Did Europe Bring Homophobia to Africa?

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Black Perspectives

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Social justice -- Africa, Homophobia -- Africa


Recently at a public forum, someone asked me if “same-sex relations in Africa [are] un-African?” While answering the question, another interjected, “all these foreign White man’s practices [are] forced on us,” evidently alluding to the fact that same-sex relations is inherently a “western import,” foisted on Africans by European colonizers.

Indeed, few issues are as difficult to grapple with as the fact that precolonial Africa practiced same sex relations with the practice itself being hotly contested in Africa for centuries. In nearly all African countries today, same-sex relations are considered a taboo. Many allege that European colonizers brought with them the “ungodly gift of homosexuality,” despite the range of available historical evidence to the contrary. Even some historians and Africanist scholars have either denied or ignored African same-sex patterns while others have claimed that such patterns were outright colonial importations. This piece argues to the contrary and contends that homophobia was a colonial imposition.

The myth that same-sex relations were absent in precolonial Africa is one of the most enduring. Digging through history and drawing from African-derived examples, it becomes clear that traditional Africa was tolerant of different sexualities, orientations and gender relations. Thus, it is disservice to history to say that same-sex relations in Africa was introduced by Europeans.

In my review of Nwando Achebe’s Female Monarchs and Merchant Queens in Africa, I highlighted the African phenomenon of “gendered males” and “gendered females” which refers to the way that the interconnected universe allows males to transform themselves into females and females to transform themselves into males. As Achebe argued, “these transformations are encouraged by a milieu that recognizes that . . . sex and gender do not coincide; that gender is a social construct and is flexible and fluid, allowing . . . women to become gendered men, and . . . men, gendered women.”

So, to understand same-sex relations in traditional Africa, one must understand African cosmology. There is a close relationship between spirituality and sexuality in African cosmology as well as with the different types of spiritual power associated with each sex. This worldview not only gave rise to male and female gendered spiritual forces but also allowed for the practice of same-sex relations.


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