One trans woman’s fight against a bill that would criminalise Ghana’s LGBT+ community

It’s already illegal to be gay in Ghana and a new law could made LGBT+ advocacy punishable with 10 years in prison. Cooper Inveen meets a trans woman who is petrified about her future, but also defiant

Saturday 19 February 2022 00:01 GMT
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Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi, 40, a trans woman applies make-up before attending the funeral of her grandmother in her family's village in Ghana
Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi, 40, a trans woman applies make-up before attending the funeral of her grandmother in her family's village in Ghana (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

In a dimly-lit room with racks of women’s clothing, Ghanaian artist and LGBT+ activist Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi flipped through photo self-portraits illustrating her transition to womanhood.

Transitioning is not illegal in Ghana, but it will become so if a new law is passed, intended to tighten already strict anti-LGBT+ regulations which render same-sex relations illegal.

Homophobia is pervasive in the west African country and trans people are generally considered to be gay.

Fiatsi first exhibited the photographs, Rituals of Becoming, in 2017. Supportive audiences flocked to see the show in Ghanaian galleries.

Fiatsi holds two photographs showing her gender transition journey
Fiatsi holds two photographs showing her gender transition journey (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Fiatsi holds up a gown at her home and studio
Fiatsi holds up a gown at her home and studio (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

Her work reflects how LGBT+ people in Ghana have navigated legal and social constraints to carve out a space to express their identities.

But Fiatsi fears that even that limited space could now be closing with the new bill, which if it passes would see her risk prosecution every time she puts on a dress.

“To say I’m afraid is an understatement, but I am what I am,” said Fiatsi, who runs an artist residence in Kumasi, Ghana’s second city. “It feels like waiting to be slaughtered.”

Ghana is one of more than 30 African countries that outlaw same-sex relations. Guilty verdicts carry up to three-year prison sentences.

Artwork is seen in Fiatsi’s studio compound
Artwork is seen in Fiatsi’s studio compound (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Fiatsi visits local beautician, Lydia Kissiwaa, 33, to get her hair styled
Fiatsi visits local beautician, Lydia Kissiwaa, 33, to get her hair styled (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

A group of lawmakers from Ghana’s opposition introduced a so-called “Family Values Bill” in November, which would impose jail terms of up to 10 years for advocacy of LGBT+ causes and between three and five years for those who “hold out” as lesbian, gay, non-binary, transgender and transsexual, or who undergo or perform surgical procedures for gender reassignment.

The bill, which has broad backing among lawmakers but has yet to be voted on, also includes a provision that would force some to undergo conversion therapy. Amnesty International said this could violate Ghana’s anti-torture laws.

No politician has come out publicly against it. President Nana Akufo-Addo urged civil debate and tolerance when the bill was introduced, but did not take a stance on its content.

Opponents say its passage would be a major setback for a country whose reputation as a friendly and stable democracy attracts tourists and investors.

Fiatsi speaks on the phone at home with a member of the LGBT+ community
Fiatsi speaks on the phone at home with a member of the LGBT+ community (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Fiatsi poses for a photograph while reflecting on personal relationships
Fiatsi poses for a photograph while reflecting on personal relationships (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

Its backers say LGBT+ activities threaten the concept of family which is central to the structure of all Ghana’s ethnic groups. No voting date has been set.

“I call it the ‘Anti-Human’ bill,” said Fiatsi, who is a former Christian pastor. “It takes away from our family values of being a tolerant country, and being hospitable and loving.”

‘WE ARE ALL THE SAME’

There have been no national opinion polls on the bill. Advocates say LGBT+ people are often subject to physical abuse and blackmail in Ghana, and those who come out or are outed are frequently ostracised by friends and family.

“There are some of my siblings and cousins who, for over five years, we never spoke, even though I love and miss them so much,” said Fiatsi. “Most of them think I’m just a demon.”

So do many of her former colleagues. Christian leaders have been among the most outspoken champions of the bill. When public hearings began in November, Abraham Ofori-Kuragu, a spokesperson for the influential Pentecostal-Charismatic council, said he had never seen a law “so bold in its presentation of the Ghanaian agenda”.

More than 70 per cent of Ghana’s 30 million people are Christian, and billboards with the faces of popular preachers adorn most street corners in the capital, Accra. Some faith leaders condemn advocacy for LGBT+ rights as a western imposition.

Fiatsi stands inside her wardrobe
Fiatsi stands inside her wardrobe (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
A portrait of Fiatsi hanging on a wall at home
A portrait of Fiatsi hanging on a wall at home (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

No longer welcome at the churches where she used to preach, Fiatsi channels her evangelism into art and activism.

Her studio compound, where she hosts LGBT+-friendly artist residency programmes, is filled with sculptures carved from tree trunks or shaped from old electronics. Murals and affirmations like “We Are All The Same” line the walls.

She has a global network of allies but she insists she will stay in Ghana out of solidarity with those unable to leave.

Even as the perils of life as a trans woman rise, Fiatsi takes comfort in small acts of humanity. Shortly after the bill was introduced, she travelled for a funeral to her family’s village, her first time back in 20 years.

Fiatsi and her brother, Prince Fiatsi, 47, greet people as they arrive at their family’s village for the funeral of a their grandmother
Fiatsi and her brother, Prince Fiatsi, 47, greet people as they arrive at their family’s village for the funeral of a their grandmother (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)
Fiatsi talks with family members during visit back home
Fiatsi talks with family members during visit back home (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

She stood nervously in her dress and heels. Some people exchanged pleasantries, while others darted their eyes and quietly sniggered.

Before too long, the awkwardness gave way to familial warmth. A relative patted her back. Another asked how life was going. When someone made a snide comment, Fiatsi playfully stuck her tongue out before continuing her conversation.

“There are many more of us that will be born, even far after I’m gone,” she said. “What I do today is not for me, or even for those living today. It’s for the future generation.”

Photography by Francis Kokoroko, Reuters

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