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.
We planned on also having meetings and a forum where we could discuss our struggle as try our best to navigate through the issues we were facing. When we finally secured the space in Accra on 31st January 2021, we had an official opening and a fundraiser which was such a happy moment but then on the following day, the media started publishing our pictures including the pictures of the ambassadors who were present, which it didn’t take long till it caught the attention of Anti-LGBTQ organisations which became a national conversation.
As an organisation, we have always prided ourselves on being unapologetic with who we are and the work that we do, so when you visit our social media pages all our pictures are there for people to see. The problem though is that the media here in Ghana is also biased and they have always been homophobic, so they would select certain pictures from our own social media and start reposting them everywhere, even a picture I took in 2019 with the Human Rights Campaign President, Alfonso David who was in Ghana at the time. So when that incident happened I was spending most of the time at home, with occasional visits to the community space, I couldn’t go out because it was just so intense.
There were videos and pictures about us out there, so I could only go out in the evening with a cap and hood up trying to make sure nobody sees me because people would recognise my face. On the 24th February 2021, the police raided the office space where some of my colleagues including our Director was present, who had to flee. How I came to know about it was by chance because there were a group of guys close to the area where space is located, and showed my sister some of the pictures that they had gathered, in an attempt to ID people, and asking her to tell them where I was.
Knowing the lengths they were going to try and find me, it was in that moment the reality of how unsafe things had become only started to sink in, so I too had to flee and join my other colleague. For the past few weeks, we have just been moving around from one safe house to another because most of our safe houses are Air B N B’s so we are not meant to be at a particular place for long because there is the risk that people may come to know we are in the area and blow the whistle and we might get attacked. People will message us, threatening to kill us and burn us. As I am the General Secretary for LGBT+ Rights Ghana, the main number to contact us is linked to me, so people will go to the extent of even sending voice notes verbally abusing me which has been just an example of the struggles we have had to go through.
Ghana as a whole, the system has been oppressive, because last year in February 2020 I was arrested when I was working with a charity called Creating Barriers For The Liberation Of Africa, and we were using an office as a human rights media hub, where we would use social media to shed more light on the diverse struggles when it comes to lots of different rights such as women's rights, black lives matter, etc. I was handling the LGBTQ aspects of the organisation, so during that time the National Security in Ghana, which is put together by every government that is put into power, one Thursday afternoon all of a sudden we could hear guns targeting the compounds of the office and could also hear people shouting and screaming from outside. Everyone was told to lie down on the floor as the National Security officials stood over us with their guns, all the while you could hear the sounds of the bullets firing outside too. They were telling us if anyone runs, they are going to shoot the person. So anyway lying on the ground, with everyone barricaded in the office, I felt a thump on the back as I was a man, because it is an attempt by the National Security to punish and abuse men, and would also confiscate our phones and our laptops and anything that we had.
When I stood up I asked them ‘why are you here, where is the warrant of arrest?’ because first of all, you cannot come to a private residence with guns to arrest us especially as we are not criminals and approach us in such a panicking style. They didn't really know what to say to those questions, so they just slapped me and abused me and in the end, they put me in handcuffs and gave me a different car to my colleagues where I was made to sit on the floor because they disliked how I was challenging them. Me and my other colleagues were detained for several hours, and one of the things that were quite surprising to hear when we finally started to get some answers for the reason behind their treatment towards us, was that they saw us as a threat to the current government. How can we be a threat? When you are being responsible and drawing awareness on important issues where we are not holding any one person responsible but opening up conversations for the attitudes to be addressed.
The whole process they put us through where they would make us report to their offices on a daily basis, intimidating us with their questioning and more, really left me traumatised where I would be waking up in the middle of the night crying. Even when the officers came to the office to arrest us, I just remember thinking this could be the end of my life, because of the way that they treat and abuse you, you always feel when they take you into custody you will never see any of your loved ones ever again. The abuse has always been there, and one year down the line now the LGBTQ are finding themselves under serious attack where we are being hunted all over and having to run for our lives, even up to now where 21 of our colleagues are being detained for no reason.
If you are trying to create a safe space in Accra, which is not causing any harm to anyone, what is it you think that officials are scared about?
I would say that the officials are scared because first of all it's all related to religion. As a result of religious values, this has brought unrealistic demands. Ghanaians are very conservative when it comes to their beliefs because they believe that first of all they believe we are a curse on the nation and that due to our existence the wrath of God will descend on the country. People are being taught how to be homophobic right from infancy because society has made gender and sexuality static and seen in a particular way so the country does not really accept diversity and inclusion when it comes to everybody. So basically the leaders and those in positions of trust are the same people who go to church every day, and they are the same people who believe in the bible and what their teachers are telling them. They are using religion as a way of manifesting homophobia, so I would say what the leaders are more concerned about is that if they show acceptance then they risk compromising their strong values as people and devotion to the Ghanian culture.
So it sounds like the government on the surface want to show they are in favour of diversity, but in actual fact they are being quite selective and cherry-picking, the bits they want and bits that they don’t want?
Yeah. I think that has always been the case. People will select things that make them feel comfortable but at the same, they don’t go beyond that due to reputation sake because Ghana for instance has a really good reputation when it comes to the international community. Ghana is being applauded as one of the best countries in Africa, so in order to maintain that the country pretends to be welcoming and tolerating of its people, but that is not the case. We on the ground know what it is because when our leaders attend Commonwealth meetings or even United Nations meetings, they present the situation to be accepting and tolerant but in reality, it is a different thing. Clearly, that is why then we want to shed the light on the issues and the struggles we go through as a community. One of the things I have come to know is that political leaders don’t want their bad deeds towards their marginalized citizens to become public knowledge, especially on an international scale. So if you attempt to challenge that, then they are going to do whatever it takes to silence you, which is exactly based on recent events we are seeing right now. This is why we are more determined to make the world know we are suffering, we are bleeding, we are being hunted, we are being tortured, violated and all of that. They in turn are tying their own way to deal with us because they will know that whatever Ghana tells the world about its good human rights protocols, it is a lie. They abuse human rights in this country, and rule of law is always bent on oppression to prevail.
So when the international media have reported on some of the incidents that have been happening in recent weeks, and even the hashtag ‘#release21’ trending on social media, so what is their response when asked to give an explanation?
They don’t say anything and I think that is due to fear of losing their international reputation because they don’t want to take the human rights stand for Ghanaians. One of the things about Ghana due to political power our leaders are very power-drunk and will go to any means to get power, so if it means denouncing the human rights of people for them to get to where they want to be, then they will do it. As a result, they are caught in between their own political gain on one hand, and the standards of the international community on the other. So if you look at the arrest of my colleagues, Ghanaians will know that officials won't say anything and will try anything which further criminalises us, so at this point, they are caught in the middle. The tactics they have been using lately is by trying to silence us, which they do by firstly pass a bill to further criminalise us, and secondly undertake which hunts. It is very sad, because they do all of this, just to please their voters.
Through all of this then it must be a glimpse of light at least to know that the Alliance for Equality is showing you solidarity during these challenging times?
I am actually a member of the Alliance which is a coalition of pro-LGBTQ organizations in Ghana and what they are good at is looking at the attitudes which have led to the arrest of my colleagues. For example, as part of their recent findings, they discovered that there is still advice being given to the public by the police which states they should report any suspected LGBTQ people. As a state institution that is meant to protect its citizens, it has now launched an attack on its citizens.
With colleagues due to appear in court in June, from those you have managed to get in contact with, how are they coping through all of this?
They are feeling broken and traumatised. They have no hope at this point because you can’t have hope in a country where things are very conservative and where the majority of people are wishing for you to be killed which is made worse by being kept in a cell. In Ghana being in a cell is like living without a roof and so it is the worst situation for someone to find themselves in because the conditions in the cells are really bad. When it comes to the law aspect however they will have hope because there is no law that criminalizes our identity as LGBTQ people. You can boldly stand out and say you are gay, bi-sexual or trans openly and there is no law in this country that can criminalise you, so on the angle of the law they have some reassurance especially as they were not doing anything illegal because the constitution gives us the right for the freedom of assembly and association. It also boils down to those on the case such as the judge on the day who might have biased views where they believe that having links to the LGBTQ community is an abomination so that could also lead to a situation where the judge may not rule in their favour. As a community, while we have some hope in the law, we are also scared of what the outcome will be.
For Ghana to really move forward, from your perspective what needs to be done?
I think first of all we need to look at social issues. Issues that are affecting us as citizens include infrastructure, unemployment and so much more which goes on unaddressed. I think the country really needs to focus on these topics more and see how they can tackle those problems but more importantly look at the issue of human rights. This could include asking questions such as, how best can they include everybody where nobody is left out because when it comes to democracy, the opinion of everyone including the minority needs to be listened to and welcomed. Since we have decided to be ruled by democracy we need to stay true to that by working towards a country in which everyone is welcome, accepted and tolerated. People shouldn't have to live in fear because of who they are, who they love, or what they identify with. Their life shouldn’t be criminalised for who they are. Only when the country has a better look at its own walls and better the lives of their citizens, then only will the country move forward.
We wish to once again thank David for sharing with us. I cannot begin to comprehend how difficult these times have been for him, but what I admire about him is his strong spirit. We can only hope that that by no longer ignoring its approach to human rights, that for the country to move forward, they first need to take accountability for creating a society where members of the LGBTQ community are living in constant fear.
Like the rest of the world, ReportOUT will now be keeping a very close eye on Ghana, and we will provide updates on the outcome of the case of the 21 LGBT+ Rights Ghana members court case which takes place in June, in due course.
As a call to action, in light of this very intimidating behaviour and discrimination that is occurring, Ghana and those in powers there are imperative questions that need to be answered, and no longer is it acceptable for political motives to be a justification for the silencing of so many important voices.
In terms of David’s safety following this conversation, he continues to find himself moving from location to location, with the risk of becoming homeless, only putting his life in further danger. Shocked by the experiences that David has had to face, a Crowdfunder has been created by members of the public, concerned for his welfare.