Homophobia and the African Paradox
Reflections on IDAHOT Day
By: Nana Akosua Hanson: Artist, Feminist Activist
It’s a typical Sunday like every other, and Akua is in church seeking that spiritual boost she needs before her week begins. Like most Ghanaian Christians, Church is a crucial part of her spiritual and mental strengthening and fortification in a country where making ends meet is an economic miracle every single day.
The pastor‘s sermon is on Sodom and Gomorrah. LGBT+ issues have been in the top trends of discussions in Ghanaian media and the ‘man of God’ proselytises endlessly that end times are nigh when people ask for human rights and freedoms for things that ‘even animals don’t do.’ Akua is a woman who loves women and has had women as romantic and sexual partners for most of her life but in secret. On this Sunday, like other Sundays when the pastor goes on this tirade, she sinks in the church pews, hoping to become invisible, silently praying for time to pass by quickly and feeling scared for her life. The stakes of discovery are high: the shame, the ostracization, the loss of social capital, this is how entrenched the systemised violence is.
Homophobia is the fear, hatred, discomfort, mistrust and a whole range of other negative attitudes towards people who are or perceived to be queer, lesbian, gay or bisexual. Similarly, Transphobia is a range of negative attitudes towards people who are transgender and genderqueer. This can be externalised and internalised, and in Ghana’s case, it can be state- and religion-sanctioned hate. This strong homophobic culture is endemic in all aspects of Ghanaian society — in our religious institutions, educational institutions, in our leadership, media, films, music, everywhere. There is a normalised hatred and disgust for the LGBT+ community, and as with anything that is normalised, it is ‘perceived as ‘right’ or ‘the way to be.’ The root of this hate goes way back to slavery and colonialism and is a journey wrought with the trauma of an identity destroyed by spiritual, mental and physical warfare, stockholm syndrome and an African personality dysphoria.
‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ is a recurrent trope in Ghanaian spaces and in Ghanaian pop culture — music and film. Ghanaians are a very religious people, with Christianity being the religion with the largest percentage of Ghanaians as adherents. This means that the Bible’s creation story is often referenced as a general fact whether you are Christian or not. Through religion, there has been a subtle hate-radicalization of the Ghanaian populace around issues of sexuality and gender for centuries.
Prior to the Arab and European invasions of Africa, many pre-colonial ethnic nations and empires in Africa had a far more advanced wisdom about gender and sexuality in ways that are a stark contrast to the devolution that is today. Ancient Egyptians (Kemetu) acknowledged a third gender. The Supreme Being across many different African spiritual traditions is not perceived as masculine like in Abrahamic religions but as androgenous and more complex than our human gendering. Among the Ewe in Ghana for instance, the Supreme Being is referred to as Mawu-Lisa, ‘Mawu’ representing the feminine aspect of the Supreme Being, and ‘Lisa’ being the masculine aspect. Often, humans project themselves on what we perceive God, or the Supreme Being should be. If we live in a patriarchal state, God, through a patriarchal religious interpretation of spirituality, will be gendered as ‘He’ and this patriarchy is often translated into religious strictures and laws which in turn translate to social norms and practices. In the same way, since Christianity was a weapon of colonisation, God will be depicted as an old white man sitting up in the skies or Jesus Christ a blonde, blue-eyed saviour.
In pre-colonial times, the Dagara people in Ghana perceived queer people as a gateway between this world and the spiritual world. This meant that they were a conduit for transferring wisdom and knowledge from other realms to the physical realm. In other African cultures, amongst many different ethnic nations, trans people were similarly seen as a gateway to the Supreme Being. If a people believe the Supreme Being to be androgynous, or to possess both Masculine & Feminine aspects simultaneously, the reflection in socio-cultural interactions would start on a very different page.
Traditional leaders in Ghana today are among those leading the homophobic charge against the Ghanaian LGBT+ community under the claim that Homosexuality is un-African. This is such a wonder because African traditional religion is a spread of numerous Deities with each Deity having its own protectorate, its own rituals and worship styles. There are Deities who are perceived by their adherents as protectors of genderqueer people, which effectively nullifies the claim that Homosexuality is un-African.
The African homophobia we see today is embedded in the paradox of the damaged African psyche playing out. It is the inevitable consequence of a people whose herstory, history, our-story has been erased and replaced by faulty programming in a system that is simply incompatible. The attacked psyche will seek to mete out violence to others and violence to itself. Ghanaians calling for the lynching and forced conversion therapy of the LGBT+ community is a clear manifestation of this violent outcome of faulty programming.
On this International Day of Homophobia, Transphobia & Bi-phobia, may we reflect deeply on the paradox of African homophobia and may we challenge it. To challenge a paradox from within requires personal and collective societal reflection. We can start with the following:
❖ Acceptance — Acceptance is often the first step to acknowledging the damage that we would otherwise push into our subconscious. Being raised in a Ghanaian family home, or going to Ghanaian schools means that we are programmed to internalise homophobia, which is in turn, externalised in social spaces.
❖ Learn, unlearn, relearn — Africans need to start our story not from the colonial era but from our own stories long before that. It is after all, the oldest continent on earth. We must be hungry for pre-colonial African wisdom with a far more advanced understanding of the spectrum that gender and sexuality is.
Learn from the African wisdom of today which does not spout violence and gender-cleansing. Re-learning is continuous.
Share your learning, start conversations. This can be as simple as writing or sharing an article or recommending a film that enriches the discourse.
Do not be caught in the debates and arguments on gender and sexuality whose basis are not rooted in the respect for the dignity of human life, but in colonisation and oppression. Often a violent premise will lead you down a violent vortex claiming to be wisdom or logic.
❖ Practice — with learning and unlearning comes practising the new culture. It takes doing it every day till habit becomes identity. This never stops.
❖ Create new loving spaces — Do not be in spaces that allows for homophobic and transphobic jokes and vitriol. A space starts with the mind, thus even though we may be living in a homophobic place, new non-homophobic and non-transphobic personal and social spaces can be created.
❖ Art & Popular Culture — artists, filmmakers, musicians are a repository of modern cultural norms and thinking. Creating art that challenges homophobic and transphobic norms is an important way of shaking deep-rooted belief systems by starting conversations, inviting reflection and even creating new language.
❖ Radical Love and healing. To heal requires personal and communal healing. Often religious and spiritual institutions for Ghanaians are our spaces for healing and spiritual upliftment. Therefore encouraging, new, interpretations of our holy scriptures and morals with roots firmly seeded in radical love and the respect for the humanity of others is an invaluable step.
Being an example of love in our communities heals us and heals others, and shows people a more desirable and natural way to be.
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To end homophobia on the continent is an uphill task. It is a struggle for the liberation of the African psyche and intersects with many other interconnected struggles.
Happily, there is a new wave of transformation on the continent. The new Africa being forged is dependent of our actions today. May we forge a new Africa with a deep-rooted wisdom and an innate respect for human dignity. May we remember that the power of Africa lies in African lives and most importantly, in the diversity of African lives and experiences. And may we do this in Love. Our ancestors used this diversity to draw wisdom to understand ourselves and the cosmos we live in. May we also drink from that well of nourishment.