UCT – Gender, Sexuality, and Politics: The Same-Sex Myth in Africa

During my childhood and adolescence, I knew there was something innate in my being that separated me from the other boys at my school and sports teams. I may not have known it then, but this self-realization would later lead to the discovery of my attraction to both men and women. Such an affinity for both sexes represented a grave sin to my mother, who prayed desperately for this ‘spirit’ to leave me. Years later in college, I realized that this same-sex desire would be the reason I was not deemed ‘worthy’ enough to join a particular organization on campus. Some of the leaders within this organization strongly believed that a man being gay or attracted to men at all was the worst thing he could ever be. It if for that reason when I finally decided to label myself as gay that I knew that life the way I once knew it as a self-proclaimed “heterosexual” or “closeted” gay individual would be different. My being gay is the same reason I chose to study abroad in South Africa and not any of the other countries within Africa who criminalize homosexuality. I wanted to become aware of the LGBTQI climate and explore the same-sex ‘myth’ in a space that lawfully ensured my protection.

From looking at the brief synopsis of my past experiences above, one can see that being gay or homosexual is perceived by society (my community) and religion (my family’s Christian faith) to be wrong. In exploring Msibi’s piece, I wish to show the role religion, law, and tradition played in criminalizing and oppressing homosexuality as well as the connection between homophobia and sexism. To point out the contradictory nature surrounding homosexuality in Africa, I will also look at the history of same-sex desires in Africa. In exposing the myths that revolve around homosexuality in Africa, Thabo Msibi provides an in depth look into the social constructs created to define same-sex desires and the arguments that have been used to criminalize same-sex behavior. In addition, Msibi looks at the intersectionality of sexism and homophobia and provides insight to the contradicting moral ideologies that have been used to police both women and individuals with same-sex desires. He uncovers the true history of same-sex desires in Africa, negating the said claim that same-sex desires are “un-African.” Thus, Msibi points out the false ideal of labeling same-sex desires as un-African and that this proclamation was used to protect a patriarchal system and the rise of conservatism.

The terms “homosexual” and “gay” were not conceived in Africa. Instead, they evolved out of “specific cultural history” in the West to combat the ‘sickness’ of being attracted to persons of the same sex. Furthermore, the term homosexual was used to “control social relations” and label those participated in same-sex relations as “deviant” (Msibi, 2011: 56). Gay, on the other hand, is a political identity that focuses on a person’s outward expression and engagement within same-sex relations. Arguably the most significant statement made in this paper states boldly that “Colonialist did not introduce homosexuality itself to Africa, but rather and intolerance for it” and systems in which to restrict and police individuals from engaging in such activities (Msibi, 2011: 66). Thus, the criminalization of homosexuality was birthed by colonialism and left there to stay after flag democracies.

Uganda, Malawi, Nigeria, and South Africa serve as the four case studies in which we see clear examples of how British colonialism led to the criminalization of homosexuality and same-sex desires. In all of these cases, laws were proposed to provide homosexuals or those who were perceived to be homosexual with the harshest sentences, even death. While many of these laws were not passed, they were rewritten and often passed later. South Africa is the only one of the four countries mentioned, which now has rights for homosexuals. However, even in South Africa, we often see lesbian women raped and the perpetuation of the stigma that still exist around homosexuality. The criminalization of homosexuality in the new flag democracy was later endorsed by the notion that same-sex desires were un-African, against African religions, and against African laws (Msibi, 2011: 62). Those who were seen as homosexual were perceived to be ‘sick’ or ‘subhuman.’ What I find most interesting is how same-sex desire is seen as a Western creation, when the colonizers actually provided terms to describe same-sex desires in Africa so that it could be punishable. African leaders wish to free Africa of this ‘Western disease’, yet this behavior was already seen in Africa before Westerners ever embarked onto the African continent. The concepts of sin and religion is Western influenced as well, which makes these statements contradictory. This contradiction is not just shown in religion, but also the laws as well. Laws created during Colonialism are still in effect in many of these African countries. Thus, if these African countries wish to “reject ideologies from the West” then the religion and laws that also came from the West cannot be used to persecute native behavior and must be revisited (Msibi, 2011: 69). Despite this fact, many of these African countries would rather criminalize same-sex desires as a direct “attempt to solidify men’s position in society” (Msibi, 2011: 71).

From the miners in South Africa to the Igbo women in Nigeria having many wives, to an actual King in Uganda and a famous Zande boxer in Central Africa, same-sex desires have always been a part of African society. Msibi emphasizes this fact by providing countless examples and explains that while same-sex relations were not always seen in a favorable light, those individuals who partook in these actions still held a place in society. Oftentimes, families arranged marriages to hide one’s same-sex attractions or desires. Thus, same-sex was not un-African or a product of Western societies, but was “silenced by heteronormativity” (Msibi, 2011: 64). Beyond this fact, the terms homosexuality and gay were not applicable the African public sphere and instead offered a “separation between gender and sex” (Msibi, 2011: 65).

Much of the talks of same-sex desires revolve around men engaging in sexual relations with other men. Why is it that homosexuality or gayness is often associated with men? This further points out the flaws within a patriarchal society, which dictates that women cannot be gay because they cannot be ‘penetrated.’ These claims are then reinforced by the notion of “curative rape” as a means of saving lesbian women from their same-sex desires as in South Africa. Despite this current reality sweeping Africa, women in Nigeria and many other countries were once seen as once powerful and highly organized (Msibi, 2011: 65). The emancipation of women troubled men’s position in society. Furthermore, it is thought that men who identify as gay will in fact “destabilize men’s positions in society as well.” Thus, the question of what is means to be a ‘man’ is raised. The changing political climate and the human-rights agenda is forcing African societies to challenge the role and the way in which we define masculinity (Msibi, 2011: 70). When women and same-sex desires or homosexuality poses a threat to heteronormativity, “they become targets” (Msibi, 2011: 71).

Why is it that LGBTQI issues seem to pose such a great threat to humanity, being considered immoral and against nation building and social cohesion? How can countries that were oppressed and enslaved show such hatred toward other human beings? One answer exists in a group or system gaining power by the oppression of minority groups. Has the stubbornness and pride of African leaders grown too thick? Are they scared that with a changing cultural climate that their former traditions and societal norms will be seen as a lesser or weak? I find it extremely interesting how Msibi points out that help from the West in their promotion of gender based and LGBTQI equality further enables “African homophobes” (Msibi, 2011: 72). Instead he suggests activists from all over Africa to come together to creatively construct new ways of addressing sexism and homophobia. It is then and only then that Africa can extinguish the myth surrounding homosexuality and reclaim same-sex desires as African. 

 

Works Cited

Msibi, Thabo, 2011. The Lies we have been told: On (Homo) Sexuality in Africa. Africa Today, 58 (1), pp.54-77.

 

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