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Opinions of Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Columnist: Yeboah, Kwame

Homosexuality in Ghana - beware of the down-low syndrome

It has been very difficult for me to comment on the stories of homosexuality that is prevailing in Ghana at the moment. This is because I am ambivalent about the whole idea.

Like many Ghanaians, I don’t like it because of my cultural and religious upbringing but I am not homophobic enough to completely hate them and most importantly, I am a public health officer whose sole business is to ensure that the phenomenon does not lead to the transmission of diseases that has been found to be associated with homosexuality, in the Ghanaian society.

In light of this, I have decided to be honest to myself and end my silence, and to draw attention to certain developments that we need to pay attention to whiles finding ways to deal with the phenomenon. One such development is called the “Down-low” syndrome.

Down-low is an American term that refers to a subculture of men who usually identify as heterosexual, but who have sex with men and still keep wives and girlfriends. Due to the stigma associated with homosexuality in many societies, these individuals are unable to openly come out and some avoid sharing this information even if they have female sexual partner(s). Being on the “down-low” is a closeted homosexuality or bisexuality.

In a culture like the Ghanaian society, where members depend heavily on traditional family networks, society and often religious institutions, for financial and emotional support, the stigma associated with homosexuality is bound to lead to “down-low”. They will be forced to go underground by leading normal “straight” lives including keeping girl friends and wives in the open whilst still practicing sex with men in the dark.

Many reports in public health circles indicate that many men who have sex with men (MSM), especially the young, the rich and politically influential ones, do not disclose their sexual orientation in order to avoid "social isolation, discrimination, or verbal or physical abuse." In a “normal” society like that of Ghana where normal sex with a wife or permanent girlfriend usually does not include the use of “protective” materials like condoms, any unprotected sexual behaviourss on the part of these down-low men is bound to have serious implications for the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Ghana.

Recent Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey shows that men who have sex with men and women are a "significant bridge for HIV to women." The survey further shows that these men who also had sex with women have similar levels of HIV and STDs (as exclusively homosexual men) and higher levels of many risk behaviours. It is particularly important due to the fact that, because of their perceived community and internalized homophobia, they don’t seek diagnostic testing of their illnesses because of the fear that it will lead to their being ousted as gays. This will lead to high proportion of infections within this pool and more transmission of diseases to society.

This naturally leads to the tricky question of what we can collectively do about it. The best thing from a purely public health point of view is to accept homosexuality in our society and help gays lead a normal life. But this is where the recrimination starts. It is virtually a taboo to talk about a man having sex with another man let alone marrying another. And how can a beautiful girl in Ghana decide to marry another woman in our society? It is not mine to say at the moment and nobody can force the issue too much on Ghanaians now. But what government and the leadership of society can do is to start talking about it and begin to prepare the society to face the eventuality of homosexuality in the Ghanaian society.

It is going to be a very difficult decision but many societies have come to terms with it and have encouraged gays to come out of the closet. It will be better for us to face and address the issue honestly and compassionately in parliament, in the society including the media and our schools, and in the churches. We are all responsible for issues affecting our society and homosexuality in Ghana is becoming a big issue. This not the time for any ‘Holier-than-thou’ attitude from any sector of society including the churches. All over the world, the phenomenon has decimated many churches. The Pope and the Catholic Church as well as many other churches and religious organizations have come to terms with it and changing with the situation.

It should be noted that the fight for personal freedom including sexual liberation that has gripped the world affects sectors of societies such as gays. In Ghana, it is continuously becoming hard to imagine the intensity of sexual liberation that has gripped the world. Oppression is out.

Freedom is ours, and we have declared it with sex. Lesbianism or “supeeism” that is rampant in our schools and closeted in the affluent communities is going to come out strong and with it, will come homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender individuals. Pornography is not going to be hidden in the pages of magazines but will come to the internet cafés and on the screens in the theater near you. Censorship will last for only a short time and society will get rid of any measure that will impede people’s access to what they want to do and watch. Inevitably, homosexuality is going to come out of the shadows and develop its own contemporary institutions, for those who know where to look: web sites, internet chat rooms, private parties and special nights at clubs.

We are in a stage where, people want to be different, and there is a certain freedom in not playing by modern society’s rules of self-identification; in not having to explain yourself, or your sexuality, to anyone and we cannot do anything about it.

The second thing is to reclaim our traditional family heritage and rebuild our family support systems that served as a source of honor to members and future generations. The family is the greatest institution that can stand as the bulwark against the development of characters that are not approved by society. But due to the economic conditions and some shear irresponsibilities on the part of many Ghanaian men, too many families in our society are shattering.

Many men have abandoned their responsibilities to their wives and children. It is going to be difficult in a society where children drop out of schools or are forced to fend for themselves in urban centres, to discipline or help mold the character of children. It is going to be very difficult for mothers who solely depend upon remittance from the shoe-shine son or the hustling daughter or even the rich young executive or politician son to be able to restrict him from doing what he wants, when he wants and with whom he wants.

On Father’s Day, June 15th, 2008, Barack Obama, then only candidate for the U.S. presidential nomination, stood before a black congregation at a Chicago South Side church and delivered an important message that is very relevant to the Ghanaian society today.

He said: “Of all the rocks upon which, we build our lives, we are reminded today that family is the most important… But if we are honest with ourselves we’ll also admit that too many fathers are missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.”

In Ghana, these men are found only in the drinking bars and the second wife’s home and most often in the sport stadia shouting in support of their football teams. They only appear in the original homes to eat when second wife is sick or for sex. Men are needed in homes to help their children cultivate good characters that will be the only solution to blindly copying or acquiring certain behaviours that are not natural to them but which they are unable to resist due to peer pressure.

The churches can help by re-orienting their nature and programs. There should be concern for the physical being and his/her welfare than the concern for the soul. I don’t remember a single occasion in my church either during a special meeting by a group or during a sermon by the priest when normal health or economic issues of importance to the congregation were explained or discussed. To the churches, that is the responsibility of the government.

Issues that are discussed are those that will affect our souls and which can be redeemed by buying “anointings” with few hundreds of thousands or millions of cedis. Imagine what will happen if measles prevention is discussed with the immunization officer or AIDS prevention is discussed with the Public Health officer in the church.

Can’t we be a little less heavenly minded and begin to see that after all, we are on earth. Can’t we do something for the sinner apart from asking him to put his savings in a special offering plate to help pay for the pastor’s new luxury car?

In homosexuality, a genuine approach by the churches is to ask for government help to come out with a brochure to explain the phenomenon from ethical and medical points of view and to encourage open discussion at home on the topic. The churches can also start programs such as Homosexuality, AIDS, etc., ministries to throw light on all these sensitive issues and other major topics of public health importance. The church should consciously embark on activities that will help in prevention of HIV infection, AIDS disease and the management diseases and issues of social importance.

These programs should be pursued with honesty and should be devoid of any blame game if it is to succeed. This will help the congregation to deal with any situation bothering on homosexuality and it will help homosexuals to come out and seek help if need be. The church should come down to earth and help deal with many issues that society deems as taboo or a curse but which demands serious discussion and action. Using the church, the bible or Jesus as weapons against gays will keep us in the same place we have been for years, that is NOWHERE. Many religious organizations including the Catholic and Anglican churches have come to terms with it and are doing something about it.

To the government, I know it is a very sensitive issue that will not bring any votes if not handled well particularly with elections coming next year. So many people are going to negatively treat it and use it as campaign issue and they may be right. It is even more difficult for the general Ghanaian society to comprehend allowing something like this in our homes. I always wink when I am talking about it even in forums of my peers so I know how difficult it is to talk about it in the society. But this does not mean we should sweep it under the carpet. The government should start formulating realistic policies about homosexuality in Ghana. Hypocrisy will not work. So it is contradictory for the Deputy Minister of Information Mr. Samuel Okudzeto Ablakwa to say that the government will consider homosexuality as a human rights issue whiles it will reject rights activists who are fighting their cause. (Joy online, June 8th 2011).

Which is which? The government will prevent advocates to fight for something the government deems as human right issues?

The phenomenon has public health and other social implications that may end up affecting the whole society and the government should better sit up and face realities. It is the responsibility of the government to look ahead for solutions and not rely on womanizing advocates (like me) and moralizing preachers to seize the initiative on the topic.

It should also be noted by the public and particularly by the Gay community in Ghana that I am not calling for a flat-out, standing-on-the-tower affirmation from the society or the church that gay lifestyle, or the lifestyle of whoring around with men, is acceptable.

What I am concerned about as a public health officer is for the society to come out with realistic response to the phenomenon. We have dealt with other “taboos” such as prostitution and addictions in the past and we can handle homosexuality if we face it realistically and come together to do something about it that will stand the test of time.

Thank you and please don’t crucify me yet. I am already on my way to Awudome.

Credit: Kwame Yeboah
Harding University College of Pharmacy
Searcy, Arkansas. USA.