imagined their joke as flattery, not harassment. But that assumption of heteronormativity in questions about my marital status still wears me out today as an adult.

In primary school, most boys couldn’t get enough of football, but football bored me. I preferred to play ampe and netball with girls. Teachers and schoolmates would make mocking comments about that, or about how I moved like a girl, but they mostly let me be.

For high school in Ghana, I went to Presec, the Presbyterian Boys Secondary School. My life at Presec was the drama club. During rehearsals in the assembly hall, some of us would have walk off competitions. We’d sway our hips, modeling down the aisle, one-upping each other. And I remember the joy of being free in that space, with people that accepted you, even though we didn’t have words back then to define and identify who we were.

There was no visible model of who I was in Ghanaian society. Every message spoken and unspoken signaled that I was taboo, that who I was needed to be buried deep under a mountain of shame.

I also remember playing Stella, the girl who gets pregnant, in a public service announcement play that we wrote. We performed it on the National Theatre stage to busloads of school kids from all over the capital Accra. We were on such a high after that performance that I kept my dress on and pranced around backstage, until a man who worked for the theatre ripped that joy right out of my heart with a disgusted look and a nasty remark.

Also at Presec,  I was a member of the Scripture Union (SU), a Christian group. I’d wake friends up in the dorm to pray very early in the morning. We had sermons and sometimes a pastor would be brought in from the outside. Sometimes they would preach against masturbation and homosexuality. As other boys developed attraction for girls, and were encouraged by society to develop their interests, my attraction was to boys. There was no visible model of who I was in Ghanaian society. Every message spoken and unspoken signaled that I was taboo, that who I was needed to be buried deep under a mountain of shame.

Over the past year, the climate of latent homophobia that I grew up with in Ghana has been transformed into an explicitly terrifying one. In 2021, an LGBTQ+ community center in Ghana was raided and shut down by police, activists arrested, and detained for weeks for simply meeting.

People were arrested at a private celebration suspected to be a lesbian wedding, and a man lynched in northern Ghana where I’m from. And these are just the incidents that made news headlines. Human Rights Watch recently published an investigation of the detention of 20 activists and a conference technician in Ho, Ghana, including the torture of a 21-year old intersex woman. The accounts are harrowing. How did this happen?

In 2019, an organization called the World Congress of Families (WCF), which is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group with white supremacist ties, held a conference in Accra, Ghana. They partnered with local conservatives to fan the flames of Ghana’s homophobia into a full scale assault on queer Ghanaians and their friends.

My coming out story

After secondary school, I got a scholarship to study at MIT. And that’s how I came to the US, a place that, though far from a utopia, offered me the freedom to explore, affirm, and embrace who I truly am.

Back in college, my roommate, a straight Portuguese man, and I became good friends. I came out to him in a letter. He was probably the second or third person I came out to, and when I handed him the letter, I rushed off into the shower because it was the only safe place that I could just kind of get away to and hide and be by myself. He read my letter, waited while I took the longest shower of my life, and when I came out of the shower he gave me a hug. He’s a straight man. His roommate had just told him he was gay, and he hugged me.

I think back to that simple gesture and I find it profoundly human. Because he reacted not with distance, or paranoia, but with love and empathy. He understood that my coming out to him had been a very difficult step in a homophobic world. He chose to honor love rather than indulge in hate. Today, every Ghanaian is faced with a similar choice. Will you turn to your lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendar, queer, intersex, and asexual neighbor with love? Or will you turn to us with hate?

These days when I return home to Ghana, I keep to myself and my family because those are the spaces in which I feel safe, and those are the people with whom I can be myself. And I am grateful for the love of some of my schoolmates from Presec, who reach out and insist on grabbing a drink together. They affirm my belonging. They try to reassure me that there are places in Ghana where I, their gay brother, can live free and safe. Their optimism is a lifeline. I hold on to it, hoping that you, too, will step up and come out as an ally in our defense.

A version of this article was first published on Facebook. It is republished with the author’s permission.

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