At first, Xorlali did not know that he was gay until people called him gay in school. When he played dress-up with his mother’s make-up, shoes and clothes, he felt it was a perfectly ordinary thing to do. In his very sheltered life as the only child of a well-off single mother, he could be anything he wanted and still be loved regardless. His childhood was loving. His life was happy.
In senior high school, Xorlali had a Religious Moral Education teacher, a Reverend Sister, who was overly obsessed with gay sex. She turned whole periods into an avenue for talking about how homosexuality was evil, how homosexuals had the destiny to burn in hell but had to, first of all, live a difficult life here on earth with gaping assholes and diseases. Whenever she made these comments, she looked at Xorlali so that not just him but all his classmates knew she was referring to him. She found that opportunity to cite him as an example, a homosexual example.
“Later in senior high, I got suspended for being a homosexual,” Xorlali said. When asked how the school authority got to know of his sexuality, Xorlali clarified, “They did not catch me having sex or in any compromising position. Someone asked me, no, accused me, of being homosexual, and I said, ‘Yes, that I was homosexual.’ And the school suspended me. Their reason was that the boys were agitating to harm me and so they couldn’t ensure my safety”.
When his school suspended him, Xorlali’s mother felt her heart break and tear. She loved her son and had no other child but him, but she was also a deeply religious woman who honestly believed it was a sin to be gay and that all gay men would burn in hell. She was also very practical and knew their society was not kind to men like her son. For her, she wished he could change, grow out of it, or just stop being gay so that he could live a peaceful life and his soul be saved. However, she knew that discussions concerning his soul would matter after he had died. For the moment he was alive, he needed good education to stand a fighting chance in life, so she hired private lesson teachers to prepare Xorlali for the West African Senior Secondary Certificate Examination (WASSCE).
Before sharing stories about his life, Xorlali made a caveat that he was in no way representative of most people that make up the LGBTQ+ population in Ghana. He came from a home that was more than financially comfortable. His mother loved him, valued his education, and did not let her prejudices affect her role in his life as his mother. He was also an only child. “Other gay people have it worse. When most people get expelled from school, it is usually the end for them. They do not get the opportunity to further their education. Their loved ones ostracise them, and their lives become harder. For most people, it is downhill from there.”
Xorlali quickly understood how institutionalized homophobia was. He knew that merely existing was an uphill battle for the average gay Ghanaian. “You will be fired from your job if your employer finds out you are gay. You will not even be hired if you are femme-presenting” he said as we talked. Xorlali knew he had to take actions for himself.
“I knew it also mattered much if you were rich or poor. Being rich does not entirely eliminate your chances of experiencing homophobia in Ghana, but it significantly reduces it and gives you the option of acting in response,” Xorlali explained. Since most of the homophobic actions of many Ghanaians are unlawful – at least until the anti-gay bill becomes law, he found loopholes around it to be able to navigate his society. “I decided I was going to be so rich that homophobia would not be able to touch me.”
To escape homophobia, Xorlali decided that the first thing to do would be to secure himself financially. He made sure his income did not come from someone dimming him ‘employable’. “It was part of the reason I started my business. But having a brand is not enough because you would see people who would still try to avoid you or who would refuse to patronize you because you are femme-presenting and word on the street or general suspicion is that you are gay, so you have to make sure that you are the best at what you do. That way, even if they say they do not want to patronize you, all referrals will lead them back to you whenever they want the best service at record time delivery.” Before Xorlali left Ghana, he had a thriving fashion brand. He styled some of the biggest celebrities and important personnels in Ghana. “The other thing to do as a gay person in Ghana that will ensure your survival is to have the right contacts. Have some members of the police and some goro boys on your payroll. They are the ones that will immediately step in if someone tries to start some trouble with you or harass you.” Xorlali understands that he should not have to go to these extents to live happily and peacefully in any society, especially where he calls home.
After Xorlali moves to New York for his Masters at NYU, he spent a short while in Bronx before moving over to Manhattan because he did not want to experience the salient homophobia that is not uncommon in black dominated areas like Bronx. “In Manhattan, everyone is so nice and accepting. You are free to be who you are, to love who you want to, and to exist as you wish,” Xorlali said.
There is a structure of homophobia in Ghana that strips suspected and presumed gay people of all forms of agency. This structure ensures that no one would openly want to associate with them and that if they are ever a victim of harassment, their harasser can go scot-free. Schools can expel students, and employers can fire employees from jobs even when they have been of impeccable conduct, and nothing would happen. In most cases, this also means education, a source of livelihood, healthcare, and other legitimate provisions people get for being a part of a community are things gay people cannot expect to have in Ghana.
Isaac, a Ghanaian undergrad student living in New York puts the Ghana homophobia problem into more lucid perspectives for non-Ghanaian watchers. “In Ghana, homophobia is a clear-cut, intentional, well-orchestrated media war waged against Homosexual Ghanaians. Those behind this know what they are doing and are not interested in playing fair.” Isaac argues that this is evident in how radically local media outlets share contents that misquote and misrepresent Gay Ghanaians. “A clear example is when some Ghanaian gay rights activists spoke up against the wanton attacks on suspected gay men and asked the government to protect these people from being attacked since they are all Ghanaian citizens who no one can prove are breaking any laws, but local media outlets reported that gay people were asking for the legalisation of gay marriage. This was an intentional act to deviate from the conversation and to deepen the rage an already sensationalized audience that they have consistently misinformed.” When you think of these words, Ghana’s homophobia playbook becomes as clear as day. Unlike their counterpart Nigeria, that has a clear-cut anti-gay law, that amongst other things, denies LGBTQ+ persons a right to community, Ghana, with no such law in place yet, has succeeded in doing this by creating enough national fear and hate of Gay people.
As a teenager, Isaac experienced these outcomes of national sensationalism even in his own home. When his father had reason to believe he was gay, he saw what he still refers to as “hell”. “My father saw an email I had received from a gay lifestyle magazine I had subscribed to and asked me if I was gay. I denied it and said it must have been a random spam, but he did not believe me. I received the beating of my life for that event. That era became the worst period of my life. It was hell. They did all sorts of things to me to ‘cure’ me, they punished me, grounded me, and took me for deliverance sessions in prayer houses. It was a very bleak time for me.” To make matters worse for Isaac, this happened during the long vacation after he completed his senior high, so he had no escape from his horror.
The horrors at home in those days were not the last Isaac saw while in Ghana. “I was fired from a job because my employer heard rumours that I may be gay,” Isaac recounted. He had worked excellently, met up with deliverables, and conducted himself perfectly. But some people suspected that he might be gay because of his femme mien and raised their concerns to his boss, who subsequently fired him.
In New York, Isaac met an entirely different work environment. “Once my colleagues found out I was gay, they were very welcoming of it and did not treat me any differently. If anything, I think them knowing improved my experience of them and the whole space,” Isaac said. Moving from a place where his boss fired him because of suspicions that he may be gay to a place where his colleagues were very welcoming of his sexuality was the change Isaac needed but could not envision.
Just like Xorlali, Isaac also pointed out that his experiences are in no way representative of the typical experience of a Ghanaian gay person. For them, the good fortune of being born on the right side of the class system tints their shared experience with options. Whereas for most gay people, this is far from the reality. For the latter, the cycle is always the same; someone suspects you are gay, then reports you to your school authorities or employers, who unceremoniously dismiss you, leaving you without an education or any form of agency. If you go to the hospital even as a femme-presenting man, the doctor can turn you away. And if a prospective partner from Grindr or Tinder happens to harass or even kill you, no justice can come out of it. That is what it means to be gay in Ghana.
To escape these realities, Queer Ghanaians who can, leave the country for countries where they can live as full humans. Fortunately for those that found their way to the Big Apple, they do not just get to live, they get to thrive.
Writer: Ernest Nweke Editors: Chimee Adioha, Amaka Obioji Featured image: Open Democracy