By Nita Bhalla
NAIROBI, Feb 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Anti-gay outcry has forced Ghana's first LGBT+ community center to temporarily close to protect its staff and visitors three weeks after it opened, its founder said on Tuesday.
Church groups, politicians, and anti-gay rights organizations have called on the government to shut down the center, run by local charity LGBT+ Rights Ghana, and arrest and prosecute those involved.
"We did not expect such an uproar," said Alex Kofi Donkor, director of LGBT+ Rights Ghana, which hosted the center’s launch on Jan. 31 attended by European and Australian diplomats.
"We expected some homophobic organizations would use the opportunity to exploit the situation and stoke tension against the community, but the anti-gay hateful reaction has been unprecedented," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. LGBT+ people face widespread persecution in the West African nation where gay sex is punishable with up to three years' imprisonment.
Ghana has not prosecuted anyone for same-sex relations in years, but LGBT+ people face frequent abuse and discrimination, including blackmail and attacks, human rights researchers say.
Donkor said the anti-gay rhetoric was "scary" and he could not risk the safety of people at the center, which offers paralegal services, counselling, and training through workshops, even though its location had not been made public.
He dismissed local media reports that police had shut down the center on the orders of Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, adding that he had not received any communication from authorities directing its closure.
The government spokesman and police officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The government banned an LGBT+ conference last year after Christian groups protested.
The National Coalition for Proper Sexual Rights and Family Values, which brings together Christian, Muslim, and traditional leaders opposed to LGBT+ rights, is among those seeking to close down the center, along with prominent church groups.
"The Church rejects the unfounded and demeaning assumption that the sexual behavior of homosexual persons is always and totally compulsive and, therefore, they should not be blamed for their homosexual acts," said the Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference.
It added: "We call on the Government of Ghana to close down the LGBTQI office space that was recently opened in Accra (and) urge the Executive and the Legislature never to be cowed down or to succumb to the pressure to legalize the rights of LGBTQIs."
A member of the ruling New Patriotic Party has also called on the public to find the center and shut it down, while a local counsellor has called for the arrest of a popular musician who attended the launch event.
Ghana's minister of information designate has also weighed into the debate, proposing legislation against advocating for LGBT+ rights.
The European Union did not immediately respond to a request for a comment but last week posted on Twitter that its delegates attended the opening and that "equality, tolerance, and respect for each other are core values of the EU".
LGBT+ Rights Ghana's Dunkor said he was not sure when the center would reopen but the group would continue to battle against homophobia.
"There is nothing illegal about the center. The idea is to create a safe space for the LGBT+ community," he said. "We will not give up this fight. We cannot give up on our human rights."
(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)