It’s crucial to remember the U.S. origin of Ghana’s deadly anti-LGBT bill

Recent criticism of Ghana’s “worst anti-LGBTQ bill ever” has focused on anti-gay politicians, activists and journalists in Ghana, but neglects the crucial role played by homophobic Americans as well as the damage that the bill would do to the global fight against AIDS, commentator Maurice Tomlinson says.

Ghanaian anti-LGBT legislators present their anti-LGBT bill to Parliament Speaker Alban Bagbin in June 2021. (Photo courtesy of Twitter)

In this commentary, Jamaican-Canadian activist Maurice Tomlinson responds in particular to a Washington Post op-ed (“An anti-LGBTQI bill in Ghana is the outcome of institutionalized homophobia”) in which author Wunpini Mohammed discussed the anti-LGBT bill that is awaiting action by the Ghanian parliament.

Online publicity for August 21 protest in London against Ghana’s anti-LGBTQI+ bill.

Ghana’s so-called “Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill”  is arguably the worst legislative attack on the human rights of LGBT people in recent memory and would criminalize even allies who refuse to turn over gays.

While Mohammed’s op-ed made salient points about the struggle for the human rights of LGBT people in Ghana, some critical information was missing that could prove fatal to a proper understanding of the true origins of this law and its potential impact on Ghanian society.

First, there was insufficient discussion on the role of anti-LGBT Global North activists in fomenting this bill.

Second, there was an incorrect framing of this bill as a novel attempt by the state to suppress LGBT identities.

And finally, the significant negative global health implications of this bill have been completely ignored.

Mohammed lays much of the blame for this draconian anti-LGBT bill on Ghana’s education, religious, health, political and media institutions, while only briefly mentioning the support of white-supremacist and American Christian-rights groups. However, this feeds into a homonationalist trope, which casts African countries as backwards about the human rights for LGBT people while disregarding the Western source of this homophobia.

This is a grave mischaracterization because, as Zambian Anglican priest Kapya Kaoma wrote in 2014 when a similar law was being proposed in Uganda, “The vitriol that has fueled U.S. culture wars [against LGBT human rights] for so long is now being exported, and some of [America’s] most ardent culture warriors are finding a more receptive audience abroad.” And these modern-day crusaders engage in their deadly neocolonial project with impunity.

Brian S. Brown, president of the World Congress of Families

Many of the American culture warriors, such as Scott Lively and Brian Brown, hosted hate-filled conferences, and met with African opinion and political officials where they used virulent anti-LGBT rhetoric to justify the denial of human rights to queer people. For example, Lively famously accused gays of being behind WWII!

A direct result of this imposed homophobic vitriol was an explosion of extreme anti-LGBT laws, policies, and attacks across Africa. However, when Lively was sued in US courts by a Ugandan LGBT group for inciting persecution overseas, he quickly backtracked and distanced himself from the law to which his activism directly contributed.

Unfortunately, American courts acquitted Lively and, as Kaoma predicted, by failing to hold people like Lively accountable for his dehumanizing and dangerous actions overseas, America guaranteed that the export of extremist homophobia would continue, just more covertly. And this is what happened in Ghana but, ironically it is locals who are blamed for this aberration.

Kaoma spoke of the “millions of dollars” that were being funneled from anti-LGBT evangelical groups in the US to conservative organizations in Africa. And a recent CNN article highlighted the work of one such American group, World Congress of Families (WCF) in fostering Ghana’s homophobic bill. WCF has hosted anti-LGBT conferences in many parts of the world, including in Africa, the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. Unsurprisingly, these mass gatherings are usually followed by an uptick in anti-LGBT violence and legislation.

A conference hosted by WCF in Ghana’s capital in 2019 focused heavily on condemning human rights for LGBT people and featured noted US anti-marriage-equality campaigner Brian Brown.

Brown appears to be taking over where Lively left off and is actively using his access to politicians and opinion leaders in Global South countries to foment hate towards global queer citizens.

The importance of interrogating the connection between Ghana’s anti-LGBT bill and Western conservative groups is seen from the fact that when some Ghanian academics and human rights activists opposed the bill they were accused without evidence by a local MP, Sam George of being funded by Western interests. George deliberately casts the bill’s supporters as defenders of “African” values against a neo-colonial imposition of homosexuality. However, the truth is that homosexuality has always existed in Africa.

In London, protesting priests oppose Ghana’s anti-LGBT bill. (Photo courtesy of the BBC)

As Ugandan law professor Sylvia Tamale points out, “The vocabulary used to describe same-sex relations in traditional language, predating colonialism, is further proof of the existence of such relations in precolonial Africa”.

In short, what was “imposed” on Africa was homophobia (in the form of anti-gay laws), not homosexuality. This Ghanian bill is therefore not a novel attempt to suppress the human rights of LGBT people, as Mohammed seems to imply, but continues a tradition started during colonization when Westernized governments rejected African tradition and practices as barbaric, based primarily on conservative interpretations of the Bible.

As the world continues to wrestle with the Covid-19 pandemic, it is also vital to underscore the message that this anti-LGBT bill contributes to Africa’s ongoing HIV and AIDS pandemic. As the director general of the Ghana AIDS Commission, Kyeremeh Atuahene, pointed out, “[The bill] is first going to drive the key population underground” — away from effective anti-HIV prevention, treatment, and support interventions.

This is tragic, as sub-Saharan Africa has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. So, instead of battling just one pandemic, Ghana will be fighting two if it enacts this odious law!

The Ghanian anti-LGBT bill is a reprehensible piece of legislation that is in clear violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under the country’s constitution. It is quite likely that all the legislators supporting the bill know that it is flawed and fully expect that the country’s judiciary will eventually strike it down.

However, these politicians are no doubt using the bill to garner votes from citizens whipped into a homophobic frenzy by American-exported hate. What must never be missed and needs to be more properly interrogated is the work of these Global North, especially American, evangelicals in funding this bill that will spell disaster for the human rights and health of vulnerable Ghanaians.

And when American President Joe Biden uses occasions, like his National Coming Out Day speech, to condemn the existence of anti-LGBT laws he must also acknowledge his own country’s role in the genesis and retention of many of these deadly edicts. The work to end the global export of anti-LGBT laws should therefore begin in the US by holding the purveyors of toxic homophobia like Lively and Brown liable in American courts.

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Written by Maurice Tomlinson

Maurice Tomlinson of Jamaica and Canada has been involved in HIV and AIDS and LGBTI rights activism in the Caribbean for over 15 years. An attorney-at-law, he leads and supports legal challenges seeking the repeal of the region's homophobic laws. Contact him by email via 76crimes (at) gmail.com.

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