By: Eden Almasude*
Issues of queer politics frequently simmered under the surface during my time as a graduate student in African Studies: but the issues rarely became explicit and were never openly and critically discussed. I quickly grew tired of implicitly negative and prejudiced comments about ‘homosexuals,’ who were inevitably assumed to be male and of course, sexually promiscuous. During that time, I became accustomed to equally bigoted statements from Christian and Muslim colleagues who stated how queerness was incompatible with their (colonial) religion, but (ironically) were seemingly more comfortable in condemning queer people for going against their ‘African’ tradition of heterosexuality. Most interesting to me was the way in which these same people would consider themselves ‘progressive’ and ‘decolonial.’ Yoruba scholar Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, for example, has detailed some of the ways in which Western discourse and impositions affect gender dynamics on the continent — work such as hers has influenced greatly the way that many African/ist scholars now approach issues of ‘gender’ on the continent. How is it that we can recognize the impact of colonialism on gender and still largely refuse to discuss sexuality?
I am approaching this topic with the assumption that sexual and romantic relationships on the African continent have never been solely heterosexual or heteronormative. Queer Africans do exist, and same-sex encounters and relationships have sometimes been accepted and even granted specific roles in a given society. There may be, depending on the society, various words in Indigenous African languages used to describe such non-heteronormative encounters and sexualities. This is important to assert up front, because in my experience there is a widespread assumption that to be ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘bisexual’ is exclusively an Western identity category – this can often be gleaned from the widespread Eurocentrism present within both queer theory and queer activist politics. Yet, to the contrary, South African public intellectual Eusebius McKaiser, has repeatedly asserted that indeed
colonialists are often accused of bringing homosexuality to Africa. Yet they never get attributed with a likelier anthropological truth: introducing penal codes to the continent that outlaw gay sex. An irony that bypasses homophobic leaders such as Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is that anti-sodomy laws on their countries’ statute books were first designed and implemented by the former colonial powers now accused of exporting homosexuality. Should former colonial masters not rather be accused of teaching Africa how to codify homophobia?
Other former British colonies, such as India, also had penal codes with anti-sodomy laws as a direct colonial legacy. McKaiser goes on to argue state that as a matter of fact, “there is no anthropological evidence that homosexuality first occurred in Africa after colonisation began. The linguistic markers that draw attention to same-sex attraction – “faggot”, “gay”, “homosexual”, etc – may be inventions of the English language.” Therefore, “it is homophobia, rather than homosexuality, that is ultimately an embarrassment for Africa”.
Thus, as much as we love to laud our ‘African traditions’ and hate on the effects of colonialism, our very ways of life and value systems remain inextricably linked to our former colonizers. ‘African’ traditions have now come to include Western Christian evangelical discourse and Arab-Islamic hegemony. Given this reality, I cannot help but wonder: if being ‘gay’ is considered solely Western, where did this hegemonic heteronormativity now present in African communities come from? The justification given for the failure to accept queer Africans is nearly always religious, yet where is the critical reflection on where their religions came from?
I personally remained almost silent on issues of queer politics while in African Studies, too hesitant – and yes, perhaps frightened – to bring up the issue or challenge my peers when they denounce the very possibility of being queer and African. In these circles, both academic and social, we can talk all day about ‘decolonization’ and African self-sufficiency, yet we remain unable to approach colonization as a sexual, as well as a political, economic, and religious, encounter. We cannot even begin to discuss the clashes of sexualities and the imposition of heteronormative standards which occurred with both Arab-Islamic and European-Christian colonialisms across the continent.
I am frustrated and angry about this silence. I am equally frustrated and angry about the racism and anti-African sentiment from my university’s LGBT center and community, and the way that these forces work together to sideline queer Africans. I am frustrated and angry about the widespread talk within Western LGBT circles about violence against queer Africans, both because this violence does exist and because it also seems to pathologize same-sex loving on the continent. There is scholarship on non-heteronormative sexualities in Africa – albeit not enough! – and there is certainly a great deal of LGBT activism and organizing taking place on the continent, but in my experience, African Studies, at least in terms of teaching, has largely failed to engage with this work.
If we can’t even discuss these issues of sexuality within the academy – among formally educated and self-described ‘progressive’ Africans – prospects do not look good for the future of queer acceptance on our continent. Loving in the post-colony cannot be heteronormative and we must recognize that queer loving has and will continue to exist in Africa, despite the apparent silence from our academic institutions. To move forward, African Studies requires a critical engagement with queer theory and activism that is taking place, regardless of whether or not we recognize it. Work such Oyěwùmí’s on gender has made a deep impact on the field, however controversial it remains, and the same process must take place with regards to sexuality: questioning the formation of our sexualities in the post-colony.