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‘Listen to us’: LGBTQ activists seek help, prudence in raising human rights abroad

Last year, Trudeau denounced Uganda’s legislation that prescribes life imprisonment for homosexual acts
Alex Kofi Donkor from Ghana poses for a photo in Ottawa on Friday, May 19, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

LGBTQ activists say Canada should ramp up its help in the fight against an organized movement to clamp down on sexual and gender minorities in Africa, while being cautious about when to raise issues in public.

“We are being bullied into silence,” said Alex Kofi Donkor, the founder of LGBT+ Rights Ghana, on a visit to Ottawa.

“We always have a strategy and I hope you always listen to us.”

Ghana has outlawed homosexual acts since British rule, including under an existing criminal offence of “unnatural carnal knowledge.” Human Rights Watch says LGBTQ people in the country face a climate of fear and violence.

Donkor, 33, has tried to change that reality by starting a blog years ago to document human rights issues.

Eventually, the medical researcher launched an organization to inform media, preachers and politicians about LGBTQ issues. The group opened a physical office in January 2021, which police raided a month later and ordered closed.

By August 2021, the country’s parliament was debating a bill that would ban gender-affirming care and jail people for up to a decade for purportedly promoting LGBTQ activities.

And yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made no mention of the bill in the public portion of his meeting with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo two weeks ago on the sidelines of King Charles’s coronation in London.

That was the right move, Donkor said.

“There are times where we need that outward speaking and there are times where we don’t.”

Comments from foreign leaders can lend weight to the narrative that the West is trying to impose LBGTQ issues on Africa.

In March, Ghana’s presidential palace was lit up in the colours of the Ghana and U.S. flags to mark Vice-President Kamala Harris’s visit.

The lights resembled a rainbow, causing outcry from conservatives who claimed the U.S. was trying to push its agenda.

Then at a joint press conference with Akufo-Addo, Harris was asked to comment on the bill by an American journalist, and called it a “human rights issue.”

Donkor said he was already fielding interview requests about the projected rainbow lights, and the Harris exchange created more pushback.

“It caused another wave, like ‘Oh, let’s hurry up and pass the bill. How dare Harris come and tell us who we are? We are Africans, who have values blah, blah, blah.’ And then we have to come and defend that.”

Donkor spoke at an event in Ottawa this week about how countries with feminist foreign policies should address sexual orientation and gender identity.

The panellists noted that in reality, some anti-LGBTQ groups are getting Western funding.

A report by the left-leaning Political Research Associates think tank found Evangelical groups in the U.S. are funding anti-gay organizations across Africa, and an investigation by the Institute for Journalism and Social Change that tracked U.S. aid dollars funding anti-gay campaigns in Uganda.

Damjan Denkovski of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy in Berlin said Russian laws against “homosexual propaganda” are being replicated in other countries, and that Moscow derails United Nations investigations into human rights in various countries by claiming that the West is imposing on local values.

“We cannot allow fundamental human rights and dignity to be a sideshow to geopolitics in this way.”

Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, head of the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, said that means activists and governments need to step up.

“We are dealing with a well resourced, well co-ordinated transnational movement against the rights of 2SLGBTQ people, women, and all other oppressed folks, and it’s going to require that level of co-ordination and funding to respond to it,” she told the panel.

Owusu-Akyeeah’s parents immigrated from Ghana and she said the crackdown in that country impacts the diaspora abroad.

“It impacts how our parents here and how our elders here view queer and trans rights, even though they live in Canada,” she said in an interview.

Owusu-Akyeeah said she’s often in touch with LGBTQ activists and Canada’s diplomats in Ghana, and uses her past experience as a Global Affairs Canada analyst to suggest ways to advance rights.

“It’s not necessarily positioning ourselves as knowing what’s best, but it’s listening to the people directly impacted and having their suggestions, recommendations inform what decisions we make,” she said.

Still, Donkor said a political and cultural calculation needs to be made by world leaders in deciding whether to raise these issues while visiting other countries.

Last November, Trudeau took it upon himself to denounce Uganda’s “appalling and abhorrent” legislation that prescribes a death penalty for having sex while being HIV positive, and life imprisonment for homosexual acts.

And on Friday, Trudeau called out the Italian government during a bilateral meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the G7 Leaders’ Summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

Meloni’s far-right-led government has moved to limit recognition of parental rights to the biological parent in families with same-sex parents. “Obviously, Canada is concerned about some of the (positions) that Italy is taking in terms of LGBT rights,” Trudeau told Meloni at the start of the meeting.

As for Donkor, he’s returning Saturday to Ghana despite death threats and physical attacks that would likely give him a shot at a refugee claim in Canada. He has hope his country can embrace its past as a matriarchal society that welcomed diversity.

He said colonial churches imposed a gender binary, but there are still rural communities with people who “integrate between two genders, and are revered within the society.”

Donkor similarly blames colonial policies for the political instability that has produced coups and poverty, which he said is what drives many to a hard line form of Christianity espoused by U.S. missionaries in the 1980s.

The end result, he said, is a society where doctors read out Bible passages to transgender people who visit a hospital for a stomach illness, and nurses who refuse to treat gay people for fear of going to hell.

Donkor said Canadians can help, but only if they let Ghanaians take the lead.

“We have the answers because we are the ones who are facing it,” he said.

“We will tell you what to say, and what will work.”

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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