In this video, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah talks about growing up gay in Ghana. The interview starts with Appiah, who is gay and lives with his American partner in New York City, reminiscing on what it was like to come out as gay in an evangelical Protestant family in Ghana. He also talks about the influence of American missionaries and media on how Ghanaians talk about sex and sexuality. Appiah, whose father was a Ghanaian independence figure and mother was a English novelist, partly grew up in Ghana and the UK. He lives and works in the United States. Watch the video.
Appiah has previously talked about culture and sexuality.
For example, in 2005, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Appiah responded to a question about “the trouble with culture” (the subject of a book he had just written):
‘The trouble that most worries me is that people make appeals to cultural difference to justify resisting just the sort of moral demands that I think everybody ought to recognize. Appeals to culture are often appeals that aim to squash individuals, to say to the Saudi woman who wants to participate in the management of her society as a citizen, ”No, it’s not our tradition, it’s not our culture.” That’s just something that stops her exercising what I take to be her individual right. We can have an argument about whether that’s OK, but it’s not an adequate defense to say, ”Well, it’s our culture.”
‘The problem is, there isn’t consensus in the very societies that we’re talking about. So maybe there are significant numbers of Saudi women who think [not being able to vote] is fine, but there are certainly some who don’t, and there are some Saudi men who don’t think it’s fine, either.’
In another interview to an American public radio show earlier this year, Appiah talked about social attitudes about gay rights,
‘I don’t really want to hang out with people who are homophobic, for example. But one of the most powerful reasons why America is less homophobic than it was when I came to it nearly 30 years ago is because lots of gay people came out and started talking to people who weren’t very comfortable around gay people, and suddenly those people discovered that you could be comfortable around gay people. Then they got angry that other people were not being nice to them. So there is a difficulty, I think, which is how do we create places where people who disagree about these things, which are important disagreements? You have to come together in what I call — I use the metaphor of conversation. And the point about conversation is that it doesn’t have a point …’
Later, he added:
‘You know, if you had told me when I first came to this country [the United States] in the early ’80s that a majority of people under the age of 25 in 2011 would think that — this includes conservative kids under the age of 25 — would think that it’s kind of self-evident that gay people who want to ought to be allowed to be married, I would have told you were out of your tree. I would have told you that you were crazy. And yet that’s what’s happened.’
The interviewer then pushed Appiah and asked about how he reconciled the attitudes of family members and friends, especially in Ghana, who “… on a level of principle, don’t approve of your sexual orientation.” Here’s Appiah’s response:
‘… you don’t have to go way out. I have an even Pentecostal sister. I can assure you that she doesn’t think that it’s OK. I mean, she loves me and she knows that God loves me, so she has to think about it against that background. But it doesn’t follow from that that she has to think it’s OK … Well, I think that growing up as I did between, you know, post-Colonial Ghana and Britain, growing up in a family which on one side had people who slaughtered sheep in order to deal with witchcraft and, on the other side, contained antireligious atheists who would have been very astonished to find that they were related by marriage to people who believed in witchcraft, what you learn is that, you know, you make up your own mind about these things. I know where I stand on all these questions. But you live perfectly happy with people who have different views about them. You know, there’s a very beautiful moment in the English original season — I think it’s the second season of Skins, this controversial thing about that adolescence … there’s a very moving moment when there’s a young gay, English kid — white English kid and a young Muslim English kid who’s of Pakistani origin and they’re best friends. The Pakistani kid who’s straight knows that his best friend is gay and he’s still his best friend. He’s having a birthday party, and the friend says to him, “I’m not coming in because you promised to tell your parents that I was gay and you haven’t done it and this is it. This is my ultimatum. I’m not coming in.” So he just stands outside.
‘Finally, the father comes out and says, “What are you doing outside?” He said, “I’m not coming in because — I’ve forgotten what his name is — but your son won’t tell you that I’m gay.” The man looks at him and says, “You know, Islam means a lot to me and when I go to mosque on Fridays, it’s one of the great moments in my week.” He said, “But I don’t understand everything. One thing I do understand is that you’re my son’s best friend, so please come in.” People do that all the time, right? He didn’t say it’s OK; he didn’t say Islam is wrong; he didn’t say Islam permits this. He said, “You’re my son’s best friend and you have to come to the party.” So I think in a way that’s about being — you know, a lot of politicians would say, “Well, that’s just a perfect example of arguing for unprincipled behavior” …’