Feature Article of Friday, 8 June 2007

Columnist: Simpa, K.

Homosexuality- The Last Ghanaian Taboo?

Over the past few weeks, the subject of homosexuality in modern Ghana has come up on a number of occasions on this forum. Judging by the level and nature of the replies to the various articles on this subject, one thing is apparent: a vast number of Ghanaians are fiercely intolerant of homosexuality. Whilst some shrilly advocate the killing or imprisonment of homosexuals, others decry it as a western import that has festered our pure culture, comparing it with bestiality or paedophilia. A typical posting on the subject attracts about 200 replies on average- almost all of them dripping with venom.

Well, I have bad news for the rabble-rousers which may cause their blood pressure to soar. Lady Pandora is already out of the box, and maybe these people need a trip home for a guided tour. It is common knowledge that there are a number of bars in Accra and Kumasi (they shall remain anonymous) that are in effect gay bars, where gay men meet and socialise every weekend. Yet you do not have the police, or indeed irate, passionate mobs descending on these places armed with petrol bombs and threatening to burn the establishments down unless these men started sleeping with women. There are a number of known gay people (both married and single) who are known in their vicinity and who have not been carted off to our prisons to ‘teach them a lesson.’ There are many men whose family and friends know them to be homosexuals, and yet who are fiercely protective of them. A number of hotels allow two men to share a double bed overnight, so long as they are getting their money. They know what goes on in most cases but they see themselves as hard-nosed businessmen, not morality policemen. There is a sizeable, closely-knit gay community in Ghana that includes some very highly placed people in Ghanaian society from across all walks of life. Gay men have featured on some radio talk shows to discuss their sexuality. I believe the lid is coming off slowly on what once was at best the subject of furtive whispers.

Of course, attitudes here in Ghana towards homosexuals are not warm and cosy-far from it. There is a lot of hatred and dislike for homosexuals, just as there is all over the world. But in Ghana it does not translate into physical violence or state persecution (unlike, say Jamaica which paradoxically has a lot of gay men). Over here the reaction is more of humiliation, disdain and ridicule. On the occasions when the police get involved, it is usually to extract a bribe on pain of public exposure and embarrassment rather than a genuine desire to uphold the law.

There is a dangerous untruth that says that homosexuality is a western import. It is not, and I write from personal experience. Homosexuality has always been with us and will continue to be with us. What I am prepared to accept, however, is that European influence and attitudes as they stand now have made some gay Africans more assertive, confident and comfortable about their sexuality, even though many still remain deep in the closet and lead shockingly double lives. Almost all the gay Ghanaian friends in my circle had their first experience in boarding school during their secondary school days, with no gay western face or magazine or movie in sight. When I was growing up in Ghana in the late seventies, homosexuality was common but very discreet. It was, to use Oscar Wilde’s phrase, ‘the love that dared not speak its name’. You just got on with the deed when you were lucky to meet someone of a similar persuasion. You did not talk about it or discuss your feelings. There was hardly any opportunity to meet anyone of similar mind after school, and so the feelings lurked and simmered below the surface long after you have married and had your own children.

How things have changed. With the advent of the Internet, increased international travel, rapid urbanisation, human rights awareness, education and other factors, many Ghanaians in general have become more assertive and demanding of what they believe to be their right. And this inevitably includes gay Ghanaians. Technology has played its part, no doubt. Nowadays, the young gay man in Accra who is struggling with his feelings of sexual attraction towards men only has to pop down to one of the many Internet cafes all over the city. If he knows how to use google.com to get results, he is guaranteed to meet other gay men in other parts of Accra online and take it from there. That is the reality of Ghana today.

The western individualistic‘ it’s none of your business’ mentality is slowly gaining root. It is in this wave that divorce, single parenthood, feminism, gay assertiveness and other non-traditional perceptions have found a new dimension. We are hardly the communalistic societies that we used to be. The only places where you see communalism are the poorer ghettoes and in the villages. In East Legon or Dzorwulu with its walled houses and security gates, these communities have assumed a distinctly western sheen, where privacy is of utmost importance to residents and you can’s just turn up at your neighbour’s house to borrow salt or pepper because you have run out.

Currently, a single mother does not attract the level of stigma she used to attract in Ghana. Young ladies dressed in tight, revealing clothes invite amused amazement and mild teasing rather than a call for ‘Taleban-esque’ zeal to arrest or stone them for ‘immoral’ dressing. Young men walk around with their trousers halfway down their buttocks, with their rather unsavoury underwear hanging out for all to see, and no one bats an eyelid anymore. I have heard of a new porn movie starring only Ghanaians. As with most things, after the initial shock value and screeching, people tend to shrug their shoulders and move on.

So is homosexuality the last Ghanaian taboo? What will attitudes in Ghana be like in 50 or 100 years? To me, the mere fact that it is a matter of intense discussion among Ghanaians on this forum means the first stage of taboo-breaking has already been dealt with, even if the views expressed here are largely of the negative persuasion. The Ghanaian anti-gay brigade living abroad may be pounding furiously on their keyboards in vitriolic rage now as they hark back to a so-called golden age, when no African man presumably slept with another man and Europeans had supposedly not ‘infested ‘ the continent with their ‘nasty’ sexual habits. But how will their children (who live with them in the west) feel about it all when they grow up? Clearly their values will be different, and even if they themselves are not gay, they are more likely to be accommodating of gay people, for they will be taught in the schools and in the workplaces of these countries that gay people, like all human beings, are deserving of respect and not prejudice or abuse and are fully protected by law. And they will influence societal attitudes in Ghana one way or the other when they grow up. That is reality.

The current law deemed to cover homosexual acts between men [it makes ‘unnatural’ sex acts criminal] is in fact an ambiguous and confusing one and therefore a bad law. Strictly speaking, this law would rein in the use of condoms and oral sex between heterosexual couples. I cannot see how our politicians will have the balls to scrap it. I believe this law will simply slip into further oblivion and be completely toothless, whilst people get on with their business.

Of course, there will always be those that whip out their bible and use it to thump homosexuals justifying why it should remain a crime. Leviticus 18:20 is the favourite quotation. Fair enough. But no one mentions Leviticus 20:10 which clearly prescribes the death penalty for adultery. Should adultery therefore be made a capital offence? And why not? At least there is no penalty in for sodomy-the bible simply states it is an ‘abomination’. Fornication is also sternly rebuked in Ephesians 5:3. Now he who is without sin…

I believe we should be careful about ‘Talebanising’ our society, to the extent that religious belief (whether Christian or otherwise) becomes the sole basis of our legal system, for Ghana would then be a fundamentalist state and an intolerable place to live for all. The interesting fact anyway is that there are many church leaders, praise and worship leaders and choristers who are known to the gay community here in Ghana to enjoy more than just a frolic or two every now and then with men. The rank hypocrisy is simply breathtaking. Just cast your thoughts to the other side of Africa and consider how Rev. Canaan Banana, a married priest and former president of Zimbabwe, fell from grace after being convicted on several counts of sodomy.

Every society evolves and even in the western countries where homosexuality is accepted to an extent, they were big taboos at a point. In America, it took the Stonewall Riots of 1972 to bring gay issues to mainstream politics. In the UK, Oscar Wilde went to jail over 100 years ago for sodomy, and the whole business was only decriminalised following the Wolfenden Report in 1957. These changes in societal perceptions did not occur easily overnight and in isolation-a host of factors and developments influenced the change, including the increase in personal prosperity, decline in religion, urbanisation and awareness of and clamour for individual human rights.

It may take 50, 100 or even 150 years, but there is a tide that I think is slow and unstoppable and I say this not to sound triumphant but logical. As society becomes wealthier (hopefully) and religion correspondingly takes a less predominant hold on our society [poorer nations are more religious, for obvious reasons], I believe attitudes will change towards homosexuals in Ghana. To the militant religious/cultural zealots who promise nothing but hell and brimstone to be visited on gay Ghanaians, I am sorry to burst your dream, but you are rather late, for the horse has bolted. Welcome to the global village, with warts and all.

Now I must pause and get myself a cold beer arrange, myself properly on my chair and await the inevitable torrent of rambling, emotional, logic-free electronic abuse with near-sadistic anticipation.

By K. Simpa, Accra

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.