Ghana’s moral panic

Enough of the ignorance: LGBT+ rights are Ghanaian and human rights, not an attempt by Westerners to impose their values or culture.

Jonathan Chase, artist, work titled KISSIS 2013, acrylic on canvas

Jonathan Chase, "KISSIS." 2013, acrylic on canvas. Photo credit Trent Kelley on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The last few weeks have witnessed intensive homophobic rhetoric across the Ghanaian media landscape in response to news of a fundraising, office inauguration, and rights advocacy event by the Ghanaian LGBTQI+ community in January. The “dress rehearsal” for the current situation occurred in 2019, when the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values (comprising the Christian council, traditional leaders, the Catholic Bishops Conference, Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, Atta Mills Institute, Coalition of Muslim Organizations, and others) rose against proposals to include Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) in the Ghanaian school curriculum arguing that it was an attempt to promote LGBTQI+  rights in Ghana. The government buckled under the pressure and the proposals were dropped, but the scale of misconceptions peddled at the time and in the ongoing saga demonstrates the sore need for sexuality education and advocacy in Ghana.

Aspects of the commentary are based on the old chestnut that anything other than heterosexual relations and male / female identity is unnatural, seemingly completely oblivious to the abundant evidence of same-sex relations and intersex births from the dawn of history. Others swear to high heaven that LGBTQI+ are against Christianity, Islam, and other religions even as they themselves fornicate, lie, cheat, steal, and commit every sinful act forbidden by their religion. They cite passages such as Leviticus 18:22, but fail to give credible responses when asked whether we should also start stoning to death women who are found not to be virgins on their wedding night (Deuteronomy 22:13-30), or challenge women’s leadership in society, as commanded by 1 Timothy 2:12. There is also the no small matter that in a plural society one’s religious belief is a strictly personal matter and cannot serve as basis for how others should live. Isn’t this what supposedly sets us apart from Boko Haram, for example, whose followers believe that others should adhere to their religious standards or face death?

The fact that January’s LGBTQI+ event was attended by the ambassadors from Australia, the EU, and Denmark, is also presented as sure sign that rich, powerful Western nations are trying to impose LGBT+ ideology on Ghana. Yet, it is prohibitions against same-sex relations that are the Western imports. It was British colonizers who introduced anti-sodomy laws in the then Gold Coast. So, commentary casting same-sex relations as alien or foreign imports sadly reflect an ignorance of colonized history, not to mention traditional—relatively tolerant—attitudes toward difference, such as kwadwo besia (a male with stereotypical female features and behaviors) and obaa barima (a female with stereotypical male features and behaviors). The irony is deeper still because such rhetoric is also aligned with Christianity and Islam, religions that were used by colonizers and slaver traders to delegitimize indigenous Ghanaian worship forms, systems of marriage, family systems, and other culture. Furthermore, evangelical churches, conservative groups and other actors based in the US have spent at least $280 million around the world to influence policies and public opinion against sexual and reproductive rights. So much for the argument that LGBTQI+ advocates are rather being sponsored by the West.

The current situation is a classic example of a moral panic. The operative word here is irrational, for moral panics are often based on unfounded fears. They are usually created by those with influence or power, such as politicians, religious actors and the media, while those at the receiving end of the attacks can usually be found among relatively powerless and marginalized social groups.

Moral panic involves five key stages, all of which are evident in the ongoing anti-LGBT+ campaigns. First, the LGBTQI+ community is labeled deviant and as more threatening than COVID-19, for simply raising funds and opening a community space to offer protection and support to people vulnerable to rights violations. The second step is a classic case of give a dog a bad name and hang him. The LGBTQI+ community is portrayed in caricatured, exaggerated, and ludicrous ways to entrench fear and falsehoods. Third, these caricatured portrayals feed the incitement and public calls for action against the supposed threat. Stage four is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which those at the helm continue to amplify what they see as the problem and promote “remedial” measures. Notably, they beseeched the President to stand against gays, close offices, and criminalize LGBTQI+ advocacy, and target for dismissal those ambassadors supportive of LGBTQI+ rights.

In the fifth stage such pressure tends to result in achievement of the antagonists’ desired goals. On February 24, the police raided and shut down the LGBTQI+ office. This was followed by a declaration against same sex marriage by President Nana Afuko-Addo. Yet, the prohibition of “unnatural carnal knowledge” in the constitution notwithstanding, the legality or illegality of same sex relations in Ghana is not settled, as those with a much better grasp of the law have noted.

Today LGBTQI+ Ghanaians who openly declare their status potentially risk family and social ostracization, and even violence. But the march toward LGBTQI+ rights in Ghana is a movement whose time has come. Already, for the first time in the history of LGBTQI+ advocacy in Ghana, the community has received messages of support and solidarity from voices from diverse backgrounds. Such support will only increase as more people understand that one does not have to be gay or lesbian (or be a paid agent as suggested by some commentators) to get involved in LGBTQI+ rights. It is a simple matter of accepting the basic rights tenet that all humans are equal and must be treated with fairness and dignity regardless of their ethnic, religious, sexual, gender, and other identities. Such support is also fundamental to creating a just, open, and tolerant society.

About the Author

Sam Okyere is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies (SPAIS) at the University of Bristol. He specializes on issues of human rights, child rights and social justice.

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