It’s no secret that homophobia is rife in Africa and the diaspora; at large. From the one thousand and one songs we all bop to condemning gay people to death, to the fact that homosexuality is still deemed a criminal activity in most African countries, it’s safe to say that most Africans were raised in a homophobic environment. We’re told that homosexuality is un-African and being gay is a Western invention. But the idea that homosexuality did not exist in Africa until it was imported by Europeans is a ludicrous myth. Firstly, claiming that homosexuality is un-African is problematic in the sense that this baseless assertion treats Africa as if it is a monolith, the very thing we criticise the rest of the world for doing. Africa is home to thousands of ethnic groups, each group differing in language/dialect, culture and custom. The idea that something can be un-African is honestly quite a reach.
The truth is, African societies were no stranger to same-sex activities and relationships. Anthropological ethnographies and archaeological findings show that homosexuality existed and was tolerated to differing degrees throughout African societies. For example:
- During the 19th century, amongst the Nilotico Lango tribes of modern-day Uganda, young boys engaged in same-sex relations to avoid having a baby out of wedlock. So did the girl.
- In some regions of modern-day Congo, Sudan and South Africa, older men would marry younger men who would perform wifely duties
- Women-marriages (a marriage between two women which includes the role of husband and wife) have been documented in roughly 40 precolonial African societies including among the Fon of Dahomey (Benin), the Igbos of Nigeria and the Bantu-speaking Lobedu of South Africa.
- In some ethnic groups (e.g. the Nuer), homosexual acts were an intrinsic part of rite of passages.
- The Nzema of Ghana had a tradition of adult men marrying each other, dowry and all.
I could go on, but the point is there is a plethora of evidence that shows that same-sex relations are not a foreign invention in Africa. In fact, same-sex and relations were not taboo as they are today. The idea that LGBT Africans did not exist prior to European colonialism is dishonest. Homosexuality in Africa is not a recent development, it is the homophobia that is “un-Africa”. It was European colonialists that introduced some of the first anti-gay laws throughout the continent under the guise of religion and morality.
So, when exactly did homosexuality become “un-African”?
I don’t have the direct answers. There are a number of factors that could have led to the widespread homophobia in Africa and the diaspora. What I do know is that we are clearly not in any position to declare what is or isn’t African seeing as our own knowledge of our history is vague. It is worth exploring the root of this homophobia within our global community because it is that prejudice that is “un-African”. We need to start re-telling our own stories and recognise the contributions of everyone, whatever their gender or sexuality
- Greene, B (1998) The Institution of Woman-Marriage in Africa: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Ethnology Vol.37
- Murray, S and Roscoe, W (1998) Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African homosexualities