Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Price of Ignorance: Homosexuality in Ghana

My best friend, Jeremy, and I were trying to check into the Hotel, and we were arguing with the management about the price. I have become somewhat of a haggling expert in my handful of months here, but this was a different kind of negotiation entirely.

“The price on that board says 35 (cedis) for a single and 55 or a double. We would like a double, so we are offering to pay the listed price of 55 per night.”
“Yes, but if it’s two men staying in the same room, then you must pay 65.”
“Listen, I know how negotiations work here. We could haggle to pay well less than the listed price up there, but we’re not even doing that. We will pay exactly what it says for a double room.”
“If my boss came and saw two men in the same room only paying 55, I would be in trouble.”

Jeremy had just flown in from an HIV/AIDS conference he had helped organize in Johannesburg (South Africa) to visit me for a few days. I had reserved a room for the two of us for two nights, since I lived pretty far from the center of town. We had “big” plans to go out at night, so it was much more convenient for me to just stay at the hotel with him. I had put up some of my colleagues at this hotel over New Years, so I knew the two women behind the counter, and they were very friendly in my past encounter. The hotel is by far the best deal for the price, in a very good location. In the cab ride over from the airport, Jeremy had confessed that he hadn’t eaten or slept in over a week in the run-up to and during the conference he had planned. Knowing Jeremy, I knew that this was an exaggeration, but only a slight one. He looked very beat, we had just watched the sun rise, and both of us needed to crash for a bit.

“Where does it say that two men must pay more? All it says is 35 for a single and 55 or double.”
“I cannot give it to you for 55. I’m sorry, but I cannot. I would be in trouble.”
“Listen, I think I know what’s going on here. Scotty and I were roommates at university. We’ve slept in the same room many times. It is normal in the U.S. You said that the bed could be separated into two smaller single beds, right? Can you do that? Would it help if we went out, picked up some girls and brought them back to the room with us?

Jeremy was successful in getting a little chuckle out of them after that one. He has always been good at that kind of thing, defusing tense situations. The main manager looked down at her intertwined hands resting on the blank countertop behind which she was all but pontificating. This “conversation” had been going on for several minutes now, and no one was budging. Finally, she started to look visibly distraught.

“Would it be easier for you if we just left?” Without looking up, she slightly nodded her head.
“OK then, we’ll go. Thanks for your time.”

We weren’t exactly mobile, as Jeremy had a few bags from his flight, and we had taken a cab here from the airport. But I knew of two other hotels within a chip shot of this one, so we slung the bags over our shoulders and made our way out the door and down the street.

“I know we’re essentially arguing about less than $10, but it’s the principle of the thing. We’ll try these two other hotels over here and see what happens.”
“Yeah man, I agree. That was pretty messed up.”
“I mean, maybe I should have foreseen this problem, but I’m not sure how I could have. My colleagues, who were a male and a female, had stayed together in a single room for less than 35 (cedis). Now they are saying that we have to pay more than 55 because we both have penises. Come to think of it, I can’t remember seeing any outwardly gay people since I’ve been here.”

But our luck only got worse from there. When we asked about vacancies at the first hotel, the guy looked suspiciously from me to Jeremy and then tersely spat “No rooms available.” We left without another word. At the second hotel, one of the employees was showing us up the stairs to a double room, when he stopped, turned, and said “It is just one of you staying here, yes?” “No, we will both be staying in the room.” we countered. “Two men in the same room is not allowed.” he said as he motioned for us to turn around and walk back down the stairs.

Standing in the early morning light outside the last hotel in the area that had rejected us, I looked from Jeremy to the bags and asked “So, what do you want to do?” “I don’t know, man, this is getting a little ridiculous.” Yeah. Again, sorry I did not foresee this.” I looked back at the first hotel. “You know me, man. I really don’t want to have to go back there with my tail between my legs, but I think it’s our best option at this point.” Jeremy agreed, and we made our way back there. When we entered the lobby, our friends were sitting on the couches there.

“Alright, alright, you win. We’ll pay the 65.” I said casually in an effort to foster a more congenial atmosphere this time around. I was successful, as they both broke into uproarious laughter.
“HAHAHA. What happened?”
“Well, there were no openings across the street, and then they said it was not allowed next door.”
“We told you it was not allowed.”

We almost got into it again, as I could not help myself but explain that they had never come out and say it was not allowed, rather that all we had to do was pay some extra money. There was a big difference. Anyways, that side note was able to be skirted and for the rest of our stay were acted like old friends with an inside joke.

That night, I took Jeremy out around town to various ex-pat hangouts in Accra, and it so happened that at one of them, we saw a group of flamboyant gay men singing and dancing and having a good time: the first gays I could remember seeing in Ghana. In most of the American cities with which I’m most familiar – DC, Chicago, New York – there are entire neighborhoods that are known to be LGBT havens and seeing gays and lesbians in your everyday experience is nothing to write home about. But their absence in Accra was something that had gone completely unnoticed by me for months, so that when I finally thought about it, it made a lot of sense. It was one of those great coincidences in life that we came across them that same day, but it is not a coincidence at all that they were there and not somewhere else.

Homosexuality is illegal in Ghana. Under Ghanaian law, it is considered “unnatural carnal knowledge” and lumped in with beastiality as a misdemeanor or first-degree felony, depending on the consent of the partner. The Constitution of Ghana guarantees the protection of all human rights for Ghanaian citizens “whatever his race, place of origin, political opinion, color, religion, creed or gender”, but does not mention sexuality. What results is that gays in Ghana constantly live in fear. In this deeply religious nation, homosexuality is considered and evil act that is not naturally “African.” Many view it as an export from the Europe and the Americas, and gays are put on the same level as thieves and pedophiles. Certain churches have been known to conduct exorcisms to remove the evil homosexual spirits from those afflicted with this disease. Gays are also correlated with poverty here, since many of them are disowned by family members and thrown out on the streets at a young age. If a gay man were to report an assault to the police, he (the victim) is just as likely to be thrown in jail as his assailants.

As more and more states and territories in the U.S. recognize gay marriage (way to be DC!), across the pond gays are still considered criminals in the eyes of the law. In September of 2006, an LGBT conference that was to take place in Ghana was banned by the government with an official statement from then Minister of Information: "Ghanaians are unique people whose culture, morality and heritage totally abhor homosexual and lesbian practices and indeed any other form of unnatural sexual acts." Even human rights officials have admitted that Ghana is “not ready” to recognize gay rights.

And by no means is this just a Ghanaian issue. Jeremy was quick to remind me that he had flown in from South Africa instead of Uganda, where his HIV/AIDS conference was originally supposed to be held. It had been moved from Uganda as a show of protest of their pending anti-gay legislation, which was recently condemned by a bipartisan U.S. Senate committee. The legislation would expand penalties (including the death penalty) for homosexuality and require Ugandan citizens to report information about homosexuality to the police or face imprisonment. No, this is a most-of-Africa-except-South-Africa-issue.

That is why it is not a coincidence that Jeremy and I saw the group of gay men that night at the ex-pat bar (rather than a Ghanaian hang out). It is probably one of the only places in Accra that they feel comfortable being themselves. After a lifetime of being in the closet and pretending to be something they are not, who can blame them for singing and dancing and turning the volume up to 11? Even the BBC covered this topic in a 2007 article entitled, “Ghana’s Secret Gay Community.”

I have been quick to compliment Ghana on its strong democracy, free press and other liberty-promoting institutions, but this was a nice reminder that it still has a long way to go. In fact, the world still has a long way to go. I am reminded of a talk show I saw (blanking on which one), where the guest, “Family Guy” creator Seth Macfarlane, said of the gay marriage issue (paraphrasing): “Everyone who has ever been on the side of denying equal rights to fellow human beings has been shown to be on the wrong side of history. This can be said for civil rights, women’s suffrage, and gay marriage is no different. History will show that they are wrong.” Whatever your thoughts may be on his crass, crude, controversial TV show, I thought this to be extremely profound and true. I hope it is just a matter of time. But even if it is, we really need to speed things up, because we continue to pay the price for every second that is lost, both literally and figuratively.



    The comments might be even worse and more disgusting than the facts of the story.

  2. Hi! Long time no talk, but this reminded me of a piece on Ghana one of my Nightline friends produced that aired last week...

    Hope you're doing well!

  3. Hi Dave and Leigh,

    Great to hear from both of you, as always, and thanks for the really interesting links! Dave, yes, the comments on that article are pretty horrifying. Most of them being worse than the facts of the case, and a good reminder that these sorts of prejudices certainly exist in all parts of the world: rich and poor. Leigh, the Nightline piece is on Uganda, not Ghana, but yes, this gets back to what I was talking about regarding why Jeremy's HIV/AIDS conference had to be moved from Uganda to South Africa. Thanks again for the good comments!

  4. Yo dude,

    Hope all is well. I think Linds is visiting right now. Give her my best. When would be a good time to get you on the phone, or this crazy thing called skype? I am still very technology illiterate. Let me know. I might have some medium size news regarding my lack of solid employment. Hope all is well on the other side of the pond. Thanks man.