Queering pan-Africanism

The unexpected and twisting relationship between religion, pan-Africanism, and LGBTQ activism.

Still from the film Rafiki.

The recent politicization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) identities and rights in many parts of Africa has given rise to a renewed emergence of pan-Africanist thought in two directions. First, there is the well-known narrative of anti-queer pan-Africanism, invoked by many African statesmen, clergy and opinion leaders. It uses sexuality as a key site to defend and preserve African values and identities vis-à-vis perceived foreign imperialism. LGBT sexualities are framed here as “un-African,” and violence against sexual minorities is legitimized in the name of “African pride.” Ugandan human rights lawyer, Adrian Jjuuko, summarizes this as the “rise of a conservative streak of pan-Africanism.” Second, and of greater interest here, LGBT activists and allies across the continent resist this popular narrative through a discursive counter-strategy in which they deploy progressive black and pan-Africanist figures, ideas, and symbols.

One key example of this emerging discourse is the African LGBTI Manifesto, drafted at a meeting in Nairobi in April 2010 by activists from across the continent. It opens with a strong, explicitly pan-Africanist vision: “As Africans, we all have infinite potential. We stand for an African revolution which encompasses the demand for a re-imagination of our lives outside neo-colonial categories of identity and power.” The manifesto then explicitly states its specific concern with sexuality, but linking it to the project of “total liberation” of the African continent and its peoples: “We are specifically committed to the transformation of the politics of sexuality in our contexts. As long as African LGBTI people are oppressed, the whole of Africa is oppressed.”

A similar emphasis on mainstreaming sexuality in a broader project of decolonization is found in the emerging body of literature in African queer studies. For instance, Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas state that “at the root of queer resistance in Africa, is a carrying forward of the struggle for African liberation and self-determination.” African queer politics is a project, not just concerned with LGBT identities and rights, but with the struggle against patriarchy, heteronormativity, homophobia, and neoliberal capitalism. It aims at a comprehensive liberation of African peoples and societies from the multiple structures of domination and oppression.

As much as the queer African project is about the future of the continent, there is a critical sense of retrieving something that has been lost in the course of history, and that can be recovered for contemporary political purposes. In the talk titled “Conversations with Baba,” the late Kenyan literary writer Binyavanga Wainaina uses an inclusive “we” to reclaim Africa as a continent that has always been characterized by diversity, and as such sets an example to the rest of the world: “We, the oldest and the most diverse continent there has been. We, where humanity came from. We, the moral reservoir of human diversity, human aid, human dignity.”

In Wainaina’s commentary, this rich and strong tradition of diversity characterizing African societies was only interrupted by “those people who came from that time of colonization to split us apart, until our splitting apart came from our own hearts.” Thus, he suggests that the interruption came from outside—from the forces of colonialism and missionary Christianity; he further suggests that moral conservatism and rigidity have been adopted and internalized by certain sections of society in postcolonial Africa, in particular conservative religious actors such as Pentecostal Christian pastors.

Vis-à-vis such forces, Wainaina calls for a reclaiming of indigenous African moral traditions that recognize human diversity. In part two of his six-part video, “We Must Free Our Imaginations,” Wainaina describes socio-political and religious homophobia in Africa as “the bankruptcy of a certain kind of imagination.” He urges fellow Africans to engage in creative, liberating, and imaginary thinking, reclaiming the past in order to reimagine the future—a future free from oppressive modes of thought.

In more popularized form, the same narrative is found in the “Same Love” music video. Released in 2016 by the Kenyan band Art Attack under the leadership of the openly gay musician and activist, George Barasa, the video was presented as “a Kenyan song about same sex rights, LGBT struggles, and civil liberties for all sexual orientations.” The lyrics and imagery present a progressive pan-Africanist vision, which unfolds in two steps. First, the video draws critical attention to the recent politics against homosexuality across the continent, showing newspapers with strong and sensationalist anti-gay messages and images of Kenyan anti-gay political protests. This part of the song concludes stating:

Homophobia is the new African culture / Everyone’s the police, Everyone’s a court judge, mob law, street justice / Kill ‘em when you see ‘em / Blame it on the west, never blame it on love, it’s un-African to try and show a brother some love.

In the next part, the lyrics specifically refer to Uganda and Nigeria, the two countries that in 2015 became internationally known for passing new anti-homosexuality legislation. Then the song calls upon Africa as a whole, saying:

Uganda stand strong, Nigeria, Africa, it’s time for new laws, not time for new wars / We come from the same God, cut from the same cord, share the same pain and share the same skin.

A positive pan-Africanist vision is presented here, emphasizing the unity and common history of African peoples. The basis for this vision is a religious one: the idea of African peoples as created by God. This echoes an important tradition of religiously inspired pan-Africanist thought, centering on the belief “that Africa’s destiny is God given.” In the words of Marcus Garvey: “God Almighty created us all to be free.” Originally, this religious notion allowed for resisting racial discrimination and overcoming the inferiority of people of African descent vis-à-vis white superiority. “Same Love” appropriates it to resist sexual discrimination and to overcome divisions that exist today about who counts as truly African.

In its opening statement—”This song goes out to the new slaves, the new blacks”—”Same Love” situates the experience of same-sex-loving people in Africa in a longer history of racial and ethnic oppression. The lyrics suggest continuity between the Civil Rights movements in the US and the contemporary LGBT rights movement in Africa. This is acknowledged later in the video when images of some prominent African queer individuals appear on the screen, while the vocals in the song state that “Luther’s spirit lives on.” The suggestion is that the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in those Africans campaigning for the human rights of sexual minorities today. This allows the producers of the video to claim a moral high ground, implicitly appropriating King’s prophetic dream of racial liberation in the US and applying it to the struggle for queer freedom in Africa.

Wainaina has also invoked the name of King, and of African American literary writer James Baldwin, as part of his queer pan-Africanist imagination. He referred to Baldwin as a source of inspiration, recognizing him as “black, African, ours,” as a “gay icon of freedom,” and canonizing him as a writer of “new scriptures.” While commenting on the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda, he further stated that the pastor of former US president George W. Bush “has had more influence on the imagination of Africans than Martin Luther King and James Baldwin.” Elaborating on this, Wainaina invoked the tradition of progressive black religious thought, explicitly referring to “the Jesus of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King” which, he critically observes, is “a dead man in Africa.” Describing Jesus as a liberating figure, who is in solidarity with the marginalized, Wainaina criticized the church in Africa for maintaining structures of oppression and exclusion.

The invocation of progressive traditions of black religious thought is particularly significant in the light of popular discourses that denounce homosexuality as both “un-African” and “un-Christian.” The question whether religion, in particular Christianity, can make a constructive contribution to queer pan-Africanist discourse is a debatable one. Many African queer scholars and activists tend to see Christianity as a colonial and conservative religion from which Africa and Africans need to be liberated. This is understandable, but one could ask whether it not also reflects the influence of western queer scholarship and politics with its secular inclination and anti-religious tendencies. Both Wainaina and the “Same Love” video agree with the postcolonial critique of Christianity. Yet they also suggest that progressive traditions of Christian thought can inspire the black African queer imagination. Hence, they invite us to engage creatively and constructively with the resources within religious traditions towards black pan-African queer liberation.

Further Reading

What about this cartoon

What happened when an Argentinean cartoonist took inspiration from an iconic moment in African-American struggle, replaced the black athletes with monochrome white figures to make a point about gay rights.

Out in Africa

Writing gays and lesbians into the political and social history of South Africa – a history from which LGBT people are so often obscured and ignored.