Sun, Mar 28, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Coming out in Africa - or staying in

In Ghana, a culture of silence exists around same-sex love, and Europeans and Americans are sometimes accused of enticing the locals to break their contradictory taboos

By Pascal Zachary


The lead story in a recent issue of the Daily Graphic, Ghana's most influential newspaper, was designed to shock: "Four Gay Men Jailed." Homosexual acts are crimes in Ghana -- and across much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Uganda's leader, Yoweri Museveni, is vehemently opposed to homosexuality. So is Zimbabwe's embattled President Robert Mugabe. Namibia's President Sam Nujoma complains that the West wants to impose its decadent sexual values on Africa through the guise of gay tolerance.

Indeed, the global movement to fight discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS -- which first surfaced as a "gay disease" in the US -- has elicited little sympathy for homosexuals in sub-Saharan Africa. Only in South Africa have gays and lesbians won significant legal protections.

The arrests in Ghana, while typical of African bigotry towards gays, were all the more shocking because gays and lesbians actually thrive in Ghana's capital, Accra. A country of 20 million people, Ghana is unusually tolerant. Whites, Asians and Middle Easterners mix well. Ghana has never had a civil war -- a badge of honor in conflict-prone sub-Saharan Africa -- and three years ago staged a peaceful transfer of power from one elected government to another.

Although homosexuality remains taboo, gays seem safe. Physical attacks against them are rare. In Accra, a trendy street club named Strawberries is well known as a hangout for gays, and there are a few prominent, if still discreet, clubs where homosexual men and women gather. One gay man has his own television show, even though his sexual preferences are no secret.

Precisely because gays seem so accepted, the arrests sent a disturbing message. The paper that reported the story is owned by the government and sells more copies than all other newspapers combined. In the day following its original report, the Daily Graphic went further in showing its revulsion over gay activities by publishing a lead editorial that blamed Europeans and Americans for "all the reported cases of homosexuality" in Ghana.

The paper alleged that 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 supposedly mailed printouts to his Ghanaian friends.

I am neither gay, nor Ghanaian, but I have spent considerable time in Ghana and I reject the argument -- heard in other parts of Africa as well -- that Western notions of sexuality have perverted Africans. In my experiences, Africans simply have a moral blind spot on the subject of homosexuality.

Journalists seem especially ignorant. Last year I worked in Ghana as country director of Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian group that helps African journalists give voice to the voiceless in their society while raising awareness of human rights abuses. The editor of the Daily Graphic supported my organization, and I held training sessions for his newspaper's reporters and editors. The sessions resulted in stories that highlighted mistreatment of women and children and the failures of government agencies to deliver promised services. But when I complained about bias against gays, the editor responded that gays don't deserve any sort of protection.

Although this example may suggest that Africans are united against homosexuality, they are not; gay advocates are simply terrified of speaking out, frightened that their support will be interpreted as an admission that they are gay.

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