The Colonial Roots of African Nationalist Homophobia

LGBTI, Africa

from Eusebius McKaiser, click-through to link

Aggressive homophobia has become a distressingly familiar trope in African nationalist rhetoric.  A recent surge in anti-gay legislation across the continent has attracted media and activist attention, from the imprisonment of the Malawian gay couple in 2010 to Uganda’s ‘kill the gays’ law, as well as draft legislation in Nigeria and Cameroon.  Homophobia is characterised as a defence of African cultural authenticity—and has been too easily taken by horrified Western onlookers as proof of African barbarism.  The roots of this African nationalist homophobia can be traced, however, to the apparently opposed ideologies of colonial and white settler regimes, particularly in southern Africa.  These intertwined ideologies have not only helped to impose harsh heterosexist strictures; they have also had dangerous misogynist implications, where ‘loose’ women are as much to be feared and repressed as ‘effeminate’ men.

“Homosex is not in black culture”: so read a placard waved in support of Winnie Mandela, who defended herself against accusations of abduction by claiming she was rescuing boys from a white homosexual.  In 2001 Mugabe declared that homosexuals were “mad persons” who ought to be jailed, adding that, “We don’t want to import [homosexuality] into our country, we have our own culture, our own people” (qt. Zabus 251).  Homosexuality is characterised as alien to African cultures, a decadent Western import, and repulsive result of exploitation.  The idea, roughly, is that homosexuality has emerged through the weakening and perverting of African culture by colonial and neo-colonial processes, individual manifestations of the processes by which Africa was ‘fucked up the arse’ (Dunton 424).

Prisons and mines have been taken as breeding this kind of exploitative ‘situational homosexuality,’ and they were also emblematic of colonial regimes.  One former inmate of Robben Island, for example, told how guards would arrange for new prisoners to be gang raped, an abuse which combines the horrors of homosexuality, prison rape, and Apartheid.  A more benign example, which has still been seen as a corruption of African male sexuality, is that of ‘mine marriages,’ homosexual partnerships which were common in the South African mines that drew huge volumes of migrant labour from across southern Africa.  These ‘mine marriages’ had been seen as “a disorder brought about by the oppressive social structures of apartheid and the concomitant harshness of exploitative labour conditions” (Spurlin 189).   Migrant labour undoubtedly did have transformative and destabilising effects in rural African communities and families, but increasingly scholars argue that, rather than distorting migrants’ sexuality and ‘creating’ homosexuality, the isolation of South African mines may have offered men the freedom to act upon genuine desires.  Not dissimilarly, the ‘situational homosexuality’ so common among European colonial officials was almost certainly not the result of a desperate lack of women but rather the fact that imperial dislocation disproportionately attracted gay and bisexual men into the service.

The story is that homosexuality is a Western import with no authentic existence in African culture—one Zimbabwean official famously declared that there are no African words for homosexuality.  There are, Zabus counters, fifty such words.  As Marc Epprecht puts it, however, “Homophobia, not homosexuality, would appear to be the real ‘White man’s disease’”: anti-homosexuality legislation in Africa is a colonial legacy; missionaries imposed Western standards of sexual morality; and the Apartheid regime saw homosexuality as a threat akin to miscegenation and communism.  While it is impossible to gain unmediated access to pre-colonial African queer experiences, it is clear that there were a range of homosexual erotic relationships and behaviours that were recognised and accommodated within African societies (more about this in another entry).

Homophobic nationalism is based on the identification of the nation with the phallus, an identification made in Apartheid South Africa as well as Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.  White settler nations would subdue nature and the natives with a healthful combination of rugby and prayer (Epprecht 256), just as Zimbabwe would defeat neo-imperialism by closing down the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) stall at a bookfair.  In 1954, Southern Rhodesia amended the Immigration Act of 1914 to prevent practitioners of ‘homosexualism’ from entering the country, even as tourists!  Colonial morality gradually transmitted its moral panics.  South African miners were bombarded with propaganda warning them that, not only would both partners in homosexual partnerships be punished under the law, they would also face hellfire (Epprecht 257-8).  Even town planning and the design of public housing could communicate and inculcate European moral anxieties, through the set-up of sleeping quarters, for example.  It had, for example, been “normal, non-sexual and non-threatening for African men to sleep under the same blanket in the nude in the early days of colonial development (as had been the case in pre-colonial days)” (258).  By instituting separate sleeping quarters, colonialism literally removed the spaces for such practices, imposing through architectural layout, through single beds, the individual separateness so fundamental to Western thought and morality.  (In joyous contrast, in the 1940s Eva Meyerowitz wrote about women in the Gold Coast who would buy the biggest beds possible to facilitate lesbian group sex with six or so women [Murray 42]).

As Spurlin puts it, nationalist homophobia relies on classically imperialist Self/Other divisions, establishing rigid regimes of classification.  It

played on nationalist and masculinist assumptions that colonial power was emasculating for Africa and that homosexuality among blacks is a form of ideological penetration by  whites that further ‘feminizes’ the nation-state (conceived as masculine) (196).

The misogynist implications of this ideology are obvious.  The nationalist is masculine; the collaborator is female or effeminate; and the coloniser is, one supposes, homosexual.  Not only was African male weakness seen as a result of colonialism; so was a particular kind of African female strength.  The need to suppress ‘loose’ African women was a point where colonial and nationalist policies could dovetail.  Urbanisation disrupted social and domestic patterns, creating spaces for homosexuality to thrive (Gevisser), but also for the growth of prostitution and the emergence of newly assertive and economically independent women.  In 1916, the Southern Rhodesian government passed the Native Adultery Ordinance in an attempt to “protect indigenous African patriarchs from the disruptive effects of these women” through “periodic police round-ups and deportations of female ‘vagrants,’ and compulsory vaginal check-ups for sexually transmitted diseases” (Epprecht 258).  Later, nationalist complaints against colonial ‘emasculation’ were used to “fan popular perceptions that the humiliation of African men could be linked to the supposed looseness of African women.  Often, barely disguised, they favoured violence against such women as a strategy to restore masculine dignity” (259-60).

The practical consequences of hypermasculinist heterosexism are outlined by Epprecht.  They range from a gang of white Rhodesians (including a policeman) beating to death a middle aged white man for being a ‘poof’ in 1972 (257) to attacks on women during the first major strike by Africans in 1948 (260).  In 1956, Nationalist leaders refused to condemn, or even condoned, the mass rape of women in a Harare hostel on the grounds that they refused to participate in an anti-colonial protest (260).  One leader, Obed Muteza, said of his decision to go to prison that, “clearly, the honourable choice is the life of hardship, even death, [rather] than to go down in the annals of a nation as a collaborator or indeed a woman.  The choice before me is simple; am I a man or a woman?” (qt 260).

Homosexuality is figured as a corrupted and corrupting weakness; strong women are a perversion that need to be beaten into submission.  African masculinity, like white settler masculinity before it, is to be asserted upon the bodies of women and homosexuals. It is a phallocentric, narrow and violent rhetoric—derived, in large part, from narrow, violent European ideologies.

Works Cited

Dunton, Chris.  “‘Wheyting be Dat?’: The Treatment of Homosexuality in African Literature.”  Research in African Literatures 20:3 (1989): 422-448.  JSTOR [28 Feb 2013]

Epprecht, Marc.  “Black Skin, ‘Cowboy’ Masculinity: A Genealogy of Homophobia in the African Nationalist Movement in Zimbabwe to 1983.”  Culture, Health & Sexuality 7:3 (May 2005): 253-266.  JSTOR [8 Mar 2013]

Gevisser, Mark.  “A Different Fight for Freedom: A History of South African Lesbian and Gay Organizations from the 1950s to 1990s.”  Defiant Desire. Ed. Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron.  New York, London: Routledge, 1995. 14-86.  Print.

Murray, Stephen O.  “Homosexuality in ‘Traditional’ Sub-Saharan Africa and Contemporary South Africa: An Overview.”  <<>&gt;

Spurlin, William J.  “Broadening Postcolonial Studies/Decolonizing Queer Studies: Emerging ‘Queer’ Identities and Cultures in Southern Africa.”  Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections.  Ed. John C. Hawley.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.  185-205.  Print.

Zabus, Chantal.  “Out in Africa: Queer Desire in Some Anthropological and Literary Texts.” Comparative Critical Studies 6:2 (2009): 251-270.  Web [28 Feb 2013]


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