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Queerness in Africa: Imperial Import or Timeless Tradition?


Many people regard LGBTQ+ people and practices as Un-African. But is that the case? I decided to find out.

A lot of our knowledge of pre-colonial Africa is limited – traditionally, African cultures would pass down history orally, through stories, songs, and word-of-mouth. When Europeans arrived in Africa, they were the first to keep written records of African cultures and practices – this, however, came with a cost. European ideals and culture were very different from that of Africa, and so when history was originally recorded, it was greatly biased against the ‘uncivilised’ Africans. Colonisation only caused further harm – Europeans took over African countries, often violently dominating African cultures. This led to the loss of many great parts of African history. One of these losses is African queerness, and that is what I want to explore today.

 

Countries Where Queerness Has Been Documented in Africa

 

To the far left is a map that shows countries where throughout history, same-sex practices – whether that be sexual or romantic – and uncommon gender expressions – such as male-bodied people dressing and presenting as women, or vice versa – have existed in Africa, before and during the colonial era. The countries highlighted in green show where these practices have been recorded through writing in history. That is not to say that the white countries had no instances of queerness, but rather that there was no one there who recorded them.

Next to the map is a list of queer African words that were recorded in writing during colonial times.

 

 

 

A Map Showing Current Laws Pertaining to Queerness in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

The picture above shows a pride march in Uganda, a country infamous for being anti-LGBT. To the left, there is a second map that shows the current state of queerness in Africa, with a key explaining what each shade of purple represents. 

 

 

I spoke to eight South Africans of different ages and backgrounds to find out what they know about queer African history. This is what they said.


The answers I got from my participants were certainly a mixed bag of knowledge about African queer history. However, the majority still answered that they were unaware of instances of homosexuality, uncommon gender expression, etc. in Africa pre-colonialism. I’ve brought up this topic to many others who didn’t participate in the interviews, and they also did not know anything about these topics.

 

So why isn’t this queer history common knowledge?

What can we do to make sure Africans are aware of their history?

The Painting in Question

It is evident that the queerness inherent to African culture has been lost by many – it is believed to be non-existent. But it has existed for 1000s of years – proof of this is a bushman painting in Zimbabwe depicting men having sex that is said to be about 2000 years old. So how do we reclaim this vital part of African history?

An obvious answer would be education – by educating the masses in schools, through media, the news, etc. If people were given the facts, surely the problem of this lost part of history would be amended?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. That is why I am calling to you, the reader. I challenge you to participate in some activism – make people aware of Africa’s history. When Africa is ignored in a conversation on queerness, bring it up. Do not let the people around you assume that it is Un-African to be queer. No matter what part of the world you are in, the only true way for the masses to be educated is through activism by people like you.

 

 

How are you going to participate in activism for queer Africa?

Educating your peers
Posting on social media
Publicly standing against anti-homosexuality bills (such as the one in Uganda)
Donating to LGBTQ+ groups in African countries
Organising local events to raise awareness
Created with Survey Maker
Works Cited

“21 Varieties Of Traditional African Homosexuality.” Erasing 76 Crimes. N. p., 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2018.

“Africa Has Always Been More Queer Than Generally Acknowledged.” Africasacountry.com. N. p., 2014. Web. 10 Apr. 2018.

“Boy-Wives And Female Husbands: Studies In African Homosexualities.” Archive.org. N. p., 2018. Web. 19 Mar. 2018.

Epprecht, Marc. Heterosexual Africa?. Ohio University Press, 2010. Accessed 10 Apr 2018

Epprecht, Marc. Hungochani. Mcgill-Queen’s University Press, 2014. Accessed 10 Apr 2018

“Expanded Criminalisation Of Homosexuality In Uganda: A Flawed Narrative”. 2014, pp. 3-33. Accessed 20 Mar 2018.

Han, Enze, and Joseph O’Mahoney. “British Colonialism And The Criminalization Of Homosexuality”. Cambridge Review Of International Affairs, vol 27, no. 2, 2014, pp. 268-288. Informa UK Limited. 19 Mar. 2018

Hayes, Jarrod. “Queer Roots In Africa”. 2018, pp. 1-32., Accessed 10 Apr 2018.

“Male Daughters, Female Husbands : Gender And Sex In An African Society.” Archive.org. N. p., 2018. Web. 19 Mar. 2018.

Scott, View. “Indigenous Language Complexities With LGBTI Terms – Queer Consciousness.” Queerconsciousness.com. N. p., 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2018.

“Sodomy Law.” En.wikipedia.org. N. p., 2018. Web. 10 Apr. 2018.

“Uganda Pride 2017 Cancelled After Police Raid Event Venues.” Hornet Stories. N. p., 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2018.

 

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COMMENTS: 11
  1. April 26, 2018 by Sofia.Carr

    This is so interesting! It’s crazy to see the direct impact of colonialism and how backwards a lot of our perceptions of African history are. I won’t lie, I had never considered the negative impact of colonialism on LGBT+ people because in contemporary times, countries like Great Britain, France, America, etc. (those that have historically colonized other places) are the most “progressive” in terms of LGBT+ rights. But now we look at places like those purple countries in Africa on your map and think that they are the problem, when really the source of the problem appears to be European colonialism. Very eye opening!

  2. April 26, 2018 by emily

    Thanks for this work, Jess — I particularly appreciated hearing the group interview. Thanks for creating the space to have these conversations and raising awareness!

  3. April 27, 2018 by Matti Horne

    Hey Jess! This is super cool, and I think it’s really important to document the fact that the concept of queerness exists in almost every indigenous culture; that they have words for people who don’t fall inside the ‘traditional’ boxes — the West likes to think that it’s the most progressive nation for legalizing same-sex marriage, when in fact, the reason why so many cultures have prejudice towards the LGBTQIA+ community is because they were colonized… by the West. Anyway, this is awesome work. I love it!

  4. April 27, 2018 by Charlotte.Tenebrini Steckart

    Loved this! I really liked the way you put together the interview!

  5. April 27, 2018 by Alison.Meizels

    Jess, this page is really impressive! I especially love the interview and all your infographics. They really made me understand your topic!

  6. April 27, 2018 by Michelle Marshall

    Hi Jess,
    This is an excellent and multi-faceted project, I liked the way that you have made it interactive, challenged our assumptions, and pushed us to be active; but in a way that we feel comfortable with. Your presentation format really highlights and bridges the past and the present.
    Excellent work!

  7. April 27, 2018 by Luca.Snoey

    I found it really interesting to learn about this topic. It is something that I had to thought about, but you brought awareness to it and I thank you for that. The graphs you used were interesting and informative, and I like that you included an interview. One thing though, I tried to answer your survey but it told me I had to select an option (although I check one of them). Otherwise, great!

  8. April 28, 2018 by Nick Martino

    Jess, excellent work on this project. I found your product to be stimulating both visually and academically. I particularly love the call to action that you add at the end. Great way to engage a wider audience on a topic that is too often ignored on your continent. I’ve often taught about sexuality and sexual play in the Dobe Ju/hoansi of the Kalahari desert and they too engaged in homosexual and heterosexual play (even as younger children). Thanks for sharing!

  9. April 29, 2018 by Luisa

    Hi, Jess. This was a very educational project, and I appreciated how thorough it was, especially the several interviews. I was wondering what activists are currently doing to raise awareness to this issue?

  10. April 29, 2018 by Morinsola.Tinubu

    Hey Jess! This is a really interesting topic that I definitely want to investigate further. I love how you included your full interview and highly informative photos. I am very interested to hear about what led you to this topic. I was wondering what your next step was to bring an end to this issue. Other than that great job!

  11. May 03, 2018 by Jason.Haas

    Hello! This was a good project. I knew very little about African queerness before reading this, and it definitely outlined the history of its erasure well. One piece of feedback would be that your map of nations where queerness has been documented doesn’t include Gambia, Mauritania, and Senegal, even though your list of queer words in African languages which includes a language only spoken in those places. Other than that, great job!

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