Ghanaian Opposition to Gay (LGBTQ) Rights: Debate

I am making this declaration right off the bat: LGBTQ rights are civil rights. It doesn’t matter whether you accept this declaration or not. Now let’s get to the issues.

The main resistance to LGBTQ rights in Ghana comes from two intertwined frames: 1. it is not our culture and 2. the Bible/Qur’an says. These two frames hinges on the same moral plane. I am a very happy student of civil rights history and very much an advocate for progressive social change and inclusivity. So, I am going to tackle this issue from a position of civil rights and social progress frame.

One thing we as human beings have acknowledged (unless you are a rigid rabid fundamentalist on any issue) is that human society and culture is not static and there is always room for change. To that effect, societies have always tweaked their governing principles to add members of the society hitherto excluded from the benefits and protections the society affords to its legitimate members. Campaigners on social change and progress therefore identify specific groups who fit this hitherto marginalized and disenfranchised sections of society and advocate for iterations in how society is organized so that they can be treated more equally and fairly. To this effect, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, women, and persons with disabilities among many have been targeted for inclusion by almost every society’s campaigners of social progress. The exclusion of these groups has tended to hinge on the moral frame I mentioned above.

The issue of morality is an extremely relative term which varies across cultures but more importantly changes vastly over time and across generations. Since no culture is static, I am going to focus on the generational change and how that defeats the “it is/isn’t our culture” argument as well talk about the weakness of the religion hinge for opposition to LGBTQ rights.

One of the central arguments Ghanaians make when opposing LGBTQ rights is that it is not our culture. What this statement betrays is people’s lack of understanding of what culture is. This statement purports to cast culture as a calcified relic to be trotted out and admired and looked at as a polished object of veneration. What exactly do they mean by ‘our culture’? I find that such people are, in their moral and material lives more often than not, decked 99% with almost everything that can easily be identified as coming from outside Ghana or the continent. They are likely named with Arabic names or Scottish or Jewish names. They are likely speaking in eloquent Queen’s English or Locally Acquired Hollywood Accent (LAHA). They are likely wearing a Brazilian wig or just bought one for their side chick and wife. They will argue that polygamy is wrong etc etc. What is their culture really?

What I find problematic is people who do not want to be essentialized when they fight discrimination against themselves but are literally engaged in essentializing themselves in order to discriminate against others. African culture or Ghanaian culture is not a monolithic sealed of hermetic piece of artifact essentially different from other world cultures. Colonialists and slavery advocates, and recently and currently racists, fall on the essentialization trope to argue Africans are inferior so that they can discriminate and treat us as lesser human beings. We need to stop the essentialization of Ghanaian/African culture. Culture, as we were taught in JHS and SHS and borne out by our daily lived experiences, is a living breathing changing organism. Culture is not static. The way we live is constantly getting fertilized by inevitable change and contact with other cultures. Africa today is a living testimony to this social fact. There is literally no part of the continent left untouched by contact with other non-African peoples and their ways of life.

To defend a position by calling on your culture is simply intellectually lazy. We have certain communities where Trokosi (our African version of the Biblical generational sin) is the culture, we have certain communities where cutting off the labia of girls (FGM) is the culture, we have communities where marrying girls off as soon as they reach puberty is the culture etc etc. Will you accept defending this oppression of certain class of Ghanaians as ‘our culture’? Remember cultural change is about inclusion and less discrimination. So, with our abolition of trokosi and FGM and early childhood marriages, we have expanded the ambit of inclusion and fairness in our society and I should hope we are all better off for it.

The culture argument is mostly done to tout the moral superiority of our culture over other ‘decadent’ cultures. I can assure you that if you talk to the elders of any community practicing trokosi, FGM or early childhood marriage, they’ll tell you that stopping it will lead to decadence of our society because women will become ‘loose’ and destroy the sexual mores of the community. One of the easiest fallbacks for people who don’t want social change is to argue social decadence is abound if change happens. In the US, ironically, pro-slavery proponents argued that black people needed to be enslaved because without slavery, they’d become vagrant and a menace to society. That is why immediately after the civil war and the nominal freeing of black people, a lot of American States started promulgating vagrancy laws targeted at free blacks. The same argument about social degeneracy accompanied the civil rights movement. Many people accused MLK of stirring up social strife and that his agitation for civil rights for blacks was akin to treachery (he was actually placed under FBI surveillance and threatened severally). Anti-miscegenation laws (cross racial marriages) were banned with arguments purporting to protect the mores of the community. To many white people at the time, allowing black people to marry white people was literally poison because other than we being sub-human, we had a less civil and more decadent culture compared to them. They essentialized both cultures for the sake of discrimination. What they didn’t realize was that both cultures changed dramatically (actually a whole new one; the black one, was created as a result of the contact and theirs changed beyond measure).

The other major opposition to LGBTQ rights in Ghana takes the form of “the Bible/Qur’an says.” This is a tricky one so I will try to be as delicate as possible. But right off the bat, I want to assure everyone that the Bible/Qur’an doesn’t say. Our religious lives are governed by ‘I interpret the Bible/Qur’an’s sayings to mean…’ So it is important I put in that caveat before proceeding. I know some fundamentalists will argue that their interpretation is sacrosanct but I will not engage them because they can’t be conversed with meaningfully. So, let’s proceed.

The way Christianity or Islam has been practiced has continually changed over the centuries. The way each individual interprets the scripture is totally subject to his/her personal whims, the community he or she lives in, and the time period he or she is living in. I mentioned slavery above. Arabs, despite being Muslim, invaded the continent and took millions of Africans as slaves. Obviously, they interpreted the Qur’an’s words to mean they could go and pillage other communities’ lands and steal both their natural and human resources. The same thing happened with Europeans with Bible in one hand and guns in the other rampaging around the globe. Recently, Abubakar Shekau of Boko Haram threatened to sell girls he kidnapped into slavery citing Qur’anic verses in support of his actions. During the height of the transatlantic slave trade, you had Churches and Pastors and othe clergy owning slaves. It was a Bishop of the church who recommended that European slavers turn their focus to Africans. To cite the Bible as your source is not a viable option for making law to govern an inclusive community of diverse people. What the Bible says is what you interpret it to mean based on your personal whims.

As a Muslim, I have personal moral values about how people should live their lives. To this day, I can tell you that I haven’t done a lot of things that are rampant today among my peers. I need not mention them because they’ll distract from the conversation at hand. My personal religiously held moral values aside, do I have friends who do a lot of these things I personally don’t do? Absolutely. In fact, most of the friends I have don’t belong to the community and hold the personal mores I subscribe to. As a community of friends, I don’t demand homogeneity. I demand reasonable accommodation and respect. Even within religions, there is such a wide spectrum of interpretation of scripture that it will be ridiculous to want everyone to subscribe to one interpretation much less make law for a diverse society based on scripture.

But even within one sect, there is always change in values. It used to be the case that there was one universal church; the Catholic Church. Differences in interpretation led to massive proliferation of denominations with wildly different, sometimes directly conflicting interpretations and beliefs. In terms of day to day practice, the Catholic Church within itself has been making changes. You can read more about these changes online including qualifications for clergy, celibacy etc etc. The same differences in interpretation in Islam led to different sects we have today, and the fact that a despicable kidnapper like Shekau can also claim to be in the same religion as someone like me.

What I am getting at is this: you cannot use moral ethics to govern what adult individuals do in the privacy of their lives or even just what they personally choose to do with their lives. Gay people, when they choose to have sex or get married, isn’t something I am willing to legislate on. You can have a personal disgust (sometimes this is due to socialization and just personal optics which is understandable and excusable) just like some white people felt disgusted that a white man or woman will actually touch, sleep with, or marry a black person. But your disgust or mine, just like their disgust, isn’t grounds for criminalizing the act between two consenting adults. Islam tells me the only way to heaven is through the faith. In my belief, Christians are wrong. The same is true vice versa for most of my Christian friends. Almost daily, literally, since I got to Ghana, random Christians ask me if I have accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior. They are obviously concerned about my wellbeing as I am with theirs. But I should not (as I don’t right now) have the right to legislate that they must do as I do because I know the rightness of my belief. This is the same principle I take on the issue of LGBTQ rights.

As a Black man studying in America, I am a beneficiary of the legacy of MLK and other civil rights icons. People used the Bible to ask him to shut up before he destroys the society. Before him, people used the Bible to oppose the emancipation of my ancestors. And yes. My ancestors. A lot (most) of slaves taken from Ghana were taken from the north. Today people wander why the North is extremely sparsely populated. Very likely many of my ancestors were sent to work free in the cotton fields of North and South America and the Caribbean. They were sent there, and worked to death by Bible wielding Christians.  They believed they were moral. To them, me studying in a class with white boys and girls is immoral. To them my existence is proof of the sickness and decadence of society. In that MLK tradition of civil rights, I cannot support the continued legal discrimination against the LGBTQ community in Ghana. And our leaders who trot out these silly “it is not our culture” or “the Bible/Qur’an says’ arguments need to rethink their stances on this issue. Performing piety and morality publicly might actually be a sign that you may not be that pious. If you are a student of history, think about which side of history you want your name to be written on.

Have a good day folks.

Salaam. Peace.

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