From the other end of the phone, the quaver in her voice is palpable. The Ghanaian footballer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is recalling the night she went out to celebrate her birthday de ella in Ashaiman, Accra.
“I decided to use the washroom and a group of guys ganged up on me and completely battered me,” she says. “They thought I was a gay man.”
Margot (not her real name) once dreamed of representing her country in the Women’s Africa Cup of Nations (Wafcon), instead, she ended up in hospital. As an athlete with Differences of Sexual Development (DSD), she remains too frightened to reveal her identity.
Morocco will host the 14th edition of Wafcon, which starts on July 2. But while the global community celebrates pride month, and many sportspeople in the north proudly share their stories of coming out, for sportswomen in Africa’s LGBTQ community life is very different.
“When my national team and club found out that I was intersex, I was dropped and fell into depression,” says Margot. “It was tough. I don’t want to do the corrective surgery as I know the implications it can cause. All I want is to be myself and play the game I love but Ghana isn’t friendly to me.”
Ghana is on the verge of passing a law prohibiting contact with LGBTQ people, a bill that has been met with global opposition. Many African countries inherited repressive anti-gay laws from colonial times; in recent years however some – such as Mozambique and Botswana – have begun to remove them.
But in Ghana, the presence of a right-wing, US-based Christian group pushing anti-abortion laws and preaching against same-sex marriage is said to have fueled momentum around the anti-LGBTQ bill.
‘The bill is horrible’
If it is passed, people who identify as LGBTQ could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison, “conversion therapy” would be promoted, and parents would be able to force “corrective surgery” on DSD children.
“The bill is horrible,” says Ritalucia, a goalkeeper whose dreams of going professional fizzled out when she came out as pansexual. “It is evil of the lawmakers to ignore everything else in the country to prosecute citizens who have done nothing wrong.”
The journey of women fighting for the right to live openly as part of the LGBTQ community has many parallels with the battle for women to be able to play sport in Africa. In 1991 women’s football cemented its new-found global status with a World Cup in China, but preceding it – in Nigeria – was the inaugural Wafcon, to determine who would represent the continent at the new competition.
The announcement sparked a wave of interest, but there remained a deep-rooted prejudice against girls playing the game. In African culture, girls playing football remains alien – and the fallout can be toxic.
So it still seems incredible that a record 55,000 fans packed out the National Stadium at Lagos to cheer on Nigeria against Ghana in 1991. Nigeria won and went on to beat Cameroon in the final, qualifying to represent the continent at the World Cup in China that same year.
Growing up in South Africa, Portia Modise dreamt of life as a professional footballer. But in the 80s, being gay was punishable with a prison sentence. These days South Africa acknowledges queer rights by law. But “corrective” rape and abuse are still prevalent. In 2008 Modise’s national team-mate, Eudy Simelane, was murdered for being a lesbian. She was abducted, gang raped, beaten, and stabbed 25 times in the face, chest, and legs.
Against the odds, and because of her talent, Modise was made captain of the Bayana Bayana in 2004. For the next decade, she fought for the rights of queer women in football – a journey she charts in her book, From Portia Modise With Love . “In the national team, we weren’t allowed to be openly gay,” she says now. “The federation told us not to reveal our queerness to the public but rather lie that we had boyfriends.”
Wafcon kicks off on July 2 but players from the LGBTQ community with the potential to shine have – largely – been shut out. Others, in various national teams, carry the burden of their secrets. It is a heartbreaking price to pay for being “different”.