By Gcobani Qambela
May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (Idaho), presents an opportunity for us young people, the so-called “future leaders” of the continent, to reflect deeply about what we are going to do differently to our many ageing African homophobic and misogynistic leaders when it comes to our treatment of non-heterosexual sexualities.
Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe called gays and lesbians “worse than pigs and dogs” in 1995. Five years later, he continued to state that homosexuality was “an abomination, a rottenness of culture” and that Britain’s “gay government” was attempting to impose homosexuality on Zimbabwe. Miescher Stephen notes that Mugabe “urged his compatriots to defend Zimbabwe from this latest sort of Western Imperialism [because] such statements denouncing homosexuals and identifying homosexuality as un-African have been echoed by other African leaders”.
Kwame Essien and Aderinto Saheed used a case study of a proposed conference on gays and lesbians in Ghana to examine how this conference “created tensions and repercussions from the social, cultural, religious and political factors, which worked to repress same-sex discourse in the country”. They noted that these clashes arose as a result of contestations around what is considered “African” and “un-African” sexual and social behaviour. They found that “the government of Ghana and religious institutions did not view homosexuality as a human rights issue as in the case of South Africa, but a form of ‘sexual colonialism’ or Western imposition on Ghanaians”.
Brian Gibson notes however that “even as same-sex marriages were made legal in South Africa in 2006, a number of politicians and prominent Africans have repeatedly in the past 10 years denounced homosexuality as un-African”. These views have the impact of relegating gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons in Africa to second class citizens with limited freedoms. This contention that homosexuality is un-African manifests itself beyond mere utterances by the leaders in Africa, but also into violent action and treatment of homosexuals in many African societies.
Even in South Africa where there is legislative protection of gay rights, the social climate still presents an extremely hostile environment for homosexual identifying people to live openly and freely without harassment or judgement. Gibson notes that “in the past decade, even as homosexuality has been dismissed as a foreign scourge or even unheard of on the [African] continent before the arrival of Europeans, a number of books and films have come out which show that same-sex relations in Africa not only predate colonialism, but confound Western notions of sexuality in their complexity”.
One of these books challenging and revisiting the history of homosexuality and the idea of a heterosexual only African continent is Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa by Marc Epprecht. Epprecht shows us the various ways in which same-sex sexuality was well-known in pre-modern Southern Africa, thus proving wrong the ideas that homosexuality is a European construct and hands political capital to those working for the realisation of equal rights on the African continent.
On engaging and demonstrating the various and multiple forms of non-heteronormative societies in the pre-modern African era, Epprecht tells us that “dogmatic revulsion against same-sex behaviors, acts, relationships, and thoughts [that is, homophobia] was introduced into the region by European colonialists and preachers” and that “Africans were encouraged through these discourses to equate homophobic constructions of sexuality with civilisation and progress”. This means therefore according to Epprecht that it is homophobia and not homosexuality that is the Western import.
So today on Idaho I hope that as Africans — young Africans in particular — that we start thinking about the ways in which we can create space for sexualities that exists outside of hetoronormativity to exist peacefully alongside heterosexuality. Moreover because of the deeply entrenched nature of patriarchy in Africa, we also need to realise we cannot get to the core of homophobia and transphobia without uprooting patriarchy. A lesbian woman raped to “correct” her, a gay man who is killed on a night out because of his sexuality, and a straight woman who is repeatedly beaten by a partner are all people who are victims to the larger system of patriarchal oppression.
If we don’t speak out and start doing something about the war being waged on non-heterosexual bodies in Africa and start challenging deep-seated misogynistic trans/homophobia harboured by many Africans we won’t be able to make inroads into other broader issues around gender in society. All oppressions intersect, and we need to call them out not only when we see them in the public and political sphere, but especially at home — in our own personal domains. When we see that homophobic tweet, when that friend shares that misogynistic picture on Facebook or that loved one is abused by a loved one — we need to speak out.
I am always dismayed at some of the ignorance, misogyny and homophobia I witness and call-out among many of my young peers who are highly educated (often with international Masters degrees) from “prestigious” international institutions. If we continue harbouring the exact same attitudes as our leaders today, in 50 years we might just bear witness to a complete redux of today’s politics in Africa. I certainly hope not.
* Gcobani Qambela is an Anglo-Gold Ashanti (2011) One Young World Ambassador.