Updated: Jun 27
Interview with David Larbi
(General Secretary LGBT+ Rights Ghana)
There was a time when Ghana was seen to be an outwardly positive and respectable nation, however that reputation has come into question, due to the arrest of 21 LGBTQ nationals in February 2021.
Part of an organization called LGBT+ Rights Ghana, these team of professionals were creating a safe space in the country’s capital Accra whereby the LGBTQ community could access support and help, as well as being in a place of solitude to be part of conversations to share experiences of living in conservative and highly religious centric society.
Having had a positive and successful launch of the safe space on Sunday 31st January 2021, the following morning however things took a much more sinister turn, as staff members at LGBT+ Rights Ghana, who turned up for a normal day's work only to find themselves without any caution being arrested and detained by government authorities.
Fearing for his own life, the organisation’s General secretary David Larbi, found himself having to flee his own home, as due to officials carrying out witch hunts to try and locate David and any of the organisation’s other affiliates, the place which was meant to be a place of sanctuary was no longer safe.
With David currently finding himself moving from one safe house to another, we were grateful to him for having the strength and courage to give us an honest insight to the situation in Ghana, and the oppressive tactics which those in power are using to silence the voices of the country's marginalised communities.
What you are about to read is not just a conversation but a first hand account of the harrowing realities and struggles that members of the LGBTQ community, such as David Larbi and his colleagues have to endure on a daily basis.
How are you today David?
I am fine, it’s just that there are a lot of things happening at the same time. A Lot of people have been left to feel quite traumatised and speaking personally I am emotionally drained because it hasn't been easy.
I understand that at the minute you are staying in a friend's house and have had to move from one safe house to another these past few weeks, so how have you been feeling particularly with the situation in Ghana becoming even more intense on a daily basis?
Generally I felt that first of all my acceptance and the acceptance of people, in general, has been taken away from us. People need to look beyond just seeing us based purely on our sexuality because the first thing they see is your sexuality but don’t see beyond that in terms of the abilities you have and the impact that you make in society and the contribution you can bring to the table. It makes me feel like I am not needed or that others even see me as a human beings, because there have been points where homophobic people have compared us to animals. That is even a struggle I and many like me have had growing up because we can’t be ourselves so growing up your mind is programmed from birth that you can never be yourself no matter what so you have to continue hiding. This will literally make you depressed. Having experienced that myself, I don't think I have had the time to reflect on the whole issue because we are being witch hunted so it is important to create a safe space where we can find ourselves, so even though the attacks are on going, we are still working towards that goal. It has been quite challenging for me because I do not know if I am coming or if I am going because I cannot even go back to where I live, to my own house, because of the situation.
Going back slightly, at what point in your life did you start to feel comfortable in your own skin where you felt you were proud of who you are and were ready to celebrate your identity?
I grew up in a society where heterosexuality is the norm so that is what I got to know, but growing up I always felt that I was different and didn't conform to what society wants me to adhere to. I remember feeling that I must be possessed because I was brought up in the church and God's ways of living and all that and seeing myself doing contrary to what the church was preaching. I couldn’t really understand it, and because I didn’t really know anybody else, I thought it was only me who is gay or is queer which was really a challenge for me. I would go to church several times a day praying to God to save me from this sinful act. It even got to a point where I would have to go to prayer camps and stay sometimes for a week because the reason I was going in the first place was to ask God to change me and to make me someone who society sees and likes because social norms differ from me being different.
That happens for a while, but then in 2016 I sat down and said to myself, ‘listen I have prayed so many times hoping that God will intervene but it didn't work’ then I said ok fine, the will of God shall be done because if I have prayed and nothing is happening, I am still who I am and I still feel the same, then this is who God created me to be so I need to learn to love myself. During that time I also found a community where I realised I am no longer alone in identifying as queer. There was an LGBTQ community and also a larger community out there, so it was in 2016 that was the moment I accepted myself and my sexuality.
When society said to you ‘no this is not acceptable David’, can you remember how you were feeling and who your frustrations were aimed at the most?
Thank you for this question! It has been a question that I have always tried to answer with my experience. In a way, my frustration went to my dad, because I knew how it felt to be rejected by the very people who need to care for you and never did. So growing up it was quite a toxic family where without actually knowing why my dad would just hit me. He would always go out of the way to make me understand that I am not his and so I would be physically and emotionally abused by him, even sometimes when I would only innocently be walking up to talk to him because it was clear he had a clear disliking to me. When I got to know that this is my sexuality and this is where my attraction goes, my frustration was directed to him because I felt he rejected me and he hasn't been a good father, so I didn’t have any positive fatherly role model to guide me to the right path and this is where I find myself now.
How long was this abuse going on for?
Literally throughout every period of growing up, even when I was very young. There was a point in life he would constantly slap me at a very young age and I still remember, but then it also got to a stage where it was getting worse, so my mum had to take me from my dad’s and take me to my aunt's place. It was just so volatile so for my own safety I would have to spent a period of my life living with my mum’s sister because I just couldn't understand the abuse that my dad was putting me through. With my mum though, growing up I literally felt that the love my mother had for me was so valuable. The people I have known in my life that matter, are my mum and my sister because they have been there in bad, difficult and hard times.
When I was young I was always coming across as quite feminine and I was living my life as a young person and I didn't really know anything about different sexualities, I was just being myself, so I don’t remember a time where my mum has ever discriminated against me on how I behave as a male. Even when people would comment, my mum would step in to defend and tell those people not to call me certain names. My mum has been a person who has always made me feel welcome and together with my sister they both have been the source of my encouragement in life.
How did that fight to stand strong against rejection look like as you became older and were stepping out into the world a bit more?
I think before accepting who I am it was never really a problem because people would be assuming that I am conforming to the norm of society, but once I did accept that then changed. I remember I would make posts on social media showing where I stand in terms of my solidarity with LGBTQ rights, but the negative result of that was that people I would've known for a long time would suddenly behave differently to me. For example, there was an occasion where a school friend who knew I was queer, at face value was quite welcoming but when an incident happened and my pictures were out there he started to make more homophobic comments. Looking at the situation I said ‘listen if you can’t respect me for who I am, and value me as a human being and accept me for my sexuality, then that is the end, you’re not my friend’. Since that has happened there has been a little discrimination here and there because people don’t like it when you say you are queer.
Let’s talk about the current situation you find yourself in right now in Ghana. What has it been like living in Ghana during these very troubling times?
So Ghana has always been homophobic because there have always been contstant attacks and blackmail, but officials have been very clever in trying to cover it up. When LGBT+ Rights Ghana was founded we set up an activism blog to raise awareness and to shed more light on the struggles that the LGBTQ community goes through. In 2018 however I was blackmailed by someone who I thought was a friend on social media, who we hadn’t been chatting about anything LGBTQ related, and he suggested that we meet, not knowing that secretly he had another hidden agenda. He had colluded with some people to ambush me in public. They had pepper spray, they took my phone and all my other possessions so I was able to experience the discrimination first hand.
When we started LGBT+ Rights Ghana, people started reporting cases of abuses happening in every part of Ghana, so we thought actually it is time we say no we will not stand for this and it is about high time we shed light on everything that has been happening, and that is the journey we have continued to be part of. When it got to January 2021 we thought it was the right time to create a space for the community where people can come and find solace, where people can come and find social therapy and seek counselling for anything relating to their sexuality, which was why we established the community space in the first place.