Fighting Ghana’s Anti-LGBT+ Hate Bill

The struggle for freedom continues on Ghana’s Independence Day

It has been a very long and arduous journey in the quest for freedom and justice (the motto of Ghana’s republic) for LGBT+ people in the country.

The LGBT+ community has faced various levels of persecution, abuse and discrimination for decades and today, we’re at a crucial moment in Ghana’s history since Ghana’s parliament ‘unanimously’ approved of the draconian Anti-LGBT bill titled “Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Act 2024”.

The bill threatens to jail LGBT persons and allies for up to 5 years for simply identifying as such, mandates every citizen to have the duty to report any person or persons that violates the Bill, takes away access to housing, healthcare, education, jobs, freedom of association and freedom of speech, etc to anyone deemed to be a person who is “involved in the promotion of, propagation of, advocacy for, support or funding of LGBTTQAP+”.

Despite the opposition of the Bill by LGBT activists who have put their lives on the line, allies and CSOs, the proponents of the Bill have forged ahead with blatant lies, propaganda and far-right, bigoted rhetoric to impose their religious ideas and put fear and intimidation on Members of Parliament.

For years’ influential people such as the former speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Prof. Michael Ocquaye and Lawyer Foh-Amoaning have written articles and spoken in public gatherings advocating for the punishment and continued bashing of LGBT people in Ghana. This was so much so that, Mr. Foh-Amoaning started a coalition with the same name as the original title of the bill, “Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values” and went on a campaign to promote it through the media and in 2019, they hosted the first anti-LGBT conference in partnership with the World Congress of Families, an American Far-Right Christian extremist group tagged as a HATE group. The WCF was added to the list of organizations designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as anti-LGBTI+ hate groups in February 2014 for its involvement with the 2013 Russian LGBT propaganda law and opposing LGBTI+ rights internationally. The WCF have been notorious for imposing their fundamentalist ideas of patriarchy, misogyny, Islamophobia, white supremacy and homophobia in the United States of America and other parts of the world.

Come January 2020, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, an LGBT advocacy group championing the rights of LGBT persons in Ghana and working to support victims/survivors of physical, social and mental abuse, acquired a space and invited some members of the diplomatic corps to Commission the space. However, upon hearing of the event, The Coalition called for the closure of the LGBT advocacy center but failed to mention how so many other Ghanaians also spoke up about their support for the Center and their disappointment of its closure. The Center, which was the first of its kind was to support the various NGOs and individuals get the much needed help from our education, healthcare and security agencies to curb the constant abuse and discrimination of real and perceived LGBT+ persons against blackmail, stigmatization, lack of employment, high suicidal rates, domestic abuse, sexual assault, mob lynching and emotional abuses, etc. that are prevalent in the country and have been researched and documented by Human Rights Watch. This Bill was therefore borne out of the homophobia and fear of the Coalition without the proper understanding of the event for the Office Opening, the work of LGBTI groups or without engaging with the participants and stakeholders of the LGBT+ Community. The police raided the Center and it was closed down.

A year later, the Anti-LGBT Bill was born and with the support of the current Speaker of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Alban Bagbin, who gave the go ahead for the sponsors of the bill made up of 8 MPs led by Sam George (MP, Ningo-Prampram), alongside Emmanuel Bedzrah (MP, Ho West) Della Adjoa Sowah (MP, Kpando), John Ntim Fordjour (MP, Assin South), Alhassan Sayibu Suhuyini (MP, Tamale North), Helen Adjoa Ntoso (MP, Krachi West), Rita Naa Odoley Sowah (MP, La Dadekotopon) and Rockson Nelson Dafeamekpor (MP, South Dayi).

Soon after the introduction of the Bill in Parliament, the Committee on Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs of the Parliament of Ghana requested feedback from the general public, and hearings were heard for days from concerned citizens and the international community, including the then-UN special envoy for Gender Equality and other CSOs such as the ‘Big 18’ made up of renowned Ghanaian scholars and legal practitioners against the bill. Those for the bill were mainly from the religious community.

Prior to and since the inception of the bill, abuse cases against real and perceived LGBT persons have significantly increased such as the arrest and detention of 21 alleged LGBT people, beatings and suicide rates have gone high, most of which are not reported as the police tend to also act as perpetrators of abuse on victims.

It has been a tough back and forth with the media, religious leaders, entertainment icons, politicians and academics debating and arguing to and for the Bill for the last 3 years. In a highly religious country like Ghana, It came as a bit of a surprise to many that the Bill took this long and faced such strong opposition. However, with the Speaker of Parliament declining the request for a secret ballot to be held amongst the MPs, it was unfortunate that last Wednesday, the 28th of February 2024, the Bill was passed supposedly unanimously even though it’s alleged that less than 50% of the quorum voted verbally with seemingly no opposition, leaving the decision on Ghana’s President Nana Addo Dankwa Akuffo Addo to assent to it or not before it becomes law or is thrown back to Parliament. Incidentally, Parliament has threatened to override the President’s veto decision if he doesn’t assent to it.

Immediately following the passage of the Bill in Parliament, the backlash towards the government soared both locally and internationally with Matthew Miller, a spokesperson for the US Department of State, saying in a statement that the United States is “deeply troubled by the Ghanaian Parliament’s passage of legislation, officially called the Human Sexual Rights and Family Values Bill …The bill would also undermine Ghana’s valuable public health, media and civic spaces, and economy. International business coalitions have already stated that such discrimination in Ghana would harm business and economic growth in the country,” Miller said.

UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima said the bill is a barrier to ending AIDS.
“If it becomes law, it will obstruct access to life-saving services, undercut social protection, and jeopardize Ghana’s development success,” she said in a statement.

The International Monetary Fund also voiced its vigilance over the passage of the bill. The IMF said it’s monitoring events in Ghana after lawmakers passed a bill seeking up to three years in jail for people identifying as an LGBTQ person. “Diversity and inclusion are values that the IMF embraces,” the Washington-based lender said in a statement. “Our internal policies prohibit discrimination based on personal characteristics, including but not limited to gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Like institutions, diverse and inclusive economies flourish.”

Soon after these statements, Ghana’s Ministry of Finance pleaded with President Akufo-Addo not to assent to the recently passed anti-LGBTQ bill by Parliament. In a press release on Monday, March 4, the Finance Ministry cautioned that approving the bill could result in significant financial consequences for Ghana. According to the Finance Ministry’s statement, Ghana stands to lose a substantial amount of World Bank financing, estimating a potential loss of USD$3.8 billion over the next five to six years. Specifically, the impact for 2024 includes a loss of USD$600 million in budget support and USD$250 million for the Financial Stability Fund, adversely affecting Ghana’s foreign exchange reserves and exchange rate stability.

On the 4th of March 2024, The President issued a statement speaking for the first time since its passage in Parliament. He said Ghana will not backslide on its human rights record, and added that the bill had been challenged in the Supreme Court. “I have learnt that, today, a challenge has been mounted at the Supreme Court,” Akufo-Addo said in a statement. “In the circumstances, it would be as well for all of us to hold our hands and await the decision of the Court before any action is taken,” he added.

Given that Ghana was the first African country to gain Independence on the 6th of March 1957, there would be protests online and in-person in Ghana, Canada, United Kingdom, South Africa, Germany and Denmark to demonstrate against the Anti-LGBT Bill and to plead with the President not to assent to the Bill. The show of love and support from the International community in solidarity with the LGBT Community in Ghana and with the quest to save Ghana’s Democracy and secular constitution has come with much appreciation, admiration and love.

This marks an historic moment and we hope that reason and compassion will win over dogmatic bigotry. Long live Ghana!!!

#queerghanaianlivesmatter
#killthebill
#nanaaddokillthebill
.

Roslyn Mould
Vice President, Humanists International
President, Accra Atheists

This blog ©2024 Geoff Allshorn. All rights for this article returned to writer Roslyn Mould.

The Flame of Hope

THE FLAME OF HOPE: UNITING AGAINST AIDS ON WORLD AIDS DAY

In the quiet echoes of a December morning,
A tale unfolds, of lives deeply torn.
On this World AIDS Day, we stand in reflection,
A reflective reminder, a global connection.

Through the years, AIDS has claimed its toll,
Silent whispers of stories, the anguish it stole.
Countless souls, aching in the night,
Lost to the shadows, out of sight.

Yet in the shadow’s grip, a flame remains,
A call to action, where hope sustains.
For in our hearts, a duty we bear,
To raise awareness, to show we care.

Youth, vibrant and full of dreams,
On this battleground, the fight it seems.
A plea to be vigilant, to be aware,
To guard against a silent, lurking snare.

Let education be the shield we wield,
Knowledge a weapon, a formidable field.
Empower the youth with facts so clear,
To conquer ignorance, dispel the fear.

On this World AIDS Day, let’s unite,
Illuminate the darkness, be the light.
To those who suffer, we extend our hand,
Together we stand, a united band.

No room for stigma, no place for shame,
For every victim, we know their name.
Let empathy guide, compassion inspire,
In every heart, let love transpire.

Support the fighters, those who’ve known pain,
In their resilience, a strength to regain.
Break the chains of judgment, let them fall,
For love and understanding conquer all.

So on this December day, let us decree,
A world free from judgment, hate, and plea.
To those who’ve faced AIDS, our hearts entwine,
In unity, let love forever shine.

Composed by: Joseph K (He/Him)

[This poem was written by a Ugandan LGBT refugee now living elsewhere, and he graciously allowed me to print it here. His sentiment reminds me of another activist, Michael Callen, who once wrote (inscribed in a book) that we can HEAL AIDS WITH LOVE.

I have published this poem because it supplements well my talk on community empowerment and gives me hope for the future of Uganda – Geoff]

This blog ©2023 Geoff Allshorn. All rights returned to the author.

Let Communities Lead

In honour of World AIDS Day 2023 and in recognition that this year marks the 42nd anniversary of the discovery of the epidemic.

This speech was given on 29 November 2023 as part of an AIDS memorial at the old Fairfield AIDS Garden and chapel in Melbourne.

Let Communities Lead

In 1974, a young man in Uganda named Lukas began to get sick. He exhibited the symptoms that would later become recognisable to many of us who lived through the era of AIDS: swollen glands, skin sores and weight loss. Lukas and his two wives eventually got sick and died, followed by others in Kampala. This local outbreak of what we now call HIV/AIDS is remembered particularly because one of Lukas’ workmates remarked to his own child that “Something Has Happened”.

Thirty years later, that child had grown up and while millions of Africans had now been affected by Slim and other manifestations of this epidemic, this child – now an adult – recalled how something has happened to Swedish author Henning Mankell as he was documenting the Memory Bank, a local African AIDS memorial project, like our AIDS Memorial Quilt or this very AIDS Garden. In the Memory Bank project, parents who were dying wrote their biographies and stories into books with photos and other keepsakes, to leave as an inheritance for their children. Such memorialising was both personal and political: on an individual level they wanted their children to remember the names and keep the love alive; but on a collective level, they signified a universal aspect of this epidemic: the human desire to want to write or record stories that we deem to be most important.

This was a symbolic foreshadowing of my own book, which also aimed to record stories and images on behalf of those who were lost – a literary form of lighting forty candles to acknowledge forty years in stories and images. What I say here tonight is taken from, or is about, this book.

The book came out of my suggestion to the publisher, Gordon Thompson of Clouds of Magellan Press, that someone should write something for World AIDS Day in 2021, because that year marked the fortieth anniversary of the official discovery announced to the world that something has happened. Gordon suggested that I write the book, and he supplemented my photos with images as supplied by others including Dennis Altman – the man who literally wrote the book on gay liberation; Phil Carswell, the first President of the Victorian AIDS Council; and Alison Thorne, the woman whose name features in part within the name Thorne Harbour Health. I want to thank them and also Marcus O’Donnell, Henry von Doussa and Paul Cholewinski for their contributions. I felt honoured that these others wanted to contribute to the book, but I recognise, as they do, the importance of the history it documents – and I acknowledge their ongoing desire to contribute the community activism that this book represents.

The book is called “Always Remember”, a title that is inspired by a photograph that the publisher chose for the front cover. The photo features a plaque from another, much smaller AIDS Memorial Garden here in Melbourne, one which had been neglected somewhat over the years. The plaque itself originally read, “Always Remembered”. Unfortunately, due to weather and erosion and neglect, half the letters on that plaque have fallen off. Perhaps this unintentionally symbolises the memory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic to many people in Australia today: somewhat forgotten, overlooked and disregarded. Even those of us who lived through those times, will find it hard to remember the exact details, because memory can fade or become imperfect, and societal changes since then make ‘the new normal’ our standard perspective and it then becomes easier to forget the old normal. The homophobic and AIDSphobic stigma and discrimination and fear and outright hate that was preached from pulpit to Parliament in those days, has faded with time and memory. But we do recall that this was a stigmatised epidemic forty years ago, and maybe the fact that it is largely forgotten today suggests that it remains somewhat stigmatised. But the title of my book, as chosen by Gordon, “Always Remember”, is a call to us today to always remember, and tonight, we here have heard that call. Thank you for doing so.

We could pause to acknowledge the universal nature of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and reflect on Lukas in Uganda in 1974; or 16 year-old Haitian teenager Robert Rayford of Florida in the USA, who likely died of AIDS in 1969 while the world was busy watching the first Moon landings, or while the US queer community was rioting at Stonewall. We could pause to remember Grethe Rask, the Danish surgeon who was infected while living in Africa in the 1970s and returned home to die in 1977 – and whom US author Randy Shilts asserts that as one of the earliest identified people known to lose their lives in what became commonly known as a “gay male plague” may herself have been a lesbian. Other early cases included families, women, babies, gay men, people from Norway and Belgium and Denmark and Portugal and France, and scores of school children and others across parts of Africa. In New York city, a local phenomenon arose in the 1970s, known as “Junkie pneumonia”. All of these others were not recognised as forming a part of a syndrome, until, as Dennis Altman notes, it was officially identified within the cohort of affluent white, young gay men in the USA in 1981. This was around the time that a 70+ year old Australian man – whose name will likely never be known – began to get sick and eventually die of a condition that was later retrospectively diagnosed as HIV/AIDS. His death in Sydney in August 1981 suggests that HIV was in Australia before it had even been discovered that something was happening overseas.

Why is all this important? Because in the era of COVID and whatever epidemic or pandemic is likely to come next, we can learn – or fail to learn – from what has gone before. Activism, education, working with medical and political establishments, empowerment of directly affected or disaffected communities, saving lives and changing the law and the world; there are people here at this event who can personally testify that such empowerment and change are possible. I note in my book that Australia led the world in empowerment of AIDS communities, taking ideas onboard and changing them to suit local cultures and conditions. HIV arrived on our shores firstly from the USA, and our activists worked more closely with doctors and politicians here than they were able to in the USA due to differing political climates. We took on board the AIDS Quilt even though we lacked the quilting culture of the USA; we adopted ACT-UP activism with what I would consider to be an Australian ‘larrikin’ flavour that was reminiscent of BUGA-UP, an earlier activist model that challenged and beat another health crisis – the smoking advertising billboard. What can we learn from that?

Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt Project on Display in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne. Photo (c) 1999 Geoff Allshorn.

I have seen how AIDS testimonial is not only important as a matter of documenting history, but also because it influences lives in ongoing ways. At a display of the Australian AIDS Memorial Quilt, some years ago, during the height of the epidemic, I saw a young woman weeping as she studied a panel of young man whose parents had created a memorial tribute. We got talking, and I learnt that she had wandered in off the street with her baby in a pusher, after being attracted to the vibrant colours of the Quilt, but she had only come a few metres into the room before this panel had stopped her in her tracks. I asked if she had known this young man whose panel had clearly affected her. She said no, but she had seen his details and photo – his young and cheeky grin, he had been aged in his early 20s like she was, and the loving tributes from his parents on that Quilt panel during an era when homosexuality was still regarded as being evil, sinful, and worthy of family rejection. Of all the panels on the AIDS Quilt, this particular story had touched her life and she told me that it had changed forever her perspective on homosexuality and tolerance and respect and diversity and love. I knew this young man’s parents, and later, at a World AIDS Day candlelight memorial service at the Positive Living Centre, I told them how his panel had changed her life. His father burst into tears and thanked me for letting them know that even after death, their son had continued to touch and change lives after everything he had endured from the illness. I could see that these parents had shared their story – like Lukas’ story in Uganda, they wanted to share how “something had happened” – and in doing so, their truth telling had affected not only their own lives but that of this young woman and probably the baby she was going to raise in a mindset of tolerance and compassion and respect for diversity during an era when “poofter bashing” was still common.

It is such memories that inspired me to document the histories of our community, and to write this book. It also gave me the idea of writing a patchwork of sample stories, like the AIDS Quilt, rather than a straight narrative, because the fuller and definitive narrative of AIDS in Australia is yet to be written.

The collective power of such storytelling became evident to me a few years ago, during part of the process of research and documenting that led to the writing of this book. With the help of some people here, and others, I wrote an Honours thesis on the social history of HIV/AIDS in Melbourne during the 1980s. I quickly discovered that those who read my thesis had shared it with others and suggested they read it too. I know this because, one by one, individually and privately, these people each came to me to thank me for recording this important history. Instead of wanting to analyse the academic aspects of my thesis, they all wanted to recount how this history had touched them personally by reminding them of someone they knew – a brother, a workmate, a cousin, a best friend – someone who had been lost to AIDS. Everyone had a story and wanted to share it, just like the people here who have spoken tonight, and like many others of us with our own stories and our memories.

Truth telling can change lives, and our world. I note that we all rejoiced six years ago when Marriage Equality became Australian law after the postal plebiscite, but how many Australians paused to remember how the fight for marriage equality had been inspired in no small part by the era of AIDS, when same-sex couples had been split apart by the virus, and while one partner was dying, the other partner may have been denied legal or family recognition, hospital visitation rights, next of kin rights, inheritance rights, or even the right to know where his loved one would be buried? Activists set out to change that – and they did. There are many other ways that AIDS activism changed our lives. The old chapel here on these grounds, was such testimony, built after crowdfunding by the LGBT community, so that our AIDS people would have a venue for funerals after being denied such common courtesy at some other churches. The way that we can nowadays purchase condoms off supermarket shelves when, in those days, condoms were usually only available by request from beneath chemist counters – if the chemist did not have an ethical objection to selling them. Dying with Dignity laws that are now becoming commonplace across Australia, needle exchange programs and venues, community empowerment programs that enable affected communities to have a say on how their social issues are addressed, even fundraising ribbons or memorial quilts for other afflictions… so many things…

Perhaps for me, one of the most significant contributions made by AIDS activism to Australia came out of my background research. In.those days, homosexuality and wider LGBT rights were opposed by the majority of Australians and the stigma of AIDS drove many families to deny the medical diagnosis of those with HIV because of its association with homosexuality. Yet after a care team began to visit regularly in order to care for their dying son or brother or father or other family member, it may be conjectured that families began to realise that LGBT+ people were not all evil and degenerate as per the common perception. After their dying family members were tended and cared for by a care team or medical staff comprising the first LGBT+ people that their family had ever met, straight people began to challenge the homophobia that they encountered in the workplace or church or pub. I cannot help but wonder if current mainstream Australian acceptance of LGBT people is, in no small part, due to this grassroots upswelling of support by straight people who had encountered queer people for the first time in their lives and had come to respect them for their compassion and humanity.

Overall, young Australians today need to learn that their world of Anti-Discrimination and anti-bullying and pro-diversity, was not always like this, but came about because people fought a virus and a stigma, and many suffered and died, but that these activists and ordinary people and heroes helped to change our world. Books and personal testimony such as yours and mine can help to remember the names and keep the love alive. People who survived are here tonight because we feel honoured to not only pay our respects to those we have loved and lost, but because we are still contributing to their story. We are living testimony to the face that something has happened – both in terms of a terrible epidemic, and in terms of community activism that saved lives and changed the world.

As I state in my book’s Afterword, perhaps most of all, we can learn from history to ensure that we don’t repeat it. HIV is still a problem in many places around the world, and homophobia and AIDSphobia still threaten lives. I began this talk by referring to Uganda as an early location of HIV, but it remains a problematic place today. As you will be aware, earlier this year, the Ugandan government criminalised homosexuality and now threatens the lives and liberty of millions of its own people, including their access to sexual health education and medical assistance, effectively revisiting some attitudes and laws that Australians experienced a generation ago around the time that HIV arrived. What do we need to learn from those people and those times a generation ago? The gay liberation activists, and the AIDS activists who succeeded them, would, I imagine, be among the first to passionately argue that our silence today still equals death.

We should be proud that the Australian model of self-empowerment became a model which has been upheld around the world as a leading model of community response to an existential threat. By contrast, the community response to a later threat was to question the wearing of face masks and to stock up on toilet paper. Ours was a more noble and constructive agency. Let us remember those who were lost, but also the army of activists and carers, doctors and nurses, agitators and administrators, the treatment action groups, the AIDSline counsellors, those who held hands with the dying, or who marched in the streets, or who attended candlelight vigils or sewed quilt panels to memorialise and to educate others, and those who lobbied for public reform. My own book is a small but humble attempt to not only document these community activities, but to add to them. Today, we are a part of that continuing activism. With my book, and this Garden to grow new life in a more openly tolerant nation, and everything else that has been remembered and acknowledged here tonight, I hope that we can continue to use our voices to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

[POSTSCRIPT: Today I have also received a World AIDS Day poem from a Ugandan LGBT refugee, and I have published it here in honour of the hope it can give us for the future of Uganda.]

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

The Colors of Hope

The Colors of Hope for LGBTIQ+ Souls in Africa.

Amidst the trials and shadows’ shroud,
Where hues of hope begin to crowd,
In Africa’s embrace, where pain does sear,
LGBTIQ+ souls, do not fear.

In silence, in strife, they brave the night,
Seeking refuge, a glimmering light,
‘Midst doubts and struggles, they endure,
Their spirit strong, their courage pure.

For love in colors, they face disdain,
Yet within, a resilience remains,
Their dignity, their rights to be,
In a world where they’re truly free.

Hold tight, dear souls, through stormy seas,
Your existence a beacon, breaking free,
In unity, your strength prevails,
Your stories, your truth, a timeless tale.

Each step you take, each breath you draw,
A testament to your resilience raw,
Within your hearts, a flame aglow,
Embracing hope, letting it grow.

Your journey’s tough, your path unclear,
But hope’s whisper, do stop and hear,
For in the darkest of the night,
Stars emerge, a guiding light.

Your worth is vast, your voices strong,
In unity, you truly belong,
Rise, shine bright, don’t yield, don’t flee,
For a world that’s just, and one that’s free.

Though shadows loom and doubts may reign,
Your unity, your love sustain,
In solidarity, you’ll find your way,
To brighter, bolder, sunlit days.

So hold on tight, stand tall and true,
Your courage, your strength, a stunning view,
For in your hearts, a chorus sings,
Of hope, resilience, and colorful wings.

Compiled by Joseph. K (He/Him)

©2023 Geoff Allshorn. All rights returned to the author.