The recent closure of an LGBTQ+ community centre in Ghana has raised questions within the international community about the seemingly innate nature of homophobic attitudes that exist across the African continent and what can be done to change this. However, the former Western colonial powers that are posing this question are largely the ones who created these problems in the first place.
The centre, which was founded with the intention of creating a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community in Ghana, had only been open for a month before it was raided by security forces and promptly shut down in late February. This caused much outcry from the international community, who had been largely in favour of the centre and its mission. In fact, many notable delegations of the European Union and other foreign embassies had attended its opening ceremony in January. Despite this international support, the centre had faced local opposition from the Christian majority who demanded it be shut down for encouraging such illegal and immoral behaviour.
Unfortunately, the short-lived nature of the centre was not unexpected. Founder Alex Kofi Donkon expressed on social media that they anticipated the closure and will overcome the current backlash. Despite this optimistic message, Donkin also expressed concerns about his safety, highlighting the bigger issues many members of the LGBTQ+ community face across the African continent.
Out of the 72 countries which currently criminalize homosexuality, 32 are in Africa. Punishments for breaking these laws range anywhere from fines to lengthy prison sentences and even the death penalty in Mauritania and Sudan. While backlash from the international community means a lot of these laws aren’t outwardly enforced, the stigma attached to them gives justification for homophobic behaviour as the law paints members of the LGBTQ+ community as criminals and encourages them to be treated as such.
Human rights watch reports dozens of accounts of violence and discrimination directed toward LGBTQ+ individuals throughout Ghana. In one prominent case in 2016, a mother organized a mob to beat up her own daughter because she suspected she was in a same-sex relationship with a neighbouring girl. In Cameroon in 2018, 25 gay men were arrested because they had committed offences including “lack of a [national identity card], possession of narcotics and, [most notably], homosexuality.” This list could continue on and on and, unfortunately, the main offenders rarely face any consequences. A report in Kenya finding police responses to violence against members of the LGBTQ community are “indifferent at best.”
While there has been greater outcry from Western countries surrounding these discriminatory laws and practices, African countries are still struggling to overcome the innate societal bias towards members of the LGBQT+ community. Unfortunately, much of this bias is further perpetuated by the state’s own leaders. In 2018, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta notably stated that gay rights were of “no importance” to Kenya.
This leads us to the question: why is homosexuality still taboo in so many African countries?
The answers lies in the lingering effects of British colonialism. Starting in the 1860s, the British empire spread a very specific set of legal codes and common laws across their many different colonies. Given the large presence of Christian missionaries within these, many of these laws come with penal codes prohibiting male-to-male relations under the guise of modernizing native customs.
As these colonies gained independence many of these laws were simply left in place and institutionalized into the modern government and societal systems we see today. Of the 72 countries which still have laws criminalizing homosexuality, 38 of them were at one point subject to some kind of British rule.
Ironically, however, many of the current laws are not reflective of the perspectives on sexuality that were in place before British arrival. Historians point out that across the African continent there was a completely different attitude toward sexual and gender identities that were not reflected in the gender binaries which were recognized by European colonizers. An excavated tomb from sometime between 2380 to 2320 BC was found to continue two men’s bodies embracing each other with additional tomb art depicting the pair holding hands and nose-kissing. While some theorize that the two were twins, a more popular theory is that the two were gay partners given the embrace which conveys a more sexual relationship.
Similarly, anthropologist Barry Hewlett, who has been studying the Aka and Ngandu people of central Africa for years, noted that “the gender egalitarianism among the Aka is about as pronounced as human societies get”. This introduces the potential for another conversation regarding gender norms as they currently exist across the African continent.
The current restrictions on both the rights and protections of the LGBTQ+ community as seen with the closing of the centre in Ghana only contribute to a climate of intolerance and enforces colonial-era ideas on the norms of sexuality. Although societal change is a slow process, many activists have hope for the future. South Africa legalized same-sex marriage in 2006. While it still remains the only African country to do so, numerous countries including Angola and Botswana have introduced legislation decriminalizing same-sex relationships in recent years. Additionally, President Biden recently threatened sanctions against countries that suppress gay rights and many other departments are working toward the promotion of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people everywhere.
Just as the criminalization of such norms spurred a societal change on perspectives toward sexuality in the late 1880s, it will take the decriminalization of such actions to see any change in the future. This may seem like a small step, but it provides hope for a much brighter future.
Edited by Mahnoor Ali Syed
Photo credits: “A rainbow flag in Cologne, Germany.” by Tim Bieler (@timbieler), published on December 18, 2020, licensed under Unsplash. No changes were made.
Emily is in her third year at McGill University majoring in Political science with minors in social entrepreneurship and international development.