On the first day of Ghana’s 2019 legislative year, lawmakers approved the “Alternative Law Enforcement and Anti-Gay Bill,” which carries penalties of up to 14 years in prison for people who engage in sexual relations outside of marriage, carries a mandatory jail sentence of 10 years for those who have sex with minors under 16 years of age, and imposes other restrictions against LGBTQ people, such as equal rights to inheritance and property and no assisted suicide.
Notwithstanding criticism in local and international media, the bill’s passage quickly triggered a wave of vitriolic criticism and threats on social media, and it prompted concerns in government that the legislation, if passed, could endanger the country’s reputation abroad.
Though the bill passed without opposition, within weeks the real-world issues facing LGBTQ people in Ghana began to materialize.
Following an announcement earlier this month that a US federal judge had revoked the visa of a gay man after his arrest last year at a gay bar in Ghana, according to outlets including Al Jazeera, the threat of being denied travel to the United States has renewed concerns of harassment against LGBTQ people, whom many associate with law enforcement.
The new Trump administration has made clear that it considers LGBTQ people as criminals, refugees, and terrorists. The alarming trend raises the question of whether US groups with links to the far-right are working with Ghana to target gay and bisexual men for arrest.
The case of Steven Byers, a 30-year-old IT engineer from Florida, who was arrested at a gay bar in Accra last September, sparked major international outrage when it was revealed last month that he had been denied a travel visa for the US because he was out as gay.
Gay and bisexual men have been arrested and detained in Ghana for engaging in sex outside of marriage. They are rarely charged with a criminal offense under the colonial-era “open crime” law, which has no defined limit for a “crime.” In 2003 the country passed legislation limiting some aspects of homosexual activity to heterosexual couples.
But even though the constitution of Ghana, one of Africa’s most developed countries, is made up of progressive measures, LGBTQ activists there continue to face persecution because they are considered to be “gender deviants” — a term used in much the same way that drug pushers are considered “unclean” and illegal. Homosexuality was decriminalized in Nigeria by the Court of Appeal in 2014, but it was only taken nationwide in 2017.
While Byers was locked up for months at a time without bond, a security guard who broke down the doors of the bars at his men’s room was held for nearly two months without being charged. He eventually received community service and a reprimand for “misbehaving” in public spaces, though the official report does not indicate any specific crimes he had committed. A Ghanaian government spokesperson, however, told the press that by using the term “misbehaving”, which does not refer to a criminal offense, the “security guard cannot be charged with a crime.”
With the arrest of Byers, accused homosexuals in Ghana were seen as “Western agents coming to destabilize the young nation,” Michael Osei-Aidoo, who is gay and also from Florida, said in a press conference in a local newspaper, which promoted his call for a #boycottGhana campaign to mobilize more attention for Byers’ case. Osei-Aidoo left Ghana and now resides in a wheelchair in his home state of Georgia. He is still injured as a result of the beating he received in Ghana.
The police force’s handling of the case has attracted international scrutiny. In a recent post on Twitter, the organization Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the victims are “actually at risk of abuse and even worse.”
The man arrested at the bar Byers went to, Eric Badu, said the experience has changed him. “When [the police] searched [my] room, they discovered an online journal, and my phone,” Badu told the Ghanaian press. “I was deeply shocked, because I’ve never in my life seen that in the Ghanaian civil service.”
Badu said he decided to leave the country when the police threatened to take him to court unless he confessed to any sexual acts he had been involved in. “I think of being stuck in a legal system and subjected to harassment and jail. That is not a place I want to be,” he said.
In a statement, the Ghanaian government criticized the way the case was handled. “This administration is already undertaking measures to review visa applications for those who pose a security threat,” the statement