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In hiding, Ghana’s queer activists keep up the fight

Despite having to flee after the state raided their offices, members of LGBT+ Rights Ghana vow to continue to work for legal recognition in a country pushing for even more repressive laws.

From left, Mohammed Abdul-Wadud, Alex Kofi Donkor, David Larbi and Halil Mohammed of the queer rights organisation LGBT+ Rights Ghana pose for a photo in March 2020. They have been forced into hiding at a safe location in Accra. (Carl Collison photo courtesy of New Frame)

By Carl Collison / New Frame

More than two months after fleeing “unprecedented” threats of violence, members of the queer rights organisation LGBT+ Rights Ghana are still in hiding.

“It is very challenging. It takes a lot of toll,” says Alex Kofi Donkor, founder and director of the organisation. “The experiences of the past weeks haven’t been easy … I can only imagine what the others are going through. Because, personally, it was very heavy for me.”

On 24 February 2021, in an event that made international headlines, Ghanaian security forces raided and shut down the organisation’s newly opened offices – and a “safe space” for queer people.

Donkor, along with other leaders of the organisation, fled. More than two months later, the group are, for now, living at “a safe location” on the outskirts of Accra.

The location of Ghana in West Africa.

Speaking from the room he shares with another member of the organisation, Donkor says: “It’s difficult. But … activists all over the world have to sacrifice some form of life for the greater good. So, in a way, I comfort myself with the fact that it is for the greater good. It is just so that change can happen.”

The change they are looking to bring about is the repeal of Section 104 of the country’s Criminal Offences Act, a colonial-era law that punishes “unnatural carnal knowledge” by up to three years’ imprisonment.

For now though, and despite being in hiding, they are pushing ahead with their drive to be the first openly LGBTQIA+ organisation registered in the country.

Forced under the radar

A 2017 report compiled by organisations including Amnesty International, the Human Rights Advocacy Centre and Ghana’s Centre for Popular Education and Human Rights found that when public officials and religious leaders make homophobic statements and publicly support the criminalisation of same-sex sexual conduct, it “[perpetuates] societal prejudices against LGBTIQ individuals” in Ghana. This, in turn, encourages more hate speech and hate crimes “by both state and non-state actors”.

“The social climate is such [that] individuals keep their gender identity almost completely hidden. Additionally, those who speak out about human rights violations perpetrated against people that are LGBTIQ are also targets of homophobia,” the report said.

Organisations across the country working on LGBTQIA+ issues register themselves largely as “human rights” or “health-focused” organisations because members fear for their safety.

A little more than a year ago, members of LGBT+ Rights Ghana spoke with confidence about their determination to be Ghana’s first officially registered, openly LGBTQIA+ organisation. Speaking then in a home in Accra used as their office, LGBT+ Rights Ghana member David Larbi said:

“The reason we formed this movement is we felt that the kind of force and activism that needs to be done for our liberation is not being done … For 20 years there is nothing to show. So we decided we are done with this backdoor approach to activism. When you go to our website, our pictures and everything are there. We are putting a face to this advocacy and activism, because over the years there has not been a face [to queer activism].

“Always people [stay] behind closed doors. But we want to put a face to it. Because people are saying, ‘Okay, so you want your rights respected, but who are these people fighting for those rights?’ We want people to know what is going on.

“We don’t want to hide. We don’t hide.”

The police raid and the public’s “hateful reaction”, however, left the group with little choice but to go into hiding.

Supporters of LGBT+ Rights Ghana celebrated the opening of the organisation’s new office and safe space shortly before it was raided on Feb. 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of LGBT+ Rights Ghana via Twitter)

Currently, we have mixed feelings,” says Donkor. “The mixed feelings are a result of concerns, mostly about security. The fact that our images were paraded out there [in the media], with very negative and violent rhetoric attached to the images … So, like, we currently do not know if people are going to act on those negative narratives.”

Fighting for legal recognition

The raid and vitriol directed at the group garnered them international support. Human rights organsations condemned the state’s actions, 70 influential people of Ghanaian heritage (including Idris Elba) signed an open letter supporting them and Boy George announced the release of a song supporting queer Ghanaians.

“For us, it was so heartwarming to know that all these powerful people are supporting us,” says Donkor. “At the time, we were very much disturbed … so to see all of them support us in that manner was simply heartwarming. Around that time, even the activities we were doing, we put them on a halt, so it was heartwarming to see that there were people speaking up for us even though we were silent. We were happy to know that we are not in this fight alone.”

But support from within Ghana, even from queer rights advocates, was more mixed.

Yao Boakye (not his real name), who chose not to be identified “because of everything that is happening”, is the executive director of a Cape Coast organisation that focuses on the “wellness and well-being of LGBT individuals, especially the less privileged”.

Boakye says: “When I first heard about the safe space [LGBT+ Rights Ghana had opened] I was very happy. My organisation was even invited [to attend the opening] but because of the distance, I could not attend. I was excited about it. But when it was published on social media, I was very disappointed. If you call a place a safe space, it should be a safe space. You shouldn’t advertise it on social media. We live in a country where homophobia is so high. So the moment you come out flaunting this in the public domain, it is no more a safe space because you are attracting mob justice and other things. I was not surprised at all when they went into hiding. Because the country as a whole is not ready.”

Yao Boakye (pseudonym), who heads an organisation focused on the wellbeing of LGBTQIA+ individuals, has mixed feelings about the strategies of LGBT+ Rights Ghana.(Carl Collison photo courtesy of New Frame)

But Boakye adds that the organisation’s push for legal recognition is a move in the right direction. “It is a good step up, because they are testing the law. Even though there might be backlash, I think it is the right time, because we cannot be in hiding. It is time this happened.”

For Donkor, the push for legal recognition will “continue the conversation” around queer rights in the country.

“We will … be addressing the issue not from the public discourse angle but from a legal angle. So in as much as people are going to talk about it, we believe that approaching it from the legal angle shifts the narrative to one that doesn’t give so much room for homophobes. They can say whatever they want to say, but at the end of the day we are hoping that the law will take its course and speak positively to human rights issues in Ghana.”

Criminalising homosexuality

The organisation will have their work cut out for them – especially if a proposed law, which hopes to outlaw queer rights activism “in all its current and future forms”, gets the green light.

Taking to his Facebook page to announce the proposed bill, Ghanaian MP Samuel Nartey George wrote: “We took our ‘fight’ to uphold our traditions, culture and religious beliefs to the next level. Together with seven other colleagues from both sides of the aisle, I presented a statement on the growing advocacy for homosexual rights in Ghana. We have taken a stance and announced our intention to present a Private Members Bill to expressly criminalise and ban the advocacy and act of homosexuality in all its current and future forms. The proposed bill would strengthen and augment existing legislation on the subject.”

Donkor sees the move as “barbaric”. “It is going to push us back as a democratic country,” he says. “As a matter of urgency, the international community should begin to look at Ghana and speak on this issue and make sure this law isn’t passed. Because once it is passed, it will derail or push back our democracy as a country … It is something that should be discouraged as soon as possible, so that it doesn’t develop into something that will harm all of us as Ghanaians.”

But how best to avoid harm to themselves is foremost on their minds. “Our security is a very real concern. And it is very relevant in all of these things, right? So, as much as we are doing all these things, we are also thinking about the best way that we can do this without compromising our security. This is something we continuously explore. It looks difficult at the moment, but … we don’t want to [focus] so much on the difficulties. Currently, it is very hard and very difficult, yes. But we believe that we still need to push. We still need to forge ahead and make sure that we continue to do the work we are doing … We still want to cause change.”

This article is republished here with permission from New Frame, a not-for-profit, social justice publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa. The article originally appeared there on May 4, 2021, with the same headline: “In hiding, Ghana’s queer activists keep up the fight”.