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I’ve been to West Africa four times, once each to Nigeria and Togo, as well as twice to Ghana. Before I travelled to Calabar in 1978 a former colleague, who had spent two years in Lagos while her husband was working there, told me that she’d seen no sign of anyone who was gay. On my return she asked me ‘Well, did you?’. I replied that I hadn’t met anyone who described themselves as ‘gay’ but I’d met a lot of men who enjoyed having sex with men.

I had a similar experience on each of my three other trips, yet I’ve heard many people claim that same-sex attraction is imported from ‘the west’ and is not indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa. Even if the language may often be culturally specific, the behaviour is certainly not.

When I was in Togo for an interfaith LGBT conference in 2007 with participants from at least seven West African countries, we were told that there are words describing same-sex behaviour in every local language pre-dating the colonial era.

I’m currently reading a recent novel by a Ghanaian writer in which she sensitively depicts same sex attraction between two African men in the Gold Coast (Ghana) nearly 300 years ago.

In our current situation it’s very important that those of us from elsewhere do not impose our culture on other countries, because that’s what was done by the British and others when they outlawed same-sex behaviour. Human sexuality is extraordinarily and wonderfully diverse and will defeat any attempt to police it with labels. None of us is exactly the same, thank God!

What is vital is to give each other wholehearted support to explore our sexuality, to discover who we are, to become who we might be, without harming someone else.

To do that we must stand together against all those who are so frightened of being different that they discriminate against and persecute people who are not ‘like them’. These people also need to be liberated from the fear of becoming distinctively themselves.

Stephen Coles

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