“What is lesbian now?”
I begin explaining “queer theory” to my grandmother and the diffusion of human rights and international instruments that hold states accountable. These terms and phrases mean nothing to her. I try to tell her about Michel Foucault and she asks if he is my husband. Suddenly all those hours spent in lecture halls seem powerless against the sheer titanium force that are the gates of her mind. A mind-set tempered by 80 plus years of a specific worldview. I look her dead in the eyes and my only answer is “no” and hers is to shrug and say “see, all that education and you are alone”.
Except I am not.
I have a wonderful girlfriend of three years, but the conversation has already died. And in my heart, even as a gender student, I am not completely sure what queer theory is.
So the question is: How do I curb issues of homophobia and move towards a place of acceptance? The key is in changing the narrative. Homophobia on the continent is based, pure and simple, on the notion that all Africans are straight. We are not bent or even slightly crooked. We are straight-laced “God-fearing folk” trying to populate our beautiful land through the holy union of man and woman. Anything outside this does not form part of the African identity and is therefore to be cast into the dark night where Satan and his minions live.
African identity and what is deemed to fit into this framework is what is key here. Identity is at the core of all social interactions. When people come together it is a question of what it means to be a part of “the group”. What gets you a ticket in or what gets the bouncer at the door giving you the “keep it moving” stare down. Questions of what it means to be a woman, a white African, gay, a worker, a leader. What is it that lets you into the collective? Do you fit the criteria? The problem with alternative sexualities is that when these make up part of your identity you do not tick the right boxes that make you “African”.
But “homosexuality” has been here far longer than homophobia. This argument is not new but little-known. Documented as early as the 16th century, homoerotic acts have been present on the continent. These acts and same-sex practices existed for many reasons: spiritual, economic or just sexual. They were placed within the realm of rituals, sacred practices, secret spaces and designated social roles.
Anthropologists in the colonial period found alternative sexualities on the continent and ignored them by arguing that homosexuality was for modern and civilised nations that understood pleasure. It was another thing we could not understand being far too close to nature. African sexuality was wildly changed by the colonial landscape — through its “science” and religion — bringing us to a point where nothing but confusion and only a fuzzy memory of what came before are left.
It seems the problem with arguing that being a “lesbian” is African may also be because that “hard” label doesn’t take into cognisance the intricacies of past histories and present realities of sexuality on the continent. Problems with self-identification can be seen in the fact that so many within the LGBTI community dress and act like their western (mainly American) counterparts furthering the notion to others (and I suspect themselves) that homosexuality is un-African.
With seemingly nothing to turn to here, we look out there. For many there is little engagement with the idea that there is a sexuality within the continent other than “straight”, it isn’t necessarily “gay”, and that we should find out what this looks like here. Articulating to your 80-year-old grandmother what a lesbian is while looking like Ellen DeGeneres will not help matters. If we are to change the narrative then we need to conceptualise what the African sexual identity is and not import one from outside, and force people to accept this stranger.
It is this change in narrative that needs to become the focus. Merely stating to people that “homophobia is un-African” is not enough if alternative sexualities are cloaked in languages and notions that are foreign. The best and brightest among us need to take us back to the past and bring out what it means to be non-heterosexual and African, a past that existed.
If we are to tackle the damage done by the silence on African sexuality (not just for alternative sexualities but heterosexuals as well) then we need to understand where we come from. We must also understand that we have the space and power as Africans to define ourselves, something we often fail to do within many realms be it the economic, academic, political or even social.
Once we understand our sexuality historically and what this means today, maybe we can have a little more fun. All our best histories have been erased and silenced. Our time as philosophers, kings, pharaohs, economic powerhouses and erotic, sexually-aware sentient beings has been conveniently omitted. The constant call for an African identity and “things being our culture” remains a laughable idea as long as so much of what we do is tied to various notions and ideas that come from far away.
Plus explaining queer theory to people can be very difficult.