In Ghana, the colour red is a strong symbol. Meaning solemnity, mourning, communal anger, violence, and a general sense of dissatisfaction, it’s also used to recognise moments of great loss and represent the feelings of those in protest. That’s why, on 31st March, members of LGBT Rights Ghana (LRG) hosted an online campaign, using the colour red on their profile pictures and encouraging others to follow suit.
The online event – known as the #GhanaGetsBetter campaign – was a response to the violence that queer people have faced since the LRG was forced to close its recently opened resource centre, following condemnation from religious bodies, legislators and politicians.
Opened in January, the centre had been created to serve as a physical space for members of LRG, who had mostly conducted their human rights and community building work online. It had been intended to help queer Ghanaians, who are already facing undocumented and poorly addressed violence, gain access to resources and legal protection.
“We had so much hope for our new safe space,” says Suhaidatu Dramani, the Programs Head at LRG. “To finally arrive at a place where the community can gather and stop in any time, read a book, have a workshop, host fashion shows, and organise was great because it was nonexistent before now.”
In the weeks following the centre’s opening, queer people in Ghana were hounded by the press, and verbally abused by politicians and religious bodies. This pressure eventually resulted in the forceful closure of the LRG centre on 24th February. Since then, LGBTQ+ people in Ghana have feared for their lives, enduring various forms of violence both online and in physical spaces.
“Right now, the atmosphere is terrifying and tense,” Dramani says. “As a queer person existing in Ghana, the norm has always been to avoid the limelight and stay in the shadows as much as possible. Now, to have so much negative attention being drawn to us – especially from people we live with, family members, employers and people we interact with daily – it’s very scary, because there seems to be a hunt for queer folks in Ghana.”
Although homosexuality is not explicitly criminalised in Ghana, “Unnatural Carnal Knowledge” – defined as “sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner or with an animal” – is illegal and can often be used as the framework for institutionalised homophobia. Ghanaian legislators have also begun deliberation on a bill that will “ban the advocacy and act of homosexuality in all its current and future forms.” On the 21st March, the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values organised a national prayer session with other influential Christian bodies to pray against LGBTQ+ people in Ghana.
The impact of these actions has been felt across the community. The day after Ghana’s President, Nana Akufo-Addo, stated he would not legalise same-sex marriage under his administration, a queer person was harassed.
“She was on her way to town and some military personnel stopped her, harassed her, and asked her to go back home and dress like her perceived gender,” Tracy Naa Kwaaley Owoo, the Deputy Programs Head at LRG, explains (it is worth pointing out that, as of right now, queer people in Ghana are not asking for same-sex marriage to be legalised – merely that their basic human rights to safety and privacy are protected by the state). A day before the #GhanaGetsBetter campaign, at least 22 people were forcefully arrested at an event the authorities claimed was a “lesbian wedding”. Attendees insist it was a birthday party.
It’s why, say the LRG, the #GhanaGetsBetter campaign was so necessary. Participants were encouraged to engage with the conversations hosted on LRG’s Twitter account, create burner accounts to avoid being targeted (although many profiles were still hit with threats “to find and attack them for speaking out”), and tweet their thoughts using the campaign’s hashtag.
“We usually host an event called ‘Here and Beyond’ at LRG,” says Owoo. “Normally, it would be a small conversation amongst members of LRG, but for March, we decided to make it an online campaign instead. Since the state has taken over our space, we’ve been forced into hiding and haven’t been able to say or do much, so we decided it was time to take some power back online.”
The campaign went on to receive support from influential figures like Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, a British political activist and the co-founder of UK Black pride, and Reverend Jide Macaulay, a British-Nigerian queer clergy and CEO of House Of Rainbow. It also amassed overwhelming support from queer people in neighbouring African countries, with the #GhanaGetsBetter and #QueerGhanaianLivesMatter hashtags trended on Twitter for 24 hours.
It was a huge success in terms of spreading awareness. “Knowing that there are several people, including Ghanaians, who support LGBT rights in Ghana has been empowering,” says Godfried Asante, a representative of Silent Majority, another organisation that has been fighting for queer Ghanaians and was a strong part of the online campaign. “Growing up, we didn’t have any virtual activism or international collaborations, so being part of a growing global campaign against anti-LGBT violence and hate has been refreshing.”
Dramani is hoping that the international community can apply pressure and compel the Ghanaian government to respect the terms of existing policies that protect the LGBTQ+ community’s rights.
“Ghana has signed different treaties that abide by certain basic human rights that are also entrenched in our constitution, which members of parliament are trying to erode,” he says. “We are fighting such enormous, influential powers that if we don’t get the necessary support in terms of capacity building and amplification, we might not get what we need.”
Having received support from African countries that have repealed anti-LGBTQ+ laws, queer people in Ghana hope that the nation will look to those countries as an example of what it means to respect the rights of minorities.
“We hope that these countries will dialogue with the Ghanaian government and say, ‘See, we’ve abolished laws that harm queer people and we’re fine,’” continues Suhaidatu Dramani. “That would hit home more than looking to countries in the West.”
As things are now, Dramani and organisations such as LRG and Silent Majority are focusing on doing what they can to care for their members and provide comfort in these trying times.
“We’re finding ways to channel our fears and anger into action.”