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Sex in Africa is more diverse than gay-or-straight

“Homos” in Uganda can be “male lesbians” in Nigeria – or not. AP

On 13 January the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, signed a bill against gay relationships, outlawing gay marriage, public displays of same-sex relationships and membership in gay groups. A few days later, Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, refused to sign an anti-homosexuality bill that has been in the works since 2009 on the grounds that there are other ways of dealing with “an abnormal person”. Pondering the issue earnestly, he wrote: “Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her?”

Museveni is not alone in pondering how to kill sexual dissenters. In the wake of the trial for “sodomy” of the first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana, his successor Robert Mugabe spoke of homosexuals in a 2002 campaign speech as “mad person[s]” who will be sent to jail. “We don’t want to import it [homosexuality] to our country,” he said. “We have our own culture, our own people.”

At least 76 United Nations member countries have laws that criminalise same-sex relations; some 37 African countries, along with Middle Eastern countries, constitute a majority of those. It is still dangerous and even life-threatening to be out in Africa.

In many places, homosexuality – itself a slippery category, with roots in 19th century medical literature – is still thought to be quintessentially “un-African”. South African Bishops were the only ones among African Anglican bishops not to help defeat the Church of England’s 1998 attempt to improve attitudes toward homosexuality. The Church in Africa, especially in its Evangelical garb, is still often ready to identify homosexuality as an abomination to God. Ugandan film-maker Roger Ross Williams, director of God Loves Uganda (2013), argues that American missionaries are often behind this frenzy against gay sex – this in a country that happens to be one of the top global consumers of gay porn.

Homosexuality is also often depicted as an import from the deviant west. But the African continent has always been more queer than generally acknowledged; it has always rainbow-hazed into a huge range of sexualities. It is therefore a serious matter of political and critical concern that homosexuality (of all kinds) and African cultures are read as mutually exclusive. In fact, many African sexualities fall outside of the purview of the law – and even of language.

Same-sex practices are common throughout the African continent; it is the claiming of homosexual identity that remains widely forbidden. The question of what constitutes “sex” in Africa, and in particular same-sex sex, is still something of a blind spot. As the work of Marc Epprecht has revealed, not all African men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women think of themselves as gay, homosexual, bisexual or queer. They are seldom members of activist LGBT organisations and are not computed as such in the health literature on HIV/AIDS. In Africa, as in Latin America and other parts of the world, there is a tension between homosexual identity and homosexual practice.

Anything but straightforward

What we see in recent legal developments is the policing of African or Islamic same-sex desire as a form of resistance to westernisation. Terms such as “gay” and “lesbian” (which reek of western liberation struggles), and more recently “queer” (a movement generated in academe), certainly point to the globalisation of sexual identity. These words were originally imported to the African continent via English, French and other western languages, and often clash with indigenous designations and practices. In South Africa, a “masculine man” playing a dominant role in a relationship with another man is called “a straight man”, and is not perceived as “gay” because he acts as penetrator during sexual intercourse.

The term “male lesbians” is an attempt at translating the northern Nigerian Hausa for “passive” male partners, or “yan kifi”; conversely, “lesbian men” in Namibia are women who play the dominant “butch” role in a same-sex relationship. Even though the terms “butch” and “femme” are not known in Namibian Damara culture, various sexual practices and dress codes have some resonance with the western butch-femme dynamic. Meanwhile, in Kampala, Uganda, where sections 140 and 141 of the Penal Code condemn same-sex relations, some Ugandan women identify themselves as “tommy-boys” – biological women who see themselves as men (rather than “lesbians”), who need to be the dominant partner during sex, and who often pass as men.

From Senegal to Southern Africa, many African gay men invoke animistic beliefs in ancestor spirit possession. A gay Shona man in Zimbabwe might claim he is inhabited by his “auntie”, whereas in Senegal, the “gor-djigeen” (“male-female” in the Wolof language) is haunted by the primordial severance between male and female in the creation of the universe.

In her autobiography Black Bull, Ancestors and Me, written in the safety provided by the new South African constitution and its ground-breaking sexual orientation clause, Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde recounts her gradual empowerment as a lesbian “sangoma”, or traditional healer. But beyond the famed sexual orientation clause, the relationship between her and her “ancestral wife” is sanctioned by Zulu spiritual possession cults, which often privilege female men over male women.

Upon closer scrutiny, it appears that lesbian sangomas and their ancestral wives are not united in a common identity based on shared sexual orientation but rather are distinguished from each other according to gender difference, complicated by spirituality. Ancestral wives can only exist in their relation to masculine females or “male women”, the way “dees” (a term from the last syllable of the English word “lady”) exist solely in their relation to “toms” (from “tomboys”) in Thailand. Thai toms are capable (“khlong-tua”) biological women who protect and perform sexually for dees or female partners, without toms and dees being thought of as lesbians. Even though Zandile Nkabinde, unlike the Thai tom, translates her gender identity into “tomboy”, “lesbian” and “butch”, the Zulu label for her “ancestral wife” is simply not part of the global gay rights vocabulary.

Both in and outside of Africa, there is a frenzied debate raging around the instability of gender and sex, fuelled by a complex array of interests. These legal skirmishes are at their worst potentially deadly in Africa, as the Ugandan example showed. But the answer to these conflicts goes far beyond western gay/straight categories. The array of African homosexualities that is already accommodated by indigenous cultures shows how we must embrace and protect a diversity that dare not speak its many names.

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