Black Queer Asylum and The Year of Return

Celebration in the Streets of Accra, Jonathan Ernst (flickr)

In the wake of Black History Month, I turn towards Black relations: of blood, of nation, of necessity, and the many incarnations of desire. The context of this reflection arises from the events of last year, 2019, the four hundredth anniversary of enslaved Africans’ arrival on the shores of Virginia. In the United States, this anniversary was publicly commemorated, for example, by The New York Times’s “1619” series. But this was not the only remembrance. The Ghanaian government mounted a tourism campaign called “The Year of Return” inviting kin across the diaspora back to Ghana. Capitalizing on the longings of dispersal and diasporic dollars, this campaign hailed kin ties as unbreakable and racial belonging possible, while criminalizing and providing no safe home for same-sex loving Ghanaians. In recent years, Ghanaian men, persecuted for being in right and loving relationships with themselves, have shown up in U.S. detention centers seeking asylum. This concurrence invites a more expansive conversation about Black relations and their ongoing struggles within diaspora.

On its official site, the Ghanaian Tourism Authority lays out the impetus and events for The Year of Return. Launched in August and September of 2018 in Ghana and the United States respectively, the campaign speaks directly to potential Black American roots travelers.1 It promoted heritage sites like the slave dungeons at Elmina Castle, as well as artistic offerings like the Pan African Historical Theatre Festival. It also publicized Ghana’s inclusive Immigration Act and dual citizenship for persons proving Ghanaian descent. In light of this commemoration, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo was reported in the Daily News as saying, “I believe a healthy consciousness of history is important for the survival of people of African descent and the management of our resources in today’s globalized world.” Ghana’s centrality to trans-Atlantic slavery as well as the Pan-Africanism of the 1950s and 1960s, highlighted by Nkrumah’s political leadership, anoints this nation and its people’s powerful place in diasporic history, symbolism, and imagination. As Ghana’s Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, Catherine Afeku offered in the same Daily News article, “We reach out to our brothers and sisters to make the journey home as a birthright.” All the while, Ghanaians in same-sex relationships experience a compromised birthright and sometimes, under lethal pressure, leave for new homes.

Ghana’s criminal code, inherited from British colonialization, is widely seen to criminalize same-sex sexual relations or what is termed as “unnatural carnal knowledge.” This code forms the bedrock of state codified discrimination and suggests longstanding institutionalized and socialized homophobia and heteronormativity in the country, expressed in distinct and ancillary ways.

In 2011, the then president of Ghana, Atta Mills, told the BBC : “I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalise [sic] homosexuality in Ghana.” That same year, a senior member of the Ghanaian parliament warned that gay people were under the threat of citizens who may lynch them on behalf of what was framed as a violation of Christian national practice and tradition: “Being a God-fearing nation and a God-fearing people, let us not joke with this issue and let us not talk about any issue of human rights. This is uncultured, anti-Ghanaian and if care is not taken, these people will face a very tough time in future,” said Hon. David Tetteh Assuming. In an interview with Al Jazeera, current president Nana Akufo-Addo, in office since 2017, said he believes social change to be on the horizon and decriminalization an eventual likelihood despite a current lack of a “strong current of opinion” forcing a shift. Indeed, the absolutism sounded in former President Mills’ words reverberates in ongoing persecution running the gamut from conversion therapy to mob violence.

Ghanaians have legal protections under the law but sexual orientation is not articulated.2 A democratic country with rights and human rights organizations, Ghana is identified in a 2016 British government document that guides the handling of asylum claims as a hostile environment for the “LBGT” community, citing that little is known about the community and allied or direct supporting organizations. The dangers to people engaging in same-sex sexual relations comes not just from the law, but often from those with conservative Christian and Muslim beliefs. A Christian organization made news for offering therapy to “400 homosexuals” in 2018 and a Human Rights Watch Report from the same year documents religiously-aligned vigilante groups attacking LGBTQIA people. Families, in fear of social stigma, also turn on their own.

A colleague and immigration attorney here in the States alerted me to Ghanaian men held in Louisiana, and a 2019 LA Times article mentions Ghanaians held in Juarez, Mexico, just over the border from El Paso, Texas. There is something haunting and ironically symbolic of Ghanaians seeking asylum and winding up in the U.S. South. Sexual orientation-based asylum claims are not the only ones made and this essay, while concentrating on same-sex loving persons, recognizes the agony of all refugees.

Echoing the Human Rights Watch Report, a redacted affidavit from an expert witness in the United States lays out the historical, political, and social contextual factors that make Ghana an untenable home for LGBTQIA persons. In addition to physical violence, fear of arrest, extortion, and loss of family due to stigma are all cited as part of the psychic trauma and PTSD-generating effects of LGBTQIA persons who can also go underemployed or unemployed due to their marginalized social status. Sadat Ibrahim, a Ghanaian held in Texas and reported on in a San Antonio Express-News article, indicated that he had a business but was outed back home: “Most gays, they live a secret life. Once someone discovers who you are, you are not safe in Ghana.” Following his partner’s and his own attack by a vigilante group, Ibrahim fled the country to Brazil. He eventually entered the United States via the Mexican border with California, then was held in various states before having his credible threat hearing denied in Georgia in 2016. The details of his journey and treatment by ICE provide a critical understanding of the exacting situations of refugees and the inhumane conditions of this country’s corrupted immigration system. Ibrahim’s case personifies the struggles of many of those, including other Africans, seeking asylum in the United States, as well as other LGBTQIA persons who might, under threat, leave their countries in search of safety, home, and new relations.

In the context of this conversation, the dismantling of families and nations joins with a needed rethinking of relationality—following anthropologist Kim Tallbear’s critique of settler sexuality and marriage and Omise’eke Tinsley’s writings on queer diaspora. I briefly mention scholarship on the colonial nature of homophobia in African countries as an invitation to reconsider non-colonial and queer relationality across diaspora. North American awareness of and empathy for those brown and Black bodies at U.S. borders relies on outrage over bio-family separation and child detention anathema to heteronormative and middle-class nuclear family values. In the case of fleeing Ghanaians, their queerness and Blackness, beyond legal claims, make them harder subjects of social recognition in the US’s current political vision of narrowing and hierarchizing relations. These current sojourners will enter the realities of American life with its categories, and while comparatively safe, they no less will be immersed in the complexity of American heteronormativity and race relations as African-born Black persons, gay, lesbian, or possibly queer. They may encounter similar hatred and fear of others. They will grow new relations, hopefully sustaining ones of heart and kin.

Ibrahim’s story also queers understandings of refugees and the flows of diasporic movement. At the outset, it was not his intention or desire to come to the United States; his intention was to leave Ghana momentarily and then return. In Brazil, for which he had a visa, Ibrahim heard from a friend, presumably Ghanaian, who had received asylum in the United States. Encouraged, he flew to Belize, crossed into Mexico, and onto Tijuana where he entered the United States, alongside an Eritrean. This route—west to South America and, for many, up through Central America—tracks the flows of freedom seeking, of desperation and hope, labor and exhaustion, and includes encounters of language, culture, and of the bodies that forge and cross these paths. We’ve heard so little of the spirit that is held along these routes—the possible love carried or grown in passage, whether of people, place, of ephemera—and how these living transits queer imaginings and understandings of freedom and home alike.

Sadat won asylum, ­my colleague informed me. I also was informed that many such refugees desire to quietly continue living. Thus, I write wary of outing him again in service of exposing lesser seen struggles and their intricate footpaths. It’s an uncomfortable risk given that LGBTQIA asylum seekers must forge new lives and some are sent back. My colleague indicated that an immigration judge in Louisiana denied her Ghanaian client’s asylum claim, failing to recognize the specific national context of persecution of gay men in Ghana.3

This year, Ghana’s Tourism Authority promoted “Beyond the Return” described as “a 10-year project under the theme, “A decade of African Renaissance—2020–2030.” As part of the initiative, it “provides a platform for engagements among the people of African descent, wherever they may currently be living.” This statement seems to exclude those waiting in detention centers or the queer diaspora. As imagined from within those walls or as an asylee, a decade of veracious African Renaissance might recognize the betrayal, the colonial and capitalist scents and wish for a heartfelt awakening, one that would live up to a notion of diaspora, not of continued dispossession, but of acceptance and a genuine, queered place of return.

  1. For more on roots tourism in Ghana see Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007); Bayo Holsey’s Routes of Remembrance: Refashioning the Slave Trade in Ghana (2008); and, Jemima Pierre’s The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (2013).
  2. Gov. UK. Country Information and Guidance Ghana: Sexual orientation and gender identity. February 2016.
  3. Raymond, Virginia. (Attorney and scholar), in discussion with author. March 2020.
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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Comments on “Black Queer Asylum and The Year of Return

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    Thank you for widening the discussion of diaspora!

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