Africa is more queerer than you think

Both in and outside of Africa, there is an argumentative frenzy around the instability of gender and sex and non-conforming performances of gender.

Photo by Collen Mfazwe of Inkanyiso, a platform with a focus on visual arts and media advocacy.

On 13 January 2014, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill against gay relationships, outlawing gay marriage, public displays of same-sex relationships, and membership in gay groups. A few days later, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni refused to sign an anti-homosexuality bill that has been in the works since 2009 on the grounds that there are other ways of dealing with ‘an abnormal person.’ Pondering the issue earnestly, he wrote: ‘Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her?’ The ‘soft,’ revised ‘Kill the Gays Bill,’ as it is commonly nicknamed in the media, which has transformed the death penalty into incarceration, has caused substantial aid cuts, especially from European countries like Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. One expects other Western countries to follow suit. Museveni is not alone in figuring out how to hang dissenters. In the wake of the trial for ‘sodomy’ of the first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana, his successor Robert Mugabe spoke of homosexuals in his 2002 campaign speech as ‘mad person[s]’ who will be sent to jail: ‘we don’t want to import it [homosexuality] to our country [Zimbabwe], we have our own culture, our own people’ (quoted in The Herald, Harare, Zimbabwe, 6 March 2002). 86 United Nations member countries have laws that criminalize same-sex relations; some 37 African countries, along with Middle Eastern countries, constitute a majority of those so that it is dangerous and even life-threatening to be out in Africa.

Homosexuality, itself a slippery contender finding its roots in nineteenth-century medical literature, is still thought to be quintessentially ‘un-African’ — recall Winnie Mandela’s supporters during her murder trial in 1991 displaying for the cameras outside the Johannesburg Supreme Court placards declaring: ‘HOMOSEX IS NOT IN BLACK CULTURE.’ However, South African Bishops were the only ones among African Anglican bishops not to defeat ‘resolutions’ (section I.10 on ‘Human Sexuality’) to improve the Church of England’s attitudes toward homosexuality at the 1998 decennial Lambeth Conference. It remains that the Church, especially in its Evangelical garb, is always ready to identify homosexuality as an abomination to God. American film-maker Roger Ross Williams, director of “God Loves Uganda” (2013), speculates that “Americans are behind” this evangelical frenzy against such abominations as same-sex sex in a country that happens to be one of the top three in the world to assiduously watch gay internet porn.

Homosexuality is also often depicted as an import from the deviant West. But the African Continent has always been more queer than generally acknowledged; it has always rainbow-hazed into such a range of sexualities that it is a matter of political and critical concern that homosexualities and African societies are read as antonymous. Also, these homosexualities fall outside of the purview of the law and even of language. The expression—‘to call a spade a spade’— entails speaking plainly without avoiding embarrassing issues. But what if the spade, while remaining a tool, is called differently in another language?

The question of what constitutes ‘sex’ in Africa and, in particular, same-sex sex is still a blindspot. As the work of Marc Epprecht and Neville Hoad has revealed, not all African men or women who have same-sex sex think of themselves as gay or homosexual or bisexual or queer. They are seldom members of activist LGBT organizations and are not computed in the sexual health literature on HIV/AIDS. Also, in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world, there is a tension between homosexual identity and homosexual practice. ‘Homosexual’ would be more likely reserved to the passive partner whereas the active partner retains heterosexual identity. In the Arab Muslim world, some thinkers like Joseph Massad in Desiring Arabs (2007) have pitted the ‘Gay International’ against ‘the Arab World.’ What is at play here is a politicization of African indigenous or Islamic same-sex desire as a form of resistance to Westoxification. Yet, the West is not always perceived as the white peril that it is portrayed to be, as was obvious in the Arab Spring movements, during which the West and the ‘Orient’ did and continue to share the same vocabularies that spread like bushfire in the harmattan through the media, the internet, and social network sites.

However, such terms as ‘gay/lesbian,’ which reek of Western liberation struggles, and, more recently, ‘queer’, a movement generated in academe, certainly point to the globalization of sexual identities. These words were originally imported to the African continent via English, French and other Western languages and often clash with indigenous designations and their corollary practices. In South Africa, a ‘masculine man’ playing the dominant role in a relationship with another man is called ‘a straight man’ and is not perceived as ‘gay’ because he acts as penetrator during sexual intercourse. Conversely, the use of ‘gay’ is susceptible to a category crisis as some South African women self-identify as gay women rather than lesbians. Whereas the term ‘male lesbians’ is an attempt at translating the Hausa (e.g. Northern Nigerian) for ‘passive’ male partners or ‘yan kifi, who have sex with each other, ‘lesbian men’ in Namibia designate women who play the dominant ‘butch’ role in a same-sex relationship. Even though the terms ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ are not known in (Namibian) Damara culture, the various sexual practices and dress codes find some resonance in the admittedly Western butch-femme dyad. Conversely, in Kampala, Uganda, where sections 140 and 141 of the Penal Code condemn same-sex relations, some Ugandan women identify themselves as ‘tommy-boys,’ that is, biological women who see themselves as men, who need to be the dominant partner during sex, rather than ‘lesbians,’ and often pass as men.

From Senegal to Southern Africa, many African gay men invoke the animistic belief in ancestor spirit possession. A Shona gay man in Zimbabwe claims he is inhabited by his ‘auntie’ whereas in Senegal, the gor-djigeen (male-female in Wolof) is haunted by the primordial severance between male and female in the Creation of the Universe. In her autobiography, Black Bull, Ancestors and Me (2008), written in the safety provided by the new South African Constitution in 1996, with its ground-breaking sexual orientation (9:3) clause in its bill of rights, Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde relays her gradual empowerment as a ‘lesbian sangoma’ or traditional healer in Johannesburg. Yet, more than the famed sexual orientation clause, the ‘homosexual’ relationship between her as a sangoma ‘male woman’ dominated by her ‘male ancestor’ and her ‘ancestral wife’ is sanctioned by Zulu spiritual possession cults, which often privilege female men over male women. Upon closer scrutiny, it appears that lesbian sangomas and their ancestral wives are not united in a common identity based on shared sexual orientation but rather are distinguished from each other according to gender difference, complicated by spirituality. Ancestral wives can only function in their relation to masculine females or ‘male women,’ the way ‘dees’ (from the last syllable of the English word ‘lady’) function solely in their relation to ‘toms’ (from ‘tomboys’) in Thailand. Thai toms are capable (khlong-tua) biological women who protect and perform sexually for dees or female partners, without toms and dees being thought of as ‘lesbians.’ Even though Nkunzi Nkabinde, unlike the Thai tom, translates her gender identity into ‘tomboy’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘butch’, the Zulu label tagged onto her ‘ancestral wife,’ like the Thai term ‘dee,’ falls off the grid of a global, translational and transnational vocabulary.

That vocabulary is also expanding in Western societies where the LGBT spectrum has now become LGBTQI2. The 2 refers to ‘Two-Spirit,’ the translation of niizh manitoog, the Northern Algonquin term in vogue since 1990 in Canada, which has been added alongside the Q of Queer and the ‘I’ of Intersex. Both in and outside of Africa, there is an argumentative frenzy around the instability of gender and sex and non-conforming performances of gender. This may lead to the worldwide need to re-orient sexual orientation clauses to embrace and protect a gender diversity that dares not speak its name. After all, a spade is a shovel but it is also one of the four suits in conventional playing cards.

Further Reading

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After losing its parliamentary majority for the first time, the African National Congress is scrambling to form a coalition government. The options are bleak.

Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.