How Institutionalized Homophobia Silences Dissent in Ghana and What We Can Do About It

The following is a guest blog post by Anima Adjepong, author of Afropolitan Projects: Redefining Blackness, Sexualities, and Culture from Houston to Accra. Beyond simplistic binaries of “the dark continent” or “Africa rising,” Africans at home and abroad articulate their identities through their quotidian practices and cultural politics. Amongst the privileged classes, these articulations can be characterized as Afropolitan projects–cultural, political, and aesthetic expressions of global belonging rooted in African ideals. This ethnographic study examines the Afropolitan projects of Ghanaians living in two cosmopolitan cities: Houston, Texas, and Accra, Ghana. Anima Adjepong’s focus shifts between the cities, exploring contests around national and pan-African cultural politics, race, class, sexuality, and religion.

Currently, Ghana’s parliament is debating an odious bill to further suppress its queer population and silence advocacy around LGBTQI rights and organizing. One of the primary justifications from supporters of this bill is that “the majority of Ghanaians” agree with its terms. This claim cannot be supported because the climate of terror in Ghana makes it difficult to express dissenting views. To publicly hold the perspective that queer Ghanaian lives matter is to speak out against the status quo and thus expose oneself to censure and violence. This violence comes from an emboldened cohort supported by the church, state, and conservative media. A few recent examples of outrage against allies who have dared to speak out illuminate my point that the dominant discourse about queer life in Ghana is characterized by the fear of sanction. 

            In March 2021, renowned Ghanaian footballer Michael Essien posted an Instagram message of support for LGBTQI Ghanaians. The message followed on the heels of a letter signed by other Black celebrities in the United Kingdom and Europe in solidarity with queer Ghanaians after police closed down their community center. In Ghana, footballers are held in high regard and such a message of support seemed like a very big deal. Yet, within only a few hours of the Instagram post going live, Essien was roundly abused by fans to the extent that he backed down, removing the post and affirming his heterosexuality a few days later. Despite being a highly respected person in Ghanaian cultural politics, in the face of severe backlash, he could not stand by a simple statement of solidarity. He retreated and changed his public stance from one of support to silence and distancing. 

A black and white image from photographer Eric Gyamfi entitled "Untitled". The image is of a gathering of people in a street in Ghana.
“untitled,” by Eric Gyamfi

In August 2021, Mrs. Araba Forson, made a video speaking out against the sustained violence that queer and trans Ghanaians face. Forson framed her message to “all mothers who have children like [her daughter, Angel Maxine].” Maxine is a transgender woman who uses her platform as a musician to speak out in support of queer and trans Ghanaians. Forson’s message was rare in Ghana – a mother making a very public statement of support for her queer daughter. I sent this video to my mother, interested to hear her reaction. Despite agreeing with Forson, my mother also shared concerns about what speaking out in this fashion might mean. As she put it, they will beat us and then afterwards, they will banish us. Because she was speaking in Twi, my mother had to explain banished to me. She described people being taken out to the edge of a forest and abandoned there, expelled from the community. Who would do this, I asked? “Our same church people,” was her response. In other words, my mother articulated a silence shaped by the fear of rejection from those she considered her community. Despite holding a dissenting view on this topic, her public response would likely be silence or acquiescence to the perspective of the church and state, for fear of retribution. 

In October 2021, a group of lawyers and professors wrote a memo rejecting the anti-LGBTQI bill in Ghana’s parliament. In response, they have been roundly criticized in the media, and their knowledge and expertise questioned. The drafters of this memo include longstanding scholars and activists who have experience expressing and advocating unpopular opinions including feminism and anti-neocolonialism. As such, they were well prepared for the attacks against them when they spoke out. Yet under the conditions described, who is brave enough to risk being banished? Who can withstand the vitriolic levels of harassment that outspoken individuals and collectives face? 

Most Ghanaians do not have a long history of advocacy, the social privilege to brush off public censure, or the courage to advocate dissenting views. The fear of violence (that they will be beaten) and social rejection (banishment) acts as a powerful form of social control. This fear leaves many people too afraid to challenge the church, the state, or the media. Without a safe space to freely express how they feel about their queer kin and compatriots, Ghanaians will remain trapped by claims about what the majority think. In this way, Ghanaians are coerced into complicity with the church and state to enact violence on their compatriots, regardless of how they might actually feel. 

In Afropolitan Projects, I show a disconnect between a dominant homophobic discourse and more generous private expressions of support and community. This disconnect contradicts claims about what the majority of Ghanaians think and instead demonstrates the force of social control and silencing. Within this contradiction is an opportunity for collective organizing and political education, which can challenge the repressive climate. For all those who fear being beaten and banished from the national, religious, or cultural community, recognizing our collectivity means recognizing a shared power in fighting back. Recognizing our collectivity also means embracing avenues for creating alternative community, even in banishment.

Anima Adjepong is assistant professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Cincinnati.