By David McKenzie and Nimi Princewill, CNN
A safe house was the only place Joe felt protected enough to meet.
Tucked away in a neighborhood of Accra, off Aflao Road, a group of Ghanaian gay activists use the house to gather in secret and provide shelter to LGBTQ people in need.
Sitting on the corner of a couch in the gloomy interior, Joe holds a small clutch in both hands and speaks with a quiet defiance.
“I can’t change the way I am. I can’t change who I am,” he says. “This is natural, and it is how I feel. But we are dead. We are all now dead. We can’t go out again and we can’t mingle with our friends again.”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this in Ghana.
For years, Ghanaian LGBTQ activists felt they had made progress. They witnessed a quiet tolerance, especially in larger cities, and believed that their rights would continue to evolve.
But within weeks, Ghana’s parliament is set to debate a draft bill — framed in the guise of “family values” — which seeks to introduce some of the harshest anti-LGBTQ laws on the African continent.
The prospect of it passing is pushing the country’s LGBTQ community into the shadows.
LGBTQ Ghanaians have been left asking how things got so bad, so quickly, and Western diplomats say they have been caught by surprise.
But what one Ghanaian activist calls a “homophobe’s dream bill” has deep roots in Ghana’s religious community. It also found key inspiration from a US ultra-conservative group with Russian ties.
Humiliated on camera
Joe’s path to the safe house began in his hometown, several hours drive from the capital. CNN agreed to identify him only by his assumed first name, because he fears for his safety.
One evening several months ago, Joe says he was accosted on the street by a group of men who accused him of approaching one of their male relatives.
“I was shaking when they took me to that room and they took out their cameras. I was shaking and I was crying,” he told CNN.
He says the men took him to an abandoned construction site for interrogation.
In a grainy video, seen by CNN, they bark at him in Fante dialect: “Is it true that you told him that you like him?”
“Yes,” Joe replies meekly, shivering in the concrete room.
Later in the clip, Joe is seen crouching on the ground as he is repeatedly kneed in the head by one of his attackers.
When videos of Joe’s ordeal were shared on social media several months later, he says his father threw him out of the family home.
“When I saw the video. I was like, it is better to kill myself, but I had nowhere to go,” he says.
LGBTQ activists say what happened to Joe is part of a pattern of abuse seen in Ghana over several years. Video after video show Ghanaians — mostly men perceived as being gay — being harassed and beaten on camera, sometimes stripped naked by their assailants. Lesbian and trans Ghanaians are also targeted, say activists, but most attacks go unreported.
Although some are harassed and shamed publicly, these attitudes were not universal; activists speak of regular LGBTQ-friendly parties held in Accra being advertised openly on social media.
A Human Rights Watch report from 2018 found that Ghana had a mixed record in its treatment of LGBTQ Ghanaians.
Old sodomy laws dating back to 1960 remain on the statute books in Ghana — as they do across much of Africa — but they are rarely, if ever, enforced.
This year, that could all change.
A door opens, then is shut
Multicolored balloons and rainbow umbrellas decorated Ghana’s first LGBTQ support center, in Accra, for its grand opening in January. Diplomats from several European nations and Australia attended, and LGBTQ Ghanaians said they couldn’t believe the progress Ghana had made.
The backlash was immediate. Traditional leaders, church groups, and lawmakers flooded social media, rushed to local TV stations, and used their pulpits to excoriate the center, blaming its existence on Western influence and claiming it was an attempt to “recruit” young Ghanaians.
Many of the critics are part of a loosely-configured group known as the National Coalition for Proper Human Sexual Rights and Family Values.
“We knew that there would be opposition, but we didn’t think it would be of this magnitude,” says Alex Kofi Donkor, director of LGBT+ Rights Ghana, the group that opened the center. “The whole country seemed to be talking about it.”
The resulting public outcry led to a police raid, and the center was closed less than a month after it had opened.
Soon afterward, plans for the draconian new anti-LGBTQ law began to emerge. The bill was introduced in parliament in early August.
The draft “Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill” — a copy of which has been obtained by CNN — would see LGBTQ Ghanaians face jail time, or be coerced into so-called “conversion therapy” — a widely discredited practice debunked by much of the international medical and psychiatric communities.
Under the bill, advocates of the LGBTQ community would face up to a decade in prison; public displays of same-sex affection or cross dressing could lead to a fine or jail time, and certain types of medical support would be made illegal.
The new law would also make the distribution of material deemed pro-LGBTQ by news organization or websites illegal. It calls on Ghanaians to turn over those they suspect of being from the LGBTQ community.
“It is against our culture, it is against our norms, it is against our tradition,” says Emmanuel Kwasi Bedzrah, one of the members of parliament (MPs) whose name is on the bill. “We don’t want things that are against our sensibility to be given priority in our society and therefore this will be a deterrent to anyone who supports them.”
Standing outside Ghana’s imposing parliament complex as a bank of dark clouds threatens to break the intense heat, the MP says: “In the beginning of this year we had a group of people in the guise of an NGO trying to lure people into their fold. We noticed that it [being a member of the LGBTQ community] is spreading like wildfire in the country.”
“We love them, we are asking them not to do it,” Bedzrah says as the cloud breaks, rain battering the giant black star of Ghana’s flag outside of the Speakers’ office.
Just a short drive from parliament, we meet a prominent gay activist at Accra’s Black Star Square, where an arch commemorating Ghana’s independence celebrates “Freedom and Justice.”
Unlike the lawmakers CNN spoke to for this story, Danny Bediako is too afraid to use his real name — or to speak in a public place.
Bediako, who runs the NGO Rightify Ghana, denounced the claim that homosexuality is a Western import or that LGBTQ activists were out to recruit and convert straight Ghanaians.
“The same people they claim to have brought homosexuality to Africa are the same people who told them to have this hate they are using against us,” he says. “There have always been queer Ghanaians.”
Bediako says the anti-LGBTQ “family values” coalition has long been a loud presence in Ghana, but that it was never organized or particularly strategic.
He believes that changed when a US group promoting those same “family values” organized a conference in Accra in late 2019 — just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit.
“The US right-wing people were here and after that there was a rush to push legislation,” Bediako says.
The conference was hosted by the World Congress of Families, which Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ rights group, calls “one of the most influential American organizations involved in the export of hate.”
The genesis of the law
The 2019 conference was largely organized in response to proposals by the Ghanaian government to create a comprehensive sex education curriculum, to teach young people about the emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. This plan was later shelved.
But audio recordings, presentations, and action plans of the meeting, reviewed by CNN, show that much of the conference’s time was focused on the supposed “dangers” of LGBTQ influence, labeling it as a grand left-wing conspiracy out to destroy “family values.”
One of the highlights of the conference, for attendees, was the presence of US ultra-conservative organizer Brian Brown, the president of the World Congress of Families (WCF).
Brown made a name for himself pushing Californians to outlaw same-sex marriage at the ballot. He continues to lead the National Organization for Marriage and heads up a digital fundraising effort for right-wing Republican Party candidates in the US.
The WCF has curious beginnings: It was founded in the late 1990s as a collaboration between US religious conservatives and right-wing Russians, after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But in recent years, in conferences from Hungary to Croatia, Tbilisi, Georgia; to Verona, Italy, the group has become increasingly influential in organizing anti-LGBTQ forces and inspiring policy initiatives, according to Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights.
Datta recently authored extensive research on anti-LGBTQ groups in Europe that included data about the alleged funding of the WCF’s activities.
“The World Congress of Family conferences are like an incubator for bad ideas,” says Datta. “Different religious extremists from different parts of the world meet and exchange ideas and then people take those ideas and expand on it at the national level.”
He says several pieces of legislation and petitions in Eastern Europe appear to have flowed from WCF meetings.
“The fact that the WCF took place in Accra in 2019 and now we have something appearing as a draft bill is not surprising. This draft “Family Values” bill seems to be one more iteration of the homophobic initiatives emanating from their conferences,” he says.
At WCF’s Accra conference, the delegates proposed the formation of legal teams to mount constitutional and legal challenges within six months to a year. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, their timeline wasn’t far off.
But Brown insists that his organization provides inspiration, not instruction.
“In each of these countries people are saying ‘enough is enough’ with Western countries coming in and saying we are going to redefine the family,” he told CNN from his office in Washington D.C.
Brown says the WCF had nothing to do with writing the Ghanaian bill: “You don’t need to look for a bogeyman, it is going to come from the people themselves and there is a huge opportunity for stronger global ties.”
That inspiration seems apparent when Ghanaians pushing the bill use strikingly similar talking points to Brown’s organization, including a near obsession with the “natural” family as a way to propagate generational Christian conservative values.
“Those who are promoting gays and lesbians are not going to have children at all, and within a short time nobody should be surprised that Muslims will become a majority in this country and declare it an Islamic state,” Archbishop Philip Naameh, the president of the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference, told CNN. He welcomes the support of WCF.
But some activists believe a crackdown on LGBTQ rights was waiting to happen with or without a nudge from US conservatives, because of growing discontent within the religious community in Ghana.
In a massive online prayer rally in March entitled: “Homosexuality: a detestable sin to God,” pastors at the millions-strong Pentecostal Church said it was a matter of “national security” to pass a law; they continue to push members of parliament to follow through with their plans.
The Pentecostal Church’s leadership repeatedly refused CNN’s requests for an interview.
The damage is already done
Members of parliament and activists say the draft bill will be debated and likely voted on after Ghana’s parliament reopens in late October. Based on CNN’s reporting, it appears to have strong support — even among more moderate MPs.
The bill may end up being watered down in the amendment process. It will also need to be signed by President Nana Akufo-Addo, who is likely to face harsh condemnation from Western donors if it comes into law.
The bill places Western nations in a difficult position. Already heavily criticized for supporting the opening of the LGBTQ center earlier this year, the European Union and Australian missions would not speak to CNN on the record.
The US did not have a representative at the opening, but one of the Biden administration’s first acts was to formally task its agencies with combating anti-LGBTQ legislation globally.
A State Department spokesperson told CNN the US government was concerned with the increasing rhetoric and actions that threaten the LGBTQ community in Ghana.
“We are monitoring the situation closely,” the State Department statement said. “We urge national leaders in Ghana to uphold constitutional protections and to adhere to Ghana’s international human rights obligations and commitments for all individuals.”
But for many activists, the damage is already done.
In late May, more than 20 participants in an LGBTQ paralegal training session organized by One Love Sisters, Ghana and Key Watch Ghana were arrested for “unlawful assembly” in the country’s southeastern Volta region.
One of those present, a 21-year-old intersex woman, who has asked CNN to identify her by the pseudonym Edem Amavor because she fears for her safety, told CNN she was physically and sexually assaulted by police in a horrifying ordeal.
Intersex people have natural variations in reproductive anatomy, chromosome patterns or other traits that may not align with typical binary definitions of female or male.
“I was taken to a male cell,” she recalls. “The officers told the men in the cell to rape me since I insisted I was a female.”
Volta regional police spokesman Sgt. Prince Dogbatse told CNN that: “No such reports have come to the attention of the Command,” but that they would investigate the matter.
Another of those detained was Eddy Oppong, also using a pseudonym because of safety concerns.
He was among those detained and released after 22 days, after charges against the paralegal group were dropped in early August.
“People are scared,” says Danny Bediako. “People are feeling insecure to even go into public spaces and hold meetings for their organizations. Some people have stopped their support entirely.”
He says he is now trying to hold support groups online.
Bediako says LGBTQ activists have submitted memoranda to parliament to lessen the blow from the proposed new law, and they are trying to speak to MPs to encourage them to weaken the bill’s provisions, but he fears few politicians will be brave enough to engage with them in the current climate — even if lives are at stake.
“The people who suspect us are waiting for the bill to be passed so they can beat us up and hand us over to the police,” he said.
He believes that the limited space that Ghanaians from the LGBTQ community had to be themselves may soon vanish and that the precipitous drop in rights seen in recent months could become a permanent feature.
Joe, the gay Ghanaian who was beaten and thrown out of his home, spent just a few days at the safe house in Accra before moving on. He says he wishes he hadn’t been born in Ghana.
And he has a message for the MPs and religious leaders fronting the bill: “We are all human beings. Their sons and their daughters can be like me. They can face the same thing, like the way those guys did to me.”
“I want to ask: ‘If their daughters and their sons have been through this — will they allow the law to take them to jail?’ My answer to them is they should put a stop to it.”
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David McKenzie reported from Accra, Ghana, while Nimi Princewill reported from Abuja, Nigeria. Graphics by Byron Manley and Peter Roberston. Photo illustration by Alberto Mier.