Accra is asleep at 10 pm on a Saturday night, but in and around the suburb of Adabraka, men are gathering at Strawberry, a well-known gay (homosexual) friendly nightspot. The men mingle discreetly, aware that if they are discovered they could face discrimination, blackmail, imprisonment and torture.
Ghana's criminal code, in sexual offences article 105, states that "whoever is guilty of unnatural carnal knowledge - (a) of any person without his consent, is guilty of first degree felony; or (b) of any person with his consent, or of any animal, is guilty of a misdemeanor." This law, a relic of repressive British sodomy laws, groups homosexuality with bestiality, assault and rape, and brings a minimum misdemeanor charge for gay activity.
The Acting Commissioner for Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) , Mrs. Anna Bossman, said the government should look at decriminalizing homosexuality. "Engaging in these practices is not currently legal. It may be said that this is a form of discrimination. Why would you criminalize actions between two consenting adults?" she asked.
Mrs. Bossman believes that the laws concerning homosexual rights in Ghana have not progressed.
"The more advanced societies just softened their laws on homosexuality, our laws are lagging behind," she said.
According to the International Gay and Lesbian Association, some gay men are abused while in prison. In 1993, a gay Ghanaian who was repeatedly a victim of violent harassment was awarded asylum in Britain. In 1994, London's Capital Gay, a publication for homosexuals, reported that a gay man from Ghana was granted interim asylum in South Africa, because of his claim that gays in Ghana were persecuted.
More recently, on August 8, 2003, four gay men were arrested for "indecent exposure" and "unlawful carnal knowledge." According to the government newspaper, the Daily Graphic, the men were arrested while picking up a package that customs officers determined contained photos of the men in "compromising homosexual acts."
The United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), in its preamble, recognizes the "equal and unalienable rights of all members of the human family." Article 2 of the UDHR entitles all people to the rights and freedoms, "without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion."
Article 5 states that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."
"Though there are general laws guaranteeing fundamental human rights in the society, they don't protect gays," said Mrs. Bossman.
Amnesty International (AI), in Decision 7 of its 1979 International Council Meeting, recognized that "the persecution of persons for their homosexuality is a violation of their fundamental rights."
According to Mrs. Bossman, it is not constitutional for homosexuals to be discriminated against because of their sexual preferences.
"If a complaint of that nature is brought to our outfit we would definitely deal with it," she said.
"If one is thrown out of his house for being gay then it's a clear violation of the person's basic human rights," she added.
A recent AI report stated that, "Governments around the world deploy an array of repressive laws and practices to deprive their lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (people who have undergone a sex change) citizens of their dignity and to deny them their basic human rights." The report goes on to state that lesbian and gay people are routinely imprisoned, tortured to extract confessions, raped, and executed by state death squads.
Mrs. Bossman said that among Ghanaians, homosexuality is taboo, thus making the issue of decriminalization very touchy.
"Most people, religious leaders and even judges, will probably say 'no way,'" she said.
Dr. Ken Attafuah, currently Executive Secretary of the National Reconciliation Commission, is one of the few high-profile public figures who has spoken in support of gay rights. "It should not be left to gays alone to fight for gay rights because we are talking about fundamental violations of justice," Dr. Attafuah said on a radio program two years ago. "You do not have to be a child to defend the rights of children," he added.
Mrs. Bossman agrees with Dr. Attafuah. "The point is that you may not be pro-gay but it doesn't mean that they should not be protected."
One gay man who has managed to live a happy life in Ghana is 36-year-old Nana Kwame, an educator.
"I would not say I'm full gay because I still have some orientation towards women," Nana said.
Nana is bisexual and was married for almost 17 years.
He is now divorced and has three children.
Nana realized his preference for men when he was in secondary school form four.
"When I went to the university in Cape Coast, I realized that it was not me alone who was gay, but that there were many other people," Nana said.
"I have not encountered any problems with the community or the law because I have a permanent partner that I have been living with for the past three years. The problem arises when people have to go hunting for partners, " he said Nevertheless, Nana feels that he must hide his lifestyle for fear of discrimination. "When someone in Ghana gets to know you are gay, his mindset changes. He looks at you as if you were evil."
Nana also admits that he is afraid of losing his job as an educator if he were to come out in the open. "I need to hide that part of me. I have been extra careful," he said.
Nana stressed that being gay or bisexual is not a choice.
"They think we are evil, but I think it is neither here nor there. If a child is born that way, it is not the fault of the child," he said.
Nana's family does not know he is gay, except for his younger sister. "My younger sister knows and accepts it.
She supports me," he said. "People who are gay in Ghana need to be given the freedom to do what they want, free from discrimination. They have a lot of scriptures to lambast you. It takes somebody with an open mind to accept you for who you are."
Another gay man, called Prince, 27 years old, is the founder of the Center for Popular Education and Human Development (CPEHD). Prince said the group started informally in 1995 with small meetings. They officially registered last year, with the mission of improving human rights awareness, gender sensitization, and issues that affect gay men, such as STIs, STDs and AIDS.
"We started by looking at the sexual health needs of gays and lesbians in Ghana," he said. The CPEHD recently conducted a survey on the health needs of gay men in Ghana. According to Prince, the survey helped to reveal some of the misconceptions among gays in Ghana. "The main problem we are looking at is HIV/AIDS. Some people think you won't get HIV/AIDS from gay sex," he said.
Like Nana Kwame, Prince does not wish to reveal his sexual orientation. "I don't say I'm gay, even in the media. I see it like you live all your life trying to gain acceptance from society. You have to live a different life and put up a different picture," he said.
According to Prince, gay men suffer "a lot of discrimination and abuse" in Ghana. "I was ejected from my room because of the male visitors, and because I wasn't interested in women," he said. "People take advantage of the illegality and they use it to blackmail people," he added.
In a recent 32-page report concerning homosexuality and human rights abuses in different African countries, Prince relates how he was lured by a man he met to visit his store the next day. When he arrived he found that the man had left, only to return with a group of men who beat Prince and robbed him of his mobile phone and wallet. According to Prince, the police refused to pursue the matter.
Prince said gays made easy victims for theft and blackmail because they were reluctant to go to the police. "People take advantage of the illegality and they use it to blackmail people," he said.
Like Mrs. Bossman, Prince agrees that changes need to be made in the current legislation. "South Africa has a clause in their constitution which legalizes homosexual acts. The Ghanaian Foreign Minister recently said, "we need to emulate South Africa when it comes to human rights. They don't think of sexual rights as being a human right also."
"Looking at our tradition, it is something that we see as an abomination and a taboo. Ghanaians are not interested in such behavior," said Dominic Jale, a Ghanaian journalist.
According to Prince, this is the prevailing attitude amongst most Ghanaians. But he disagrees that homosexuality is alien to Ghanaian and African cultures.
"Our research shows clearly that homosexuality did not come from the West. When you go deep into the villages, where it is dark, there are men having sex with men and they have never met a white man before," he said. "If you go to Jamestown and Bukom, where there are gay men who have never been with whites, clearly this is not true," he added. Nana Kwame agrees. "What pains me, they will tell you it is a foreign culture. But me, I did not know any white men when I started in my village," he said.
Mrs. Bossman also refutes the claim that homosexuality is a Western import. "Homosexuality expresses itself in different ways in different cultures," she said. "For example, in traditional Yoruba culture a man was permitted to marry a man, although perhaps not with the intention of having sex," she added.
Prince looks forward to a time when his support group could function in public, so that he could reach more people who needed help.
"The law is against it even though we are helping people. Society needs to accept that gay life is not learned, but from when you were born," he said.
According to Mrs. Bossman, change will be difficult, but it will come. "With the world movement for gay rights, we will probably be faced with a lobbying group soon. It will be an uphill task, but not impossible. It may come much faster than we think," she said.