23.11.2003 Feature Article

Ghanaian rule: Gays be silent

Ghanaian rule: Gays be silent
23.11.2003 LISTEN

...Discrimination is alive and well south of the Sahara Accra , Ghana -- The lead story in a recent issue of the Daily Graphic, the most influential newspaper in this West African nation, was designed to shock: "Four Gay Men Jailed." The crime committed by these anonymous Africans was homosexuality. The evidence against the men included their own photographs and confessions. Homosexual acts are crimes in Ghana -- and across much of sub-Saharan Africa. The great movement to fight discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS -- a movement which President Bush has joined by promising $15 billion in aid for Africa over the next five years -- has not elicited any sympathies for homosexuals in Ghana. As the BBC, the most cited English- language news source on Africa, recently reported, it remains "tough to be gay" south of the Sahara. In Ghana, a homosexual society thrives in the gray area between law and justice, which is why the recent arrests shocked both gay and straight. A country of 20 million people, Ghana is an unusually tolerant place. People of different religions, ethnic groups and races (there is a significant number of whites, Asians and Middle Easterners in the country) mix well. Ghana has never had a civil war: a badge of honor in conflict-prone sub-Saharan Africa. Three years ago, Ghana witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one popularly elected government to the next. Human rights are widely discussed, and increasingly taken seriously. There are major campaigns to promote the rights of women and children. Acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS has steadily grown. Homosexuality remains a taboo, but gays seem to be safe. Physical attacks against them are rare. In the capital city of Accra, a trendy street club named Strawberries is well-known as a gay hangout, and there are a few prominent, if still discreet, clubs where homosexual men and women party. One gay man even has his own television show, and while he is publicly in the closet his sexual preferences are no secret. Precisely because gays seem so accepted in Ghana, the sensational report on homosexual arrests in the Graphic -- it is owned by the government and sells more copies than all other newspapers combined -- sent a disturbing message. Even more worrisome was the newspaper's main editorial the following day, which blamed Europeans and Americans for "all the reported cases of homosexuality" in the country. The four African gays illustrated the problem, the newspaper insisted. The men had been enticed into such practices by a Norwegian, who gave them money and gifts in exchange for photos of them engaged in homosexual acts. The Norwegian posted the photos on the Web and, allegedly, mailed printouts to his Ghanaian friends. I am neither gay, nor Ghanaian, but I was a foreigner in Ghana and reject the argument -- heard in other parts of Africa as well -- that Western notions of sexuality have poisoned traditional practices. In my experiences, Africans simply have a moral blind spot on the subject of homosexuality. For the past six months I have worked in Ghana as country director of Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian outfit that helps African journalists give voice to the voiceless in their society while raising awareness of human rights abuses. The editor of the Graphic is a supporter of my organization, and I have held training sessions for his reporters and editors. The sessions have resulted in more stories that highlight mistreatment of women and children and the failures of government agencies to deliver promised services -- the entitlements of taxpayers. Yet the status of gays and lesbians seems to be an entirely different matter. When I complained to the editor about bias against gays, I added that perhaps I had failed to explain the concept of "civic journalism" and the role of rights for all in a just society. He disagreed. Gays don't deserve any sort of protection, he countered. Nor do they or their defenders deserve any right of reply. In the newspaper's stories, the accused men were not quoted; neither were their attorneys nor any defenders of gay rights. The implication, of course, is that Africans are united against homosexuality. But they are not; gay advocates are simply terrified of speaking out, frightened that their support of gays will be interpreted as an admission that they themselves are homosexual. Two years ago, the silence was broken briefly by Ken Attafuah, who directs Ghana's truth and reconciliation commission, charged with investigating rights violations during more than two decades of dictatorships. "It should not be left to gays alone to fight for gay rights because we are talking about fundamental violations of justice," Attafuah said on a radio program. "You do not have to be a child to defend the rights of children." The point is lost in Ghana, however. After the gay arrests, I spoke about media coverage of homosexuals at a graduate course in communications at the University of Ghana. No one objected to the coverage by the Daily Graphic. But no one denounced homosexuality either. Instead I received a short dissertation from one of the female students on how older married women often proposition her in clubs. Two other females said the same happens to them, that lesbianism is widely practiced and accepted, if publicly unacknowledged. The professor, a well-known feminist who is unmarried and about 40 years old, then interrupted the class to complain -- not about the views she was hearing, but about her failure to attract any lesbian lovers. "Why aren't these women propositioning me?" she asked. One female student shoos back, "At your age, you're supposed to be asking me to have sex with you!" Lesbianism is, of course, less threatening to the men who run Ghana than is male homosexuality. Yet men display an attraction to other men that is often dismissed as a show of camaraderie. At a recent traditional ceremony, in which a young child received a tribal name, the proud father and a half dozen male friends danced together before a large group. Their movements were sexually suggestive, and at times they touched, even held hands. I watched the festivities with one of my European friends, who happens to be gay, and he explained that such dancing is lauded -- so long as the contact between the men is left undefined. "Speak no evil," my friend advises. In Ghana and in much of Africa, a culture of silence exists around same- sex love -- a culture that many Americans, raised on a belief in rights and the need to "speak truth to power," find unacceptable. "In the closet," which would describe the lives of virtually every homosexual in Ghana, is meant as a term of derision. Yet "coming out" may not be a solution for everyone -- at least not everyone in sub-Saharan Africa. Americans should no longer be surprised that their notions of "hypocrisy" are viewed as quaint -- even wrong-headed. In many parts of the world, there is no solid line between good and evil, and notions of "right" and "wrong" collapse under irreconcilable tensions between tradition and modernity, the individual and the community. In Ghana, then, I am reminded why even American children are sometimes told that silence is golden. Under the cover of silence, Africans are finding space to express their sexual freedoms -- and without provoking the conflicts that a more vocal advocacy of homosexuality would surely yield. Culled From San Francisco Chronicle: G. Pascal Zachary lives in Berkeley and is the author of "The Diversity Advantage: Multicultural Identity in the New World Economy" (2003, Westview Press).

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