Gay rights have been pushed to the forefront in Accra after a group of young men, allegedly armed with canes, cutlasses, stones and broken bottles attacked party-goers in the neighbourhood of James Town on Sunday, March 11.
“They beat some of our lady friends who were not able to run,” says Hillary, a 27 year-old gay man who uses the alias to protect his identity. “They beat them, took their phones and money and striped them naked.”
Hillary and his friends took refuge with a local NGO called FIDA and Accra’s Domestic Violence and Victim Support Unit.
The Ga-Mashie Youth for Change, the group that crashed the party, claims the gathering was really a wedding ceremony between two women. “We invaded the place with the intention of stopping them but did not to hurt anyone or beat them,” says Daniel Wettey, coordinator with the youth group. “We want to register our feelings against [homosexuality].”
But Hillary and other gay members of the community have left the neighbourhood fearing for their lives.
In Ghana religion, especially Christianity and Islam, dominate the social discourse. As in most African countries, homosexuality is a taboo frowned upon by most and strongly opposed by others.
In November 2011, Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, said he would never support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in the country. He was responding to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s promise to cut foreign aid to countries that do no respect gay rights.
Under Ghana’s laws homosexual acts are illegal if they are performed “in public or with a minor.” The country’s criminal code uses vague language when it refers to sexual misdemeanors. It reads: “Whoever is guilty of unnatural carnal knowledge— (a) of any person without his consent, is guilty of first degree felony; (b) of any person with his consent, or of any animal, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”
While Ghana’s constitution protects a person’s human rights “whatever his race, place of origin, political opinion, colour, religion, creed or gender,” it makes no mention of sexual orientation.
Nana Oye Lithur, executive director of Ghana’s Human Rights Advocacy Centre, says she was surprised when she first heard about the attack in James Town. “We have three generations of gays and lesbians in that community,” she says.
Hillary says the Human Rights Advocacy Centre was one of the few human rights groups in Accra that stood up for him and his friends after the attack.
Lithur filed a complaint with the police, but says they have been slow to respond. A police investigator told her he wanted to engage with the community before pressing any charges. She also approached the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice; an independent body set up by Ghana’s government to protect human rights, but was turned away. “They said they were in a meeting and that we should come back Monday,” she says.
“Why can’t the law protect us?” Hillary asks in frustration. “We are all Ghanaians and we all have rights that must be protected.”
Superstition has contributed to the prejudices against gay people in James Town. “[Homosexuality] isn’t something good,” says Comfort Quartey, a 32 year-old resident of the neighbourhood who says she was once a lesbian. “It draws people back and it gives bad luck. When something good is coming your way it hinders it.”
Hillary disagrees. “They can’t tell us that we are bringing bad luck,” he says. “What about those sleeping with other people’s wife? Are they bringing good luck to the community? Are we the ones who tell them to impregnate people? They should stop putting the blame on us and they should wake up from their slumbers and get themselves busy with something. We work for our money so they should also get up and go and find themselves something to do.”
The Ga-Mashie Youth for Change sent a petition to James Town’s police commander to go on a demonstration against “sodomy and lesbianism” in the community. The petition reads in part: “With the recent trends of sodomy and lesbianism eating into the moral fiber of the Ga Mashie community, we the youth for change in the community wishes [sic] to create awareness of immorality of such acts and demonstrate peacefully against such acts throughout the Principal Street of the Ga-Mashie community.”
The protest is planned for Friday March 30 at Mantse Agbonaa Park in Accra.
Lithur says Ghana’s institutions need to take a stand to protect the rights of homosexuals. “Government needs to reduce homophobia,” she says. “It is not about legalizing homosexuality. I believe it’s about understanding issues related to homosexuality. Whether we like it or not we have homosexuals living in Ghana.”