Homosexuality: White or…Human?

“Awareness is the greatest agent for change” Eckhart Tolle

I guess the “Third time’s a charm” quote suits me well. I wrote this article two times and ended up deleting it. The truth is that I was terrified. I was shaking as I thought about writing on a subject that is such a polemic. I was scared of expressing myself, of freeing my mind. I thought, for hours, again and again; as my fingers were slowly pushing the backspace button. This topic is the kind that can quickly go kaboom!

But here am I, with my shaking hands, writing these words one last time, hoping they will make more sense then they previously did. This is not a debate, no, it’s a sharing. It is me sharing my research and discoveries. It is me sharing my thoughts and analysis, my wonders and incomprehensions.

Why did I choose Homosexuality ?

Although the short answer would be “ I want to challenge stereotypes and false beliefs ”, it is more than that. Throughout these few last months, I grew a certain interest in everything concerning society, social norms, social diversity and social injustices. I then started realizing the current state of things in our African societies.

In every society exist certain norms and values that are believed to be the key to people’s overall well-being. They are thought of as the right and often only way of living and acting, anything that doesn’t align with these beliefs is, at best, considered less valuable and at worst — as often — negatively labeled (unholy, inhuman, etc.). Homosexuality is one of numerous subjects that can easily find their place in the second category. In fact, it is one of the most “taboo” subjects in our African societies. And while it costs a lot to admit it, there is an increasing intolerance toward homosexuals in our communities. Whether they are in the form of jokes or insults, harassment or even acts of violence, this homophobia is getting to a point where we can no longer bury our heads in the sand.

But being different from the norm is not always a choice; it rarely is, in fact. In many aspects, life makes you who you are, whether you like it or not. You don’t decide to be born in a Black or Brown skin, you don’t decide to be born with female genitals and certainly not with both genders’ organs. And believe it or not, sexuality works the same. In fact, numerous studies have shown that homosexuality is influenced by both our genes and our brain, although it may be argued that these factors do not themselves make a person gay. One may even consider the fact that it is up to the individual to act according to their desires and feelings as the “choice component” of one’s sexuality. Nonetheless, the desires and feelings themselves are natural and not choices.

Homosexuality in Africa

Being homosexual today is like asking for banishment; especially in African countries. As our families, the media and other institutions teach us, homosexuality is wrong and must be banished from our societies. We believe that homosexuality is a “white thing” and therefore has no place among us. Support for that mentality is grounded in the myth that there was no homosexuality in our African countries before the invasion of Western missionaries. But this belief is indeed a myth. One kept by people in various positions of powers.

But, what is Homosexuality?

While the origin and history of the concept of homosexuality is quite interesting, I will rather go to the main point. Homosexuality in most dictionaries would be defined as the romantic or sexual attraction between people of the same sex or gender. This form of sexuality, like many others, is often associated with numerous sexual practices. Among them are terms and practices such as anal sex, oral sex, frotting or tribadism, mutual masturbation, etc.

These terms and definitions mostly represent the concept of homosexuality in Western societies. However, numerous African countries had their own terms as well. In Angola for example, mutual masturbation — which can be present in both homosexual and heterosexual relationships — was defined by the term okulikoweka, although the term was more used for male-male or female-female sexual intercourses; frotting was known as kuzunda. To define anal sex, words such as ku’nyo in kirundi (language of Burundi) or kufirwa in Zanzibar (Tanzania) (1.a) were used. Kulamba and kusagana were used respectively to define cunnilingus and tribadism (Tanzania) (2.a). Further, men or women who were known to practice these sexual acts were not called homosexuals but other specific “labels” according to their country of origin. In Angola, men who practiced sexual activities with other men were called quimbandas. In northern Nigeria, it was dan kashili or dan daudu (Haussa language). In the Republic of Benin, former Dahomey, male teenagers often practiced anal sex and were called gaglo. Females, known today as lesbians, were identified as nsagaji in some regions of Zanzibar (2.b).

Homosexuality in Rituals and Rites, for Culture or Pleasure Purposes

In various African cultures, homosexual activities were often practiced and even encouraged. In both Gabon (among the Fang) and Equatorial Guinea, homosexual relationships were believed to transfer wealth through anal sex. In Libya on the other hand, such a practice was believed to transfer the “art of war” during initiation rites. Same-sex practices such as anal sex were also found among ethnic groups including the Bafia of Cameroon and the Ovambos of South Africa (1.b).

Among the Mossi of Burkina Faso, young men would be dressed as women and presented to the village chiefs for intimate relationships. A similar practice was present in Kenya (among the Maasai and the Meru) as well as in Cote d’Ivoire (among the Ashanti) (2.c).

Homosexual Identity vs Homosexual Practices in Pre-Colonial Africa

In many African countries, homosexual activities existed long before any western influence. Whether they existed as part of initiation rituals or acts of pure desire, the presence of homosexual practices among different ethnic groups of Africa cannot be questioned.

The modern-day belief in Africa that homosexuals do not exist stems from the fact that the pre-colonial conception of homosexuality on the continent mostly didn’t align with the way homosexual identity and homosexual activities are seen today. Men and women could have homosexual practices but were not always identified as homosexuals. The distinction between the quimbandas and the eponji of Angola is an example of this. The former were men who practiced sexual activities with men, and the latter were men who had men lovers (1. c).

Some may certainly argue that there is a difference between sexual practices and sexual identity. The role and importance of self-acceptance and identification can also not be ignored. However, one must not neglect the fact that there is a direct link between these two components of sexuality. A link that can challenge the idea of homosexuality non-existence in ancient Africa. There could as well be the possibility that those who are/were homosexuals ignore it themselves and never thought about it as a sexual identity. As little discussion about the diversity of sexuality in our African societies has so far been rather nonexistent, it is quite possible that many have long ignored their sexual orientations.

If they existed and still exist, then why so much intolerance?

The question of intolerance toward homosexuality and homosexuals in African countries is one that cannot be ignored much longer. Several reasons explain the intolerance that has slowly built up in our mindsets and actions in regards to homosexuality, starting with ignorance.

  1. Ignorance

The previous facts show evidence of the presence of homosexual practices in precolonial African societies, although it is true that there is not much evidence about the presence of a well-defined homosexual identity. Many of the practices were only temporary or done for specific reasons, and were not part of long-term relationships between people of the same gender, so the gay or lesbian label is once again hard to use. It is true in the case of the gaglo of Benin however, that people in couple could continue having anal sex with one another for their entire life (2.d). This is probably one of the relationships closest to our modern idea of “gay couples”. But it is highly possible that even those who practiced homosexual activities did not think of them as a possible form of sexual identity. Not knowing that identifying as a homosexual was possible could have participated into the formation of the foundation of our societies’ intolerance toward homosexuals. Another thing to consider is the fact that homosexuality was against our social norms.

2. Social norms

Part of the reasons why homosexuality was not accepted although existing in every culture is the fact that it wasn’t considered as the norm. This is quite ironical, considering how present it was in our societies. Homosexual practices were part of initiation rites and used as means of sex education but heterosexuality was still the most dominant form of sexuality. It has always been “male-female” relationships and other variants were simply not possible. As very few Africans of the pre-colonial era were known for having sexual relationships exclusively with same-sex partners, their identity as homosexual did not exist. And those who were known to have same sex relationships were still considered as heterosexuals due to the temporary characteristic of their practices. These helped reinforce the status of heterosexuality in our societies as the “natural sexual” practice.

Keeping therefore in mind that any difference was then — and is still now — considered as less valuable, homosexuality seen as such is bound to be persecuted: not only did it go against our way of living, but it went against the will of God.

3. Religion

Before the arrival of missionaries in our countries, religion already held an important place in our societies. As science was not much known about, our ancestors were left with supernatural forces to make a sense of the unseen realities they faced. Religion was not only our answer to unknown realities, but it also was — and still is — the guardian of our mores and values. Although during the pre-colonial era, the dominant religions were African Traditional Religions such as Voodoo or Yoruba (West Africa), I will rather talk about modern religions like Christianity and Islam. This is because most of our present beliefs and reactions toward homosexuality derive from these religions. As missionaries invaded our countries, they introduced us to their own beliefs and values. It is not a secret that those two religions for example have been brought to us by European Christian missionaries and Islamic traders and today account for most African people’s beliefs. Thus, it is not uncommon nowadays to hear people use Biblical passages to defend their intolerance of homosexuality as many believe that God — although depicted as loving and caring— does not accept this form of sexuality.

Unfortunately, our intolerance does not end with reciting holy verses, it goes far beyond.

People who are known to be homosexuals are consistently harassed, made fun of, oppressed, called names, banished, or worse. In Benin for example, the Penal Code punishes homosexuals acts with one to three years of imprisonment while in Burundi, it is three months to two years of imprisonment. This is the case for numerous other African countries such as Guinea (six months to three years), Malawi and Nigeria (fourteen years), etc. While imprisoning a person up to fourteen years because of their sexual orientation can seem a bit extreme, in Mauritania, the Penal Code punishment is even worse. Homosexual Muslim men in this country are punished with death by stoning; which is throwing stones to the person until they die (3.a). And that is only the top and legal part of the iceberg.

In 2015, a South African man was beaten and burned because he was gay. In Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, as well as many other African countries, homosexuals are constantly being killed just for their sexuality.

While many of these behaviors are completely legal, they still deprive homosexuals from their most basic human rights.

Article 1: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. […]” (4.a)

Article 5: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (4.b)

Article 7: “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law. […]” (4.c)

People are being imprisoned because of their sexual orientation but nothing is done to stop those who are openly killing and torturing. Homosexuals are being oppressed, persecuted, harassed, mistreated, tortured, burnt, lapidated and killed. They are exorcised in the name of God and destroyed in the name of nature as if such behaviors were holy and normal.

We were taught to view homosexuality as an illness, a curse. But the truth is that it’s none of those. Homosexuality is not an identity. Sexuality, homosexuality, is only part of a person. And more importantly,

Homosexuality is not White, it is Human.

My Opinion

I believe that each one of us has a place in our societies. And so long as people’s actions are not hurting others or denying them their rights, then why not let them live in peace? Why not grant people the freedom we all want?

The fact is, the more oblivious we are to the social injustice that is happening in our countries, the more likely we are to become even worse than the countries we criticize today.

Up to what point are we supposed to tolerate the actions we do in the name of intolerance?