African societies have never
historically had a “gay” identity or a pathologized
“homosexual” category. However, same-sex sexual attraction and
expression were known to occur, but in usually hidden but sometimes even
culturally accepted ways (Thabo Msibi para. 1). This paper argues that
homosexuality and queerness preceded colonialism in Africa. This paper will
also argue that homosexuality in Africa is prohibited on cultural and religious
The concept of homosexuality developed in the
nineteenth century and it was used to describe a type of sickness afflicting
those who were attracted to the same sex (Thabo Msibi para. 3). Therefore
homosexuality was a term that was introduced by westerns so that they can be
able to describe social relations and label people who engage in same-sex
In the 1960s, the word gay was
introduced by civil rights activists in western countries (Omar Swartz para.
7). These two concepts in wording alone have no meaning in Africa and its
culture. They came from western political experiences. Many Europeans arrived
in Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Aldrich, Robert
para. 1). Thirty-three countries out of
fifty-four countries in Africa legally penalize and prosecute homosexuality
(“76 Crimes” para. 20). The majority of African LGBTQ community in
countries like Uganda faces intense stigma including hate, discrimination and
oppression in their personal and professional lives.
During his visit to Kenya, The former
American President Barack Obama addressed the discrimination against LGBTQ
community during the press conference with Kenyan leaders. He said, “When you start treating people
differently not because of any harm they are doing to anybody, but because they
are different, that’s the path whereby freedoms begin to erode. When a government gets in a habit of people
treating people differently, those habits can spread” (Kristen Holmes
para. 2-7). In response, Uhuru Kenyatta the president of Kenya said, “The
fact of the matter is Kenya and the U.S. share so many values: the common love
for democracy, entrepreneurship, value for families — these are some things
that we share. But there are some things that we must admit we don’t share. Our
culture, our societies don’t accept” (Kristen Holmes para. 2-7).
This wasn’t different from what the
Ugandan president Mr Yoweri Museveni said during the ceremony of signing the
Anti-gay Bill in Uganda. In similar terms, he said that there is a
misunderstanding between Africans and the Liberal Westerners. He said,
“Outsiders cannot dictate to us. This is our country. I advise friends
from the west not to make this an issue, because if they make it an issue the
more they will lose”(Amy Fallon Para. 3).
In 2009, an Anti-Homosexuality Bill
was introduced in Uganda’s Parliament. Despite the fact that there are
well-documented facts of sexual diversity In Africa. The anti-gay bill proposed
that homosexuality should be punishable even by death and friends and families
are responsible to report suspected individuals who engage in same-sex
relations (Thabo Msibi para. 11). The bill
noted that it wants to protect the cherished culture, their religious culture,
legal and traditional family values of the people of Uganda (Faith Karimi para.
Journalist Bisi Alimi’s research
argues that while many Africans say homosexuality is un-African, African
culture is no stranger to homosexuality and queerness. In the Nigerian Yoruba
tribe, they have the word “Adofuro “which means someone has had anal
sex, and it stands for a homosexual in their culture. In addition to that, in northern Nigeria, in the Hausa tribe, they also
have the word “DAUDU” which describes men who are considered to be
wives to men and this term is more about identity and not a derogatory
word. Also, the late King Mwanga of the
Ugandan Buganda kingdom was openly gay but faced no discrimination until white
missionaries greatly condemned homosexuality (Bisi Alimi para. 6-8). This is
another evidence of homosexuality in the pre-colonial
The Lambeth conference that brings
together Anglican Communion bishops from all over the world that took place in
1998, passed a condemnation of homosexuality and this was strongly supported by
African bishops. The Anglican Church confirmed that homosexuality is a western
phenomenon and its presence in Africa is a legacy of colonialism “The Anglican
Church debate served to confirm for some the conventional wisdom that
homosexuality is a western phenomenon. Its presence in Africa is explained as a
legacy of colonialism and/or an evil introduced by Arabs” (1998 Anglican
Church resolutions archives pg. 9). And they made homosexual behaviour seen as a scandal or tragedies that
just happened to the families where one came out openly.
More often than not, many Africans
argue that homosexuality is a western notion and it is against African various
faiths. For example, they use biblical
teaching to point out that God burned down the ancient cities of Sodom and
Gomorrah because they offended him by engaging in homosexuality. However according to various historical
reports, when Christianity was spread to Africa there were homosexuality acts
already going on. A case in point is King MWANGA 2 who was a king the Buganda
Kingdom which is present Uganda, was openly gay and he didn’t face hate until
white men brought the Christian church and its condemnation and this was 1884 and history tells us that
British colonials landed in Uganda in began around 1860 (East Africa living
Encyclopedia para.3)and this brings a major confusion about homophobia in
Africa and it’s mainly based on cultural
beliefs and religious values, yet history tells us that homosexual relations were existing before colonials landed.
There is no anthropological evidence
that homosexuality first occurred in Africa after colonization began. Many
suggest that maybe the invention of English language bought the homophobic
words such as faggot, gay and so on (Eusebius Mckaiser para.2). Bisi Alimi also
highlights some Nigerian words such as “Adofuro ‘” and “DAUDU” that existed before colonials reached
in Africa yet colonists are accused of bringing homosexuality to Africa,
therefore, homosexuality being existent in Africa, its prohibition in Africa should be separated with colonialism.
The relationship between colonial and
neo-colonial structures is said to be controlling the debate of the issue of
sexual minorities in Uganda. Authoritarianism and surveillance are both
constitutive of colonial and imperial identity and the practice of violent
attitudes towards gendered and sexual minorities in Uganda is a colonial
inheritance. (Kizito, Kalemba para. 4). The western patriarchy and masculinism
brought through the export of legal and religious values are a mere reason for
homophobic attitudes in Uganda. According to Sylvia Tamale (Kizito, Kalemba
para. 6). African sexualities were not documented until colonialism reached
Africa, Homosexuality in the Buganda Kingdom was first written in history by
Christian missionaries by the Arabs who established trade relations with locals
before the arrival of Europeans. With all these colonialists coming to Uganda
and establishing Christianity as civilizing practice inherited into Uganda’s
body of laws and culture way of life.
Uganda’s Anti-homosexuality bill
continue to show how westerners dominated and regulate Africans with their religious beliefs which
helps them set up patriarchy and homophobic attitudes in Uganda with their laws
and religious factors. Not to ignore that even King Mwanga 2 Basamula Ekkere the king of Buganda kingdom also faced
opposition by British missionaries in 1884 when they started converting Ugandan
people to Christianity and the King was denied because of his sexuality, and in
his defense he killed young men who refused to have sex with him because they
translated to Christianity by burning them, those servants are now called
Uganda Martyrs (Thabo Msibi para. 35). Only four years later he was overthrown
by the British’s because he was not willing to conform to their rules and these
colonialists falsely presented same-sex interactions to show that the Ugandan
people were disgusted and this creating homophobic beliefs in Uganda and as for
now homophobia is supported by the laws (Thabo Msibi para. 14.).
Anti-gay laws were introduced to
Africa by westerners, however, most African countries do not look at homophobia
as a colonialist legacy but instead insists it’s their African values. Whereas
instead, you would agree that Christianity really did whitewash African
cultures and made them believes it was an evil act and they demonized African
traditional intimacies. And in addition
to that every culture’s sexual identities and orientations have been part of a
normal society, same-sex practices were a
thing in pre-colonial Africa and it wasn’t a taboo. For example, it was
normalized in militaries at the wars because of lack of female partners and
furthermore if you see the paintings of the pre-colonial Africa you would see
paintings of men having sex with other men, female warriors marrying their
fellow female warriors in Benin which was the Kingdom of Dahomey back in the days
(Thabo Msibi para. 36).
African homosexuality is not
incidental neither random because it has always been a feature of African
societies and beliefs, and in fact, Europeans declared that homosexuality was
un-African and the laws that condemn same-sex acts were introduced during
colonialism (Thabo Msibi para.26). Missionaries saw many of the ancient African
traditions as barbaric because they did not fit European customs or biblical
norms. Therefore they abolished homosexuality. Many Africans who are not well
versed in their own history argue that homosexuality is a western concept.
African men have always had sex with
one another and same as women and the assumption that homosexuality among
Africans is a “western disease” as stated by various African leaders
such as President Robert Gabriel Mugabe is contradictory with studies found
about homosexuality in Africa contrary (Thabo Msibi para.24).
Many cultures in Africa were
accepting of homosexuality. Most religions are not. Especially Christianity and
Islam which are the most followed faiths in the continent. The argument that
homosexuality is un-African proves that most Africans have fused and confused
culture with religion. That is the justification for the prohibition of
homosexuality they provide but it’s greatly flawed because it is not based on
historically proven facts.
If with all the evidence that
same-sex relations existed on Africa before the colonials landed in Africa,
African leaders still penalize homosexuality to make sure they don’t receive backlash,
then they are doing an incredible disservice to the gay community within their
respective countries. Missionaries did a good job in eroding pre-colonial
traditions and practices in Africa, however, the world has progressed and there
is evidence that homosexuality has always existed in Africa. The stigma around
homosexuality in Africa should end because it is in fact against African
culture which in essence didn’t discriminate people based on their
This paper has argued that that
homosexuality has always existed in many African cultures and the act itself
was not conceived in the west, therefore, it can be separated from colonialism.
This essay also argued that religious and cultural systems have over time been
intertwined and used to justify the prohibition of homosexuality in Africa.
Perhaps with more widespread activism and education about the long history of
homosexuality and queerness in Africa, more and more acceptance and
understanding of will develop. That way the LGBTQ community in most African
countries will be given their natural human rights just like other Africans.
Alimi, B. (2015).
If you say being gay is not African, you don’t know your history.
Anti-homosexual march in Uganda. (2012).
Homosexuality un-African? The claim is an historical embarrassment.
( May 19, 2017). 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal.
(Wednesday 9 September 2015). If you say being gay is not African, you don’t
know your history.
(Tuesday 2 October 2012). Homosexuality un-African? The claim is an
Kizito, K. (2017).
Bequeathed Legacies: Colonialism and State led Homophobia in Uganda.
Kristen Holmes and Eugene Scott. (July 25,
Obama lectures Kenyan president on gay rights.
Thabo Msibi. (2011).
The lies we have been told: on (homo) sexuality in Africa.
Kizito, K. (2017).
Bequeathed legacies: Colonialism and stated homophobia in Uganda. Surveillance & Society, 15(3), 567-572.
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“Apostles of Civilised
Vice”: “immoral Practices” and “Unnatural Vice” in
South African Prisons and Compounds. Social Dynamics 19(2): 92-110.