Imagine walking down the street in Ottawa (or some other Canadian city of your liking). As you walk, two men holding hands approach you walking in the opposite direction. What are your immediate assumptions? Humour me and assume that you’re about to pass a same-sex couple on the street. You’re a good Canadian, though, so you’re either completely comfortable with their homosocial gesture because of your socialization, or you will keep your discomfort to yourself and respect their right as Canadians to publicly take part in such an act.
Now imagine that you’re in Northern Ghana. This is probably much harder because it’s likely that you’ve never been to Northern Ghana, but please bear with me. I’ll give you some hints: it’s hot, sticky, dusty, and generally amazing. Okay, so you’re walking down a red dirt road in rural Ghana. As you walk, two men holding hands approach you walking in the opposite direction. Now, what are your immediate assumptions?
Homosexuality is illegal here and the religious beliefs of at least 95% of the population make it socially taboo as well. So why the heck are these two guys holding hands?
As I mentioned before, I was warned that Ghanaian men dance together pretty raunchily, but that it’s not indicative of desires to perform any further acts with each other, so I was prepared for the potential culture shock involved with that. However, I was not prepared to see so many men holding hands, draping their arms over each other, placing their hands in each other’s little lower-back crevices (you know that spot–it’s the best!), and generally canoodling. All.The.Time.
I certainly wasn’t prepared to entwine my fingers in my friend Dan’s big black hands immediately upon meeting him on my first night in the village (maybe a little get-to-know-you-chatting before you get all adventurous, there buddy). But I’ve come to be comfortable with, and even somehow enjoy, being physically affectionate with my male friends over the course of the last month. In fact, I’m more uncomfortable holding a girl’s hand here, because I fear the changes in perceptions about me that that might cause. My village already wants me to get a Dagomba wife (or four). I’d rather not fuel the marriage craze, thank you very much!
But why shouldn’t I enjoy holding hands with a male friend? I mean, I’m generally an affectionate person and I care for my friends pretty deeply. I gave this question some thought and realized that it’s actually just the tip of a big privilege iceberg.
In Canada, men who are friends don’t normally hold hands or express the way they feel about each other in a physical way because to do so would be non-masculine or “gay”. This perception exists because it’s “okay” to be queer in Canada, so there’s a potential that others might see homosocial behaviour as being indicative of queerness in the ones partaking in such behaviour. Note that the fairly new sensation of the so-called “bromance” is an exception to this. Conversely, in Ghana being queer is simply not a possibility, so there is no potential for this kind of act to be an expression of queerness. That is, because queer individuals don’t have the right to be open about their sexualities, outwardly heterosexual men have the luxury of being physically affectionate with each other without worry of judgement.
It’s been a really noticeable balance of privilege and oppression for me, and one that I wasn’t expecting when I read about unpacking my invisible knapsack of privileges as part of the JF Foundation Learning. As someone who believes in human rights for human beings of all orientations, gender identities, and heritages, seeing this balance play out on a daily basis has been a struggle for me. However, I’m in no place to radically change the way privilege works in Ghana, so the best I can do is open up this type of discussion and express myself.
Oh, and canoodle with Dan every now and then.
Note: as my good friend Clare pointed out in the comments, the way I use the word “queer” in this article might not be fully understood. Here, I’m using queer as a reclaimed umbrella term to describe individuals whose orientations are non-heterosexual, and I am certainly NOT using it in the offensive sense.