You try to tell her about Foucault and “theories of identity,” but she asks if Foucault is your husband. Suddenly all those hours spent in a lecture hall doing gender courses seem powerless against the sheer titanium force that is the gates of her mind, a mind tempered by 80-plus years of a worldview informed by a traditional culture with a hint of goat herding.
You look her dead in the eyes and your only answer is “No.” Hers is to shrug and say “See? All that education and you are alone.” Except you are not. You have a wonderful girlfriend of three years, but the conversation has already died a premature death. And in your heart, even as a gender student living in Africa, you aren’t completely sure what queer theory does actually entail.
So the question is: how does one curb issues of homophobia and move towards a place of acceptance without getting lost in abstruse theories that most people don’t understand?
The key is in changing the narrative as well as who tells the story. The homophobia and lack of acceptance of alternative sexualities in Africa is based, pure and simple, on the notion that all Africans are straight.
We are not bent or even slightly crooked. We are straight-laced “God-fearing” people trying to populate our beautiful land through the holy union of man and woman. Anything outside this narrative does not form part of the African identity and is therefore to be cast into the dark night where Satan and his minions live.
The idea of African identity and what is considered to fit into this framework are key. Whenever people come together there is a question of what it means to be a member of the group – what either gets you a ticket in or makes the bouncer at the door give you the “keep it moving” stare.
What does it mean to be accepted as a feminist, a white African, a gay man, a worker, a leader, or any other kind of citizen?
The question is, what admits you into the collective? Do you fit the criteria? The problem with alternative sexualities is that when these make up part of your identity, you cannot tick all the right boxes that make you “African.” Yet “homosexuality” has been here far longer than homophobia. This argument is not new, but it is still little known. Homoerotic African identities have been documented from as early as the sixteenth century and have existed for a whole host of reasons: spiritual, economic, and even just plain sexual.
Before colonialism, homoerotic practices were accommodated within the realms of rituals, sacred practices, or even secret spaces and specially designated social roles. Colonial travellers and anthropologists encountered alternative sexualities in Africa but silenced and erased them, believing that homosexuality was found only in “civilised” nations that understood pleasure. Africans were too “primitive” and too “close to nature” to have such sophisticated (or degenerate) desires. They were just another modern thing we were too backward to understand.
But the colonial experience also changed African eroticism and sexuality drastically, through the influence of both European “science” and European religion, finally bringing us to a point where nothing but confusion and a fuzzy memory of what came before are now left. A point where we misunderstand and fear sexuality so much we attack same-sex couples and strip women in the streets in the name of morality.
We have internalised a false idea of who we are based on a violent, abusive history. One of the major problems with arguing that being a “lesbian” is authentically African may also be because that label, imported from the West, erases the intricacies of our history as well as the present realities of sexuality on the continent. The resulting problems of self-identification can be seen in the way so many in the African LGBTI community dress and act like their Western (mainly American) counterparts, reinforcing the notion that others (and, I suspect, they themselves) have that homosexuality is unAfrican.
With seemingly nothing to turn to here, we look out there.
For many of us, there is little engagement with the idea that there may be African sexualities that are other than “straight” but not necessarily “gay.” This is something we need to explore. We need to find out what alternative sexualities actually look like here.
Trying to explain to your 80 year old grandmother what a lesbian is while looking like Ellen De Generes will not help matters.
If we are to change the narrative, we need to reconceptualise what African sexual identities really are (and can be) rather than importing our concepts from outside and then trying to force ourselves to fit these moulds – and trying to force “straight” Africans to accept these strangers.
It is this change in the way we speak about sexuality that needs to become our focus. Merely telling people that “homophobia, not homosexuality, is unAfrican” is not enough when alternative sexualities remain cloaked in language and concepts that are foreign. The best and brightest among us need to take us back to the past and recover from it what it means to be non-heterosexual and African.
If we are to tackle the damage done by the silence surrounding African sexualities (not just for alternative sexualities but for heterosexuals as well) we need to understand where we came from. We must also understand that we have the space and power as Africans to define ourselves, something we often fail to do in many realms, be it the economic, the academic, the political, or even the social.
Once we all understand our sexuality historically and what this means in a current context, maybe we can all have a little more fun. All our best histories have been erased and silenced.
Our time as philosophers, kings, pharaohs, economic powerhouses, and fully erotic, sexually-aware beings have been conveniently erased. The constant calls for asserting African identity and for things being “our culture” will remain laughable as long as so much of what we defend or deny as authentically African is tied to notions and ideas that came from very far away.
Photo credit: Siphumeze Khundayi