The Splendor of Gender Non-Conformity In Africa
Above: The Dogon Tribe of Mali in ceremony
Author’s/editor’s note: In lieu of a dispute about the Igbo assignments of gender, a direct quote by the source of Transgender History & Geography has been added to clear further confusion, as several Igbos have pointed out the author’s information was incorrect (par. 3). Apologies for the mistake.
Africa, a continent comprised of 55 countries, is vast in its histories, ethnic groups, languages, and relationships to colonization. While Western societies glean the reputation of being forward-thinkers in regards to gender-identity and queerness, Africa is renown as being a site of violence and intolerance for queer Black Africans. As Black folks of the Diaspora look to learning about Africa’s past to combat the sting of white supremacy, there is yet another benefit to delving deep into the continent’s history — in particularly, its history of gender non-conformity and queerness erased by the brutality of colonialism (which led to the criminalization of queerness in 34 countries).
“Despite a long history of transgender realities in Africa, many modern transgendered people there experience well-warranted fear because of hostility in their families, tribes, or nations,” writes G. G. Bolich. “Much of this modern hostile response has been placed on the influence of European culture, both because of a colonial past and because of contemporary pressure, or the influence of foreign religions. Nevertheless, as in the past, so now transgendered people are active members of their communities, seeking to effect positive changes.” Africa’s rich past of gender non-conformity, coupled with transgender behaviors and transgender realities, is deeply embedded within various ethnic groups across the continent.
Before the implementation of rigid European rigid binaries, within the Dagaaba tribe of Ghana, Burkina Faso, and the Ivory Coast, gender identity was determined differently. Shaman Malidoma Somé of the Dagaaba says that gender to the tribe is not dependent upon sexual anatomy. “It is purely energetic. In that context, one who is physically male can vibrate female energy, and vice versa. That is where the real gender is.” The Igbo of Nigeria, also in Western Africa, “appear to assign gender around age 5” (Bolich 246). In Central Africa, the Mbuti do not designate a specific gender to a child until after puberty, in direct contrast to Western society.
In Mali, the Dogon tribe generally maintain that the perfect human being is androgynous; the tribe worships Nommo, ancestral spirits who are described as androgynous, intersex, and mystical creatures, and whom are also referred to as “the Teachers”. In an uncircumcised penis, the foreskin is representative of femininity, while the clitoris is considered to represent masculinity.
The existence of intersex spiritual deities laid the foundation for the acceptance of transgender behaviors for other African tribes in addition to the Dogon:
“African spiritual beliefs in intersexual deities and sex/gender transformation among their followers have been documented among the Akan, Ambo-Kwanyama, Bobo, Chokwe, Dahomeans (of Benin), Bambara, Etik, Handa, Humbe, Hunde, Ibo, Jukun, Kimbundu, Konso, Kunama, Lamba, Lango, Luba, Lulua, Nuba, Ovimbundu, Rundi, Shona-Karonga, Venda, Vili-Kongo, and Yoruba. Transgender in religious ceremony is still reported in the twentieth century in West Africa. And cross-dressing is a feature of modern Brazilian and Haitian ceremonies derived from West African religions” (45)
The Lugbara people of Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda are among those in Central Africa whom still conduct spiritual ceremonies with transgender priests. According to the late Leslie Feinberg, “Female-to-male priests, most importantly, co-exist with male-to-female shamans. Among the Lugbara, for example, male-to-females are called okuleand female-to-male are named agule.” The Zulu of South Africa also initiate transgender shamans, calling them insangoma. Transgender women were diviners in the Ambo tribe of southern Angola, with the Kalunga, the supreme spirit.
Africa’s Eastern region is home to other tribes who appear to embrace gender non-conforming behavior, according to Bolich. When anthropologist Brian MacDermot lived among the Nuer people of Ethiopia, he observed the tribe’s acceptance of a transgender woman in a village:
“He encountered an individual among the Nuer people of Ethiopia who not only appeared in feminine dress, and acted as female, but was actually regarded as having become a woman. No physical change of sex had transpired, yet this person was free to occupy a feminine identity and role, even to the extent that marriage to a man was permissible. MacDermot was informed that the prophet of Deng had consulted the spirits and then declared the change in this individual’s status, which the people accepted. Here transpired an outcome more certain and favorable than many individuals who actually undergo sexual assignment surgery and legal identity change experience in our culture (which so commonly and arrogantly perceives itself as more enlightened” (245)
Elsewhere in Ethiopia, the Amhara, “allow room for intermediate, mixed, or ‘third gender expression.” The Otero, to the north-east in the Sudan, follow the same blue-print when it comes assessing gender identity.
As Africa comes to terms with the repressive legacy of gender essentialism, queerphobia and the violence it incited, transgender Africans in the 21st century are challenging the political and cultural vestiges of colonialism. In Cape Verde, Tchinda Andrade was the first to publicly identify as a transgender woman at the country’s Carnival in 1998, and, in the aftermath, was hailed as a “heroine”. Prior to Tchinda’s coming out, queers on the island of Cape Verde were in the closet : as a result of Tchinda’s local celebrity, LGBT folks, particularly those who are transgender, are now referred to as “Tchindas”. Tchinda’s story, and those of other transgender Cape Verde women, is chronicled in the 2015 documentary film Tchindas. Marc Serena, Spanish journalist and co-director of Tchindas, shared this about the necessity of films centering transgender people on the continent with i-D:
”I think queer people in Africa need films that they can give hope to them,” adds Serena. “So they can see it’s possible to be African and gay or trans and have people respect them. For me, it’s an example, even to the rest of the world. In the film, you see how families if they go to work, they take their children to the ‘tchindas’ and that’s something that maybe even some parents here [in the US] wouldn’t do because they would feel uncomfortable if there was a trans person there.”
Tchindas has been nominated for Best Documentary at the African Movie Academy Awards.
As transgender activists, artists, and writers in other parts of Africa seek to bring beneficial changes to their countries from South Africa to Uganda, understanding the continent’s ancient past is affirming to their work. Queer history is deeply intertwined with African history, and variations of gender identity are just as much essential to Africa’s future as is its past.