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By Eugene J. Patron
Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review, Fall 1995.
(published here with permission)

We will never know if Lucy was a lesbian. The discovery of the famous skeleton in Ethiopia in 1974 by Dr. Richard Leaky was the clearest proof to date of human evolution beginning on the African continent. Carbon dating revealed that Lucy lived some 3 to 3.7 million years ago. Yet, whether she ever lusted after other female Australopithecines is a secret that will remain hers for eternity.

Lucy is not the only one with secrets. The recorded knowledge of sexuality in African societies is far from encyclopedic. Little more than anecdotal attention has been paid to departures from procreative sexual practices in traditional cultures. The issue of individual desires rarely makes it into a body of anthropological literature dominated by analysis of the collective. At best, homosexuality is allocated little more than a footnote to any discussion of sexuality in Africa.

If anthropologists and other researchers needed an excuse to avoid the subject, they've only had to point to widespread denial of homosexual practices by Africans themselves. Homosexuality is often thrown on to the pile of unwanted debris and issues, such as consumerism, attributed to the legacy of European and Arab colonialism.

No where did such sentiment present itself as vocally as in South Africa and the 1991 trial of Winnie Mandela and members of he "football team," who were convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 14 year-old boy. Defending herself both in court and in the press, Mandela argued she was actually trying to protect a number of local youths from the homosexual overtures of a white priest.

Rachel Holmes, writing about the trial in DEFIANT DESIRE: GAY AND LESBIAN LIVES IN SOUTH AFRICA, notes that, "the defense case attempted to connect homosexual practice with abuse in terms of it being an exploitation of the vulnerability of disadvantaged people." Winne Mandela's supporters, no strangers to effectively utilizing media attention, displayed for the cameras placards declaring "homosex is not in black culture."

Today South Africa is the only country in the world to include a sexual orientation clause in its Bill of Rights. Given the country's sordid history of negating the human rights of millions of its citizens, the recognition "that people's sexual nature is fundamental to their humanity," as put by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is a remarkable turn around of events.

Still, the celebrated sexual orientation clause in the country's interim constitution (to be voted upon in 1999 after the next round of parliamentary elections), does not necessarily translate into approval of homosexuality by the majority of the population. The existence of the clause is very much linked to a camaraderie among oppressed peoples under the apartheid regime, one fostered by the socialist-idealism of the African National Congress. That homosexuals were even invited into the family of the oppressed by the South Africa liberation movement, is partially rooted in the pragmatic recognition by the ANC of the gay positive stance of many overseas anti-apartheid groups.

Perhaps it is because the South African liberation struggle lasted so long, that the liberation movement was able to achieve a level of maturity that recognizes the necessity of full and genuine inclusion of all minorities in society. In neighboring Zimbabwe this past August, the government of President Robert Mugabe threatened to withdraw its financial support of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair because of the inclusion of a booth by GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe). Moralizing about the need to protect societal values from corruption, Mugabe's ensuing anti-homosexual comments fit what Dr. Neville Hoad of Columbia University labels "the homophobic strictures of European discourses which are mobilized by anti-colonial agents in national liberation struggles."

The ensuing international outcry included statements from Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka supporting GALZ's right to free speech, as well a motion filed with the United Nations by an American human rights activist seeking to censure Zimbabwe for violating the spirit of various human rights declarations. Not surprising, the government played upon nationalist sympathies and helped feed the populist notion of homosexuality as something being forced upon Zimbabwe by external forces.


The growing body of evidence supporting a biological root to homosexual behavior presents a strong case to argue that homosexuality is to some extent innate in all races and cultures. Even if homosexual desire is innate to a percentage of any population, the opportunities for expressing such are clearly regulated by cultural boundaries.

Anthropologist Evelyn Blackwood, editor of THE MANY FACES OF HOMOSEXUALITY, quotes from the work of her peers Ross and Rapp to emphasize "the historical-cultural" construction of sexuality. Sexuality's biological base is always experienced culturally, through a translation. The bare biological facts of sexuality do not speak for themselves; they must be expressed socially. Sex feels individual, or at least private, but those feelings always incorporate the roles, definition, symbols and meanings of the worlds in which they are constructed.

Many traditional African cultures are based upon extended families and clan structures, providing the needed replenishment of the population central for subsistence. But a misconception widespread in popular views of sexuality and even in anthropology, is to place homosexuality in a position of opposition to procreation. Homosexuality can indeed be viewed through an economic perspective whereby a society must be able to afford the choice of an individual not to have children. However, the idea that the economic interdependence of members of an extended family or clan is a deterrent to homosexuality, is an issue relating to behavior and not desire. Moreover, there is anthropological evidence showing that a number of African cultures exhibit a degree of accommodation of homosexuality.

Some of the best known work exploring homosexuality in Africa is that of Evans-Pritchard and his studies of the Azande of present day Zaire, beginning in the 1920s. Evans-Pritchard found repeated examples of adolescents prior to the age of 17-18 serving as "boy wives" to older men. They were expected to help their "father-in-law" and "mother-in-laws" to cultivate the fields, build huts and would often sleep with their father-in-laws.

According to Evans-Pritchard, "if a (Azande) man has sexual relations with a boy he is not unclean. The Azande say, 'A boy does not pollute the oracle.'" Moreover, the boy wife and his father-in-law would often refer to each other "my love" and "my lover."

Accounts of homosexuality in traditional African cultures often find such practices accepted among adolescents, but discouraged among adults. Tessemann, writing in the 1913 about the Fang people of present day Gabon, states:

In adults such conduct is regarded as something immoral and unnatural, simply unheard of. In reality, however, it is frequently heard of that young people carry on homosexual relations with each other and even older peoples who take boys...readily console them by saying, "we are having fun, playing a game, joking." Adults are excused with the corresponding assertion, "he has (the) heart (that is, the aspirations) of boys," which is, of course, by no means flattering to them.

Evans-Pritchard and Tessmann's findings, along with those of many other researchers, read as mixed messages when one is trying to draw a line between what sexual practices various African societies will and will not accept. The heterosexual/homosexual split so entrenched in western societies becomes even harder to peg to African cultures when one is dealing with cases of gender display that are out of sync with an individual's biological sex.

In traditional Zulu culture women are the spirit diviners. As females, able to give birth, it is through their bodies that spirits may cross from one world to another. However men who display female gender characteristics are also allowed to be spirit diviners. Moreover, a man who becomes possessed, no matter what his gender identity, is considered a woman. While not conclusive, such may well relate to the widespread belief in southern Africa that homosexuals are in fact hermaphrodites.

Probably the best documented cases of homosexuality in Africa are among the mine workers of South Africa. Living in all male compounds and separated from girlfriends and wives for months at a time, it is very common for adolescent boys to visit these compounds and provide sexual service to its inhabitants. Such can be thought of as situational homosexuality, based upon the extenuating circumstances of an all male setting.

Yet far less consideration has been given to those miners and their partners who admit to enjoying sexual contact with other men beyond obtaining sexual release in the absence of women. Writing in DEFIANT DESIRE, Linda Ngcobo and Hugh McLean interviewed twenty African men who have sex with other men about gay sexuality in the townships around Johannesburg.

"A skesana is a boy who likes to get fucked," explains Ngcobo, himself one of the first black gay men in South Africa to publicly declare his homosexuality. "An injonga is the one who makes the proposals and does the fucking."

Much of the sex between miners and those who service them is "thigh sex", a relatively accepted sexual practice between members of the same sex in many African cultures.

Yet the authors argue that anal sex is far from unknown. Moreover, the definition of what constitues "sex" for African men who have sex with other men, is anal penetration. "Remember that skesanas who 'play with each other' even to the point of orgasm, do not consider this to be sex. Sex happens when amanjonga wa kwabo baba-ayinela, when their injongas penetrates them."

Corresponding to the large scale migration of men in Southern Africa seeking work, is the close relationships and support networks developed by women. Again the situation specific explanation of these relations, exhibited both emotionally and sexually, must be considered along with other evidence.

In exploring the "mummy-baby" relationship between adolescent Basotho women in Lesotho, Judith Gray found that not only were young girls "gradually socialized into adult female roles and relationships by slightly older and more experienced girls," but that "sexual intimacy is an important aspect of these relationships." Over time as the women grow older and start to raise a family, the sexual nature of these relations lessen, but the support network formed and the deep emotional attachment among women remain.

Gray theorizes:

The fact that close physical and emotional relations between women often have a significant place, even after heterosexual relations have begun, suggests that the growing recognition of bisexuality in pyscho-sexual studies may find support in studies of non-western societies. As one Mosotho woman said about the physical side of these relationships: "It's not wrong. It's just another side of life."


What could be said of many cultures around the world is that they have little problem with homosexuality; it is homosexuals that are not tolerated. When President Mugabe calls on "churches and other custodians of human rights," to help Zimbabweans "observe their culture and traditional values," homosexuality is catapulted beyond being an issue of sexual practice. The supposed dos and don'ts of morally proscribed behavior are of course rooted deeper in earthly struggles for power then in heavenly sanctity.

Invoking the authority of the Catholic church to protect traditional African culture, is one of the many strange twists in the history of how European exported systems of belief and governance became rooted in the continent. When asked about homosexuality, a Ghanaian born editor of an African affairs publication was quick to blame the existence of that kind of behavior on missionaries and its prevalence in missionary run schools. Such perception, very widespread throughout Africa, is directly related to the mixed message colonialism brought; missionaries who came to save souls alongside of armies that came to steal the land and everything on it.

The very denying of indigenous homosexuality among African cultures plays into the hands of racism. Historian Wayne Dynes, in the introduction to a list of 84 references to homosexuality in Africa, notes that "Europeans have often held that 'sodomy' is a vice of advanced, even decadent civilizations. The Africans, being innocent 'children of nature' must be exempt from such corruption."

The notion of Africans being "innocent children," of nature, corresponds to European views that African sexual practices were primal and largely devoid of emotionally constructed associations. Likewise, homosexuality has also been vilified in western thought as being incompatible with intimacy and true romantic notions of love. As viewed from a defensive position, the ascribing of homosexual behavior to Africans and people of African descent can be regarded as doubly denying the emotional component of their sexual lives. It is not surprising then the popular view both in Africa and the African Diaspora that homosexuality is seen, as reported by Dynes, "a 'white vice' forced on healthy people to drag them down."

Black Nationalism in Africa and elsewhere, paired with Afrocentrism, has tended to perpetuate the notion of homosexuality is removed from the "true" African experience. As with so much else relating to Africa, the issue is informed and influenced by attitudes outside of the continent as much as with those views of Africans themselves.

In the United States, homosexuality is often viewed with hostility by African-Americans when placed in the sphere of a civil rights struggle. Homosexuals are seen as undeserving claimants to the same civil rights victories African-Americans have struggled for. A posting on NET NOIR, an African-American interest section of America Online, reflects the aforementioned:

I am utterly insulted, that the gay movement has degraded the struggles of minority groups in America, especially Blacks, by comparing their struggle to ours. Despite what pop psychology and many liberal whites may want us to believe, sexual orientation is a choice. The Black community has enough problems, do not further our problems by forcing us to accept the lifestyle. Let's work on keeping crack, crime, illiteracy, and gay lifestyles out of our neighborhoods.

New York based African-American lesbian activist, Jackie Bishop, explains the consequences of such attitudes as "being de-raced. In being a lesbian, I'm not Black."

Bishop points to Black Nationalism as being essentially misogynist and homophobic. Homosexuality is regarded as an external influence which weakens the link between African-Americans and their African roots. And issues such as homosexuality are thought to deflect attention from what should be the primary issue above all else; racism.

The popular idea of a lost "pure" Africa which existed prior to colonialism is an exclusionary one, built as much around Judeo-Christian ideals as traditional African ones. Yet the persuasiveness and influence of such a concept is extensive. Discussing the experiences of a gay man from Nairobi with a member of a university African Studies department, the professor proceeded to dismiss the man's homosexual orientation as a product of the "breakdown of the traditional family structure" in the post-colonial urban environment of Africa.

Who gets to speak of the "traditional family structure" in Africa, who best represents a "pure" African perspective on life, is an ongoing power struggle not unlike the battle over "family values" in the United States. In both cases, reality based on history is being swept aside in favor of easily salable constructions of nationalistic and racial identity. The disheartening result, according to Jackie Bishop, is that "We (as people of African descent), still have yet to really reconstruct our history. We need to uncover and re-create our own stories."

There are at best a handful of openly gay social and gay rights groups in Africa, but to what extent homosexuals in Africa should organize along the models of western gay organizations is a pertinent question. Nearly twenty years ago Sylvanus Maduka, a Methodist minister in Nigeria, on hearing of a "gay church" in the United States contacted the offices of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. He then proceeded to establish an MCC church in Imo state, hiding nothing of MCC's mission to welcome all peoples --- including homosexuals.

According to the Reverend Kavar who used to administer World Extension for MCC churches, there are more than 20 MCC churches in Nigeria, as well as MCC churches in 16 other African Countries. "What Maduka established are mostly villages churches serving husbands, wives and children. They are subsistence farmers and receive very little from the government. MCC helped them build a clinic. Nothing about MCC's focus on serving gays and lesbians is hidden from them. It's not an issue. Asked about the sexuality of his congregates, Maduka once said, 'if you want us to be homosexual we will be; it doesn't matter to us.'"

Reverend Kavar admits to reading between the lines in Maduka's letters to him, trying to determine if Maduka himself was gay. But the answer is largely immaterial. The non-judgmental inclusion MCC offered all people answered the needs of those Maduka sought to help.

Idealism which may seem fanciful in the West can be down right practical when faced with the poverty of choices someone like Maduka faced. Cycles of war and famine in Africa have created the terrible impression, even among African themselves, that the people of the African continent cannot afford to be humane to one another. Yet to deny anyone their dignity and rightful place in African society for reasons of ethnic background, sexuality or race, is to continue to rob Africa of its complete humanity.
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