A year on from the Ho 21 arrests, queer Ghanaians fear more to come
If the anti-gay bill is passed, how many more police raids, media witch-hunts, and hateful speeches will be subjected to simply for existing?
Diary of a disaster
Thursday 20 May, 2021
It is a cool Thursday night. I am sitting at my favourite beach restaurant in Accra. Suddenly, my phone starts buzzing. In a group chat for lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) people in Ghana, the administrators are swiftly removing people without explanation.
We soon learn why. In the city of Ho, in southeast Ghana, armed police have invaded a joint training workshop with the LBQ organisation OLS and local intersex organisation KWG. 21 people have been arrested on suspcision of “unlawful assembly”. The group chat administrators temporarily removed those detained to avoid prying police offers using their participation in the group against them.
I lapse into a dark sea of worry for my comrades’ safety. I should be used to this by now. Same sex activity is criminalised and socially stigmatized in Ghana. We live daily with the threat of state and non-state violence. But this unwarranted invasion reveals how unscrupulous the state can be. Furthermore, the queer community is still reeling after the LGBT Rights Ghana community space was forcibly shut down in February and growing anxious following pronouncements of an impending anti-LGBTI bill in parliament.
Sunday 23 May
Weary-eyed and uncertain, I drive for four hours with three other activists from the Alliance for Equality and Diversity’s Welfare and Crisis Team. None of us know what to expect. When we arrive in Ho, we are guided by activists who had been at the workshop three days ago but managed to escape before the police could find them. We are aware that they will be at risk if someone identifies them. We move from station to station, inquiring about the detained activists. We hope to visit our colleagues, provide them with toiletries, and arrange for their daily meals.
The police are stern and suspicious. They give us limited time with the detainees, who have been spread across four police stations. We feel the weight of our colleagues’ predicament. Many appear disheveled and fearful, searching for answers in our eyes from their cramped and unsanitary cells. We hold back tears as we try to comfort them, pray with them, and frantically write down their requests: this person needs anti-retroviral medication, that person needs sanitary pads. Another asks us to tell her son she is “delayed” at a workshop. Others ask us to tell their bosses they cannot attend work for a few days; revealing any more details could potentially out them and risk their employment.
In the following weeks, things intensify as local and diaspora activists provide legal representation, attend court dates, mobilise resources, and seek out medication and care packages. A online campaign is launched with #FreetheHo21 and #Releasethe21 trending on Twitter. There are fundraisers, solidarity statements, petitions, calls to action – as well as disagreements over strategy – as we try to forge new alliances to assist our detained comrades.
Most of it is a blur.
Friday 11 June
After being denied bail four times, the Ho 21 are finally released following Human Rights Watch’s documenting of overcrowded cells, filthy bathrooms, and taunts from police officers.
Monday 2 August
The charges are dropped because of “insufficient evidence”, but much damage has already been done. The media have published photographs of those arrested, putting them in the public spotlight and at risk of further stigmatisation, harassment, the loss of their jobs, and family abandonment.
One year later
Almost a year since they were first arrested, many of the Ho 21 face depression, isolation, and fear due to the media storm and their mistreatment by police.
MF, a bisexual mother of two, returned home after her release in 2021 to an angry husband who refused her entry and denied access to her children. Most of her family members disowned her, her husband has closed her shop, and she no longer attends her mosque for fear of judgement and ridicule. Today, she is seeking asylum because life has become unbearable.
“My life has never been the same again, even now,” she says. “I’ve become something else [in the eyes] of my family. Even some of my friends that I knew when I was back home, they’ve all changed towards me. The insults I’ve been getting, my husband neglecting me, even my parents. It’s not easy for me…It’s not easy at all.”
FS, a student, activist and non-binary lesbian, says her relationship to activist work and her own sense of safety has transformed since her ordeal.
“Honestly, everything around me has changed, from how people relate to me and vice versa,” she explains. “Mentally, the flashbacks sometimes trigger a lot of isolation in me. [I] cross check everything about security when I’m at gatherings. I also avoid spaces where the Ho 21 will be the main topic…I’m still healing.”
TH, who is intersex, feels fragile and has had to leave Ghana. She was stripped naked, forcefully examined, and tortured in police custody. She says police officers shoved her into a male cell, insisted that she was not a woman, and encouraged prisoners to rape her. Some inmates rushed towards her, but two others stepped in to stop them. Shortly after being released, TH fled the country for fear of persecution.
“My life was at risk in Ghana,” she says. “When [people found out] that I’m part of that 21 arrested in Ho, I had to change my location to another place, I had to run for my life.”
Where do we go from here?
The plight of the Ho 21 is one example of the violence faced by LGBTI people in Ghana, where state actors feel free to violate rights that are meant to be protected under international and African human rights law as well as Ghana’s Constitution. Worrying, this violence is likely to get even worse if Parliament passes a new “Family Values Bill”.
First proposed in 2021, this proposed legislation has now had four public hearings and, if passed, would impose far-reaching restrictions on LGBTI rights in Ghana. Among other things, it would increase the criminal punishment for same-sex intercourse to up to five years of imprisonment, up from three. It would forcibly disband all LGBTI associations and make participation in any such organisations punishable by up to 10 year of imprisonment. And it would impose the same potential sentence on anyone who uses technological platforms to “promote” LGBTI activity or who teaches children about gender or sexuality beyond the heteronormative binary.
At this juncture, it is difficult to say if the bill will be passed, but many religious and cultural groups are in favour of it. Several politicians have also declared their support for it, including the current Speaker of Parliament who called the LGBTI presence in Ghana “worse than the COVID pandemic”.
The LGBTI community in Ghana has faced stigma, discrimination and violence for a long time. It is resourceful and resilient. But as we mark the anniversary of the Ho 21, I wonder how many more police raids, media witch-hunts, and hateful speeches from political and religious leaders we will be subjected to simply for existing? Where exactly do we go from here?