‘The day Ghana’s anti-LGBTQI+ bill is passed, I will be in jail’
The country’s only openly trans musician Angel Maxine speaks to gal-dem about the dangers of life under the proposed bill that would criminalise queer people and activists.
09 Jan 2023
Content warning: This article contains mention of violence, homophobia and transphobia.
When Ghanaian singer Angel Maxine released her music video for ‘Wo Fie’, she knew she couldn’t take it back – but that was the point. The video opens with the powerful words: “Ghana is colonially homophobic.”
‘Wo Fie’ meaning ‘your home’ in Twi, premiered in July 2021, a month after a hugely controversial bill criminalising queer people and those who support their rights was leaked online.
Maxine posted the video on YouTube, with a chilling warning that “you may soon be arrested for watching/sharing this video”. The message? Pointing out the hypocrisy that those promoting homophobia “have brothers that are gay, sisters who are gay, teachers who are gay”.
“I know that the day the bill is passed, I will be in jail”
Over the next 24 months, the soul of Ghana will be on the auction block as it considers introducing the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill, Africa’s most restrictive and archaic anti-LGBTQI+ bill, into law.
Since 2019, major players acting in and outside of Ghana’s political system have been pushing for this law that seeks to criminalise queer and gender-nonconforming expression, and eradicate any public advocacy of queer rights.
“I know that the day the bill is passed, I will be in jail for five years or more. That is the truth,” says Maxine, who is Ghana’s only openly transgender musician. “As I talk to you right now, I am being careful because I can be assassinated, framed to be put in jail.”
Before British colonial presence in Ghana, queer communities flourished in parts of the region. It wasn’t until the Offences against the Person Act of 1861, which criminalises same-sex acts, was adopted in all British colonies that the legislative presence of homophobia existed in Ghana.
Prior to the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill, the reality of being queer in Ghana was still one of stigmatisation, homophobia and transphobia. But even though same-sex relations were still illegal, this law as not always enforced. Larger cities like Accra even had LGBTQI+ community spaces that were an open secret. Maxine says the discrimination “felt more individual”, whereas now the whole community is under attack.
Once again, threats to Ghana’s queer communities are coming from outside forces. Back in 2019, a US ultra-conservative Christian organisation called World Congress of Families, hosted a conference in Accra. Self-described as a network that “seek[s] to restore the natural family as the fundamental social unit and the ‘seedbed’ of civil society”, the WFC has a large international influence on anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment and legislation in several countries. Their “presence in Africa has corresponded with a disturbing rise of harsh penalties for LGBT Africans in countries like Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria”, according to a report by the Human Rights Campaign from 2015. And in 2019, they began laying the groundwork for anti-LGBTQI+ legislation in Ghana.
The World Congress of Families’ influence has coincided with severe acts of violence against queer communities. Early in 2021, an LGBTQI+ centre in Accra was shut down after members received death threats and online abuse. The centre, meant to be a safe space for the community, was closed preemptively to protect its staff.
Then in May, in Ho, a region in south-eastern Ghana, police and security forces unlawfully raided a training workshop on documenting human rights violations against LGBTQI+ people. A series of human rights violations took place during the arrest of 21 people, including physical assault at the hands of the police, denial of bail and intimidation tactics. The charges were dropped amid increasing pressure due to insufficient evidence, but several of members of the Ho 21 have had their lives upended, going into hiding or fleeing the country.
By June 2021, violence against LGBTQI+ people at the hands of the police and general public was rising with little to no comment from officials. It was then that the bill first emerged online. Initially there seemed to be general support from Ghanaians who had been led to believe that homosexuality was not only a Western import, but also a threat to their socioeconomic stability.
The immediate impact of the threat of this bill has sparked an increase in homophobic attacks across the country. In August 2022, the director of LGBTQI+ rights group Rightify Ghana was kidnapped and beaten by homophobic vigilantes, who held him for a financial ransom.
“The bill hasn’t even been passed and you’re seeing more attacks on LGBT people online – imagine when it passes,” Maxine says. One of her biggest fears is that everyday Ghanaians “don’t know what they’re supporting”. The bill itself has not been translated into the Ghanaian languages which has created a vacuum of misinformation. Coupled with the fact that violent attacks on LGBTQI+ people are hardly investigated by the police, Maxine fears that the “bill gives them the right to kill and destroy LGBT people.”
The bill threatens imprisonment and so-called ‘conversion therapy’ for any Ghanaians identifying as queer or anyone who intends to date or marry a gender-queer person. It also introduces legislation that criminalises any advocacy for queer rights by “prohibit[ing] a person from engaging or participating in an activity that promotes, supports sympathy”. But perhaps the most dangerous element of the bill is the “duty to report”. A person who suspects a family member, colleague or housemate to be queer is encouraged to report them to the police. Once reported, the defendant could be imprisoned for up to five years.
“All I see is disaster,” says Maxine. “If you live with a queer person, and the bill says you have the right to report them under the bill, then people will use it. And people who have done absolutely nothing wrong will be sent to prison – and we don’t even know the reality of being queer in prison.” Her thoughts are echoed by several human rights groups who worry this will lead to witch-hunts and blackmail.
“We will be here forever, so they will have to learn to live with us”
Over the last 18 months the bill has been debated in both the legal courts and the court of public opinion, primarily led by the opposition party, the New Democratic Congress, including MPs such as Sam George.
After being reviewed by the Ghanaian Committee in Parliament to assess its constitutional validity, on 17 November Attorney General Godfred Dame delivered a saddening blow, stating that parts of the bill do “pass the test of constitutionality”, although others “violate some fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution”. Dame went further to suggest that sexual relations between women (which isn’t criminalised by current law) should be included.
Ghana’s speaker of the parliament, Alban Bagbin – who is traditionally politically neutral – stated that the bill “will definitely be passed before the next elections” in 2024. The next year will be one of huge struggle for Ghana’s queer communities – yet like other Ghanaian activists, Maxine remains committed to fight. “We will stay. We will be here forever, so they will have to learn to live with us.”
Organisations across Ghana are coming together with a manifesto to stop the passing of anti-LGBTQI+ legislation, with international backing from Human Rights’ Watch and Amnesty International.
“I want to see queer Ghanaians living without fear. Knowing if you are attacked and you go to the police station, you will be believed and they won’t condemn you,” Maxine adds. “We will win, because everyday a queer person is born.”
UK-based Galop offers support for LGBT+ survivors of sexual assault, hate crimes and domestic violence. Their services include a helpline and online chatbox, as well as advocates and caseworkers who can give advice and emotional support.
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