Is queer Pan-Africanism possible?

A younger generation of queer activists are grappling with their place in the Pan-Africanist movement. Jarred James Thompson spoke to some.

Collective Media
Jan 15, 2020 · 8 min read
Colonial constructs of gender constrain how Africans understand their own bodies, genders and sexualities, and those of others, says Treyvonne Moo (Image: Supplied)

I meet Treyvone Moo, one of the figures behind Johannesburg’s queer ball culture (a South African-based re-boot of the 1920s New York City ball scene), at their home in Melville, a bohemian suburb north west of downtown Johannesburg. They welcome me with a glass of rosé and a seat at their kitchen table, where we begin to discuss the tensions between Pan-Africanism and being queer — a topic I have been thinking over for some time. In my mind, any Pan-Africanist agenda would be incomplete without the explicit inclusion of queer people, and I have been curious about what queer activists are doing to take up space and make their voices heard in this historically masculinist movement.

Early in the conversation, Moo — who is gender non-conforming and whose pronouns are they/them — registers their suspicion of Pan-Africanism. The suspicion comes from the tribulations Moo endured growing up in a country and continent where colonial constructs of gender constrain how Africans understand their own bodies, genders and sexualities, and those of others. Because of this, says Moo, many young queer Africans find themselves ostracised from their biological families and are subjected to societal violence, even in countries on the continent that are considered progressive, like South Africa.

For Moo, undoing the societal violence done to black queer bodies is part of the purpose of the queer balls.

Organised around the concepts of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘queer families’ (as compared to biological), the balls are overtly political, but in a deceptively unaffected manner. Closer examination reveals, however, that they are a celebration of bodies and forms of gender expression that society denigrates, making them a transgressive, liberating experience for those who dare strut their stuff on the runway and those bearing witness.

The effect is intentional. Moo works hard to fashion the balls as events where queer people can socialise, be entertained and talk about issues facing queer communities.

“There needs to be more work done beyond the party. The party can become the catalyst to political thought or social change. The party is supposed to facilitate a space where you can feel like you’re part of a community and not othered,” says Moo, emphasising that the queer balls are a starting point; not the goal.

What the goals are exactly will be determined by the community. Moo sees their role as a curator of spaces for queer conversations that might lead to political or social action. They envision hosting balls in townships around country. But it’s still early days. The balls are constantly evolving and Moo listens to feedback after an event, learns and responds in how the next event is organised.

“In the second ball, we heard of a lot of fat phobia and fat phobia goes into body politics. So we created the Fetish Ball to address [issues surrounding] fat bodies, highly fem bodies and the fetishisation of black gay bodies by white men, among other things,” Moo adds.

Fostering a sense of solidarity and community, and building unity, are themes that consistently recur in Moo’s thoughts and in Pan-Africanism. But, despite this overlap, Moo struggles to identify with the latter.

“The term Pan-Africanism just on its own I can’t relate to because I can’t relate to a straight black man. I can, however, relate to Queer Pan-Africanism: ideals that say as a black queer body there is commonality between queer Africans,” they say. “If you’re putting ‘Queer’ before ‘Pan-Africanism’ then it becomes more intersectional, because then we speaking to identity, gender, sex, as well as all the constructs that govern those things.”

In Moo’s mind, Pan-Africanist thought and action can’t be written in stone and that, like queer identities, it has to constantly adapt to the changing social climate and needs of the people in communities it purports to serve — all the people. However, in their experience, older generations tend to have a fixed idea of what is and isn’t African and therefore the priorities of the Pan-Africanist movement, which has been criticised for, at best, paying lip service to the specific needs of queer Africans. This may explain why Moo’s activism is geared towards the younger generation.

Our conversation has moved from the kitchen table to the counter, where Moo is preparing for Thanksgiving dinner with friends. When I ask about their ideal Pan-African society, Moo takes the last sip of rosé and says, “Decolonisation is really an inward mission, one of removing [colonial] constructs and barriers for yourself.”

Discomfort is a familiar feeling to Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, another activist my search brings me to. I meet him in a café at Constitution Hill, formerly a prison and now home to South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

Short in stature but large in personality and intellectual prowess, Mokgoroane insists that Pan-Africanism and queerness are reconcilable in that both are based on thinking, feeling, living and acting against the grain of convention. His observation reminds me of Chimirenga magazine editor Ntone Edjabe’s comment that “any ‘Pan’ concept is an exercise in self-definition by a people, aimed at establishing a broader redefinition of themselves”. The work of ‘redefining’ African thought on race, gender and sexuality is crucial for Mokgoroane, who believes that such redefinition begins with expanding the canon of African thought and literature.

“We heralded certain people as holders of Pan-African[ist] knowledge… but why are we not using a Sylvia Tamale or an Onyewonke Oyewumi as references?” he asks.

For Mokgoroane the “big men” of Pan-Africanist thought — Steve Biko, Wole Soyinka, Kwame Nkrumah, etc. — are simply an entry point to a much broader conversation. They represent a point of view shaped by their sexual orientation and gender identity, and as such by no means represent the final word on the topic.

A message comes through to Mokgoroane’s phone as we are speaking. The Traditional Khoisan Leadership Bill has been signed into South African law by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The bill, he tells me, effectively negates the rights of millions of people living in rural areas, and shores up the power of unelected and predominantly male traditional leaders, who will now have the right to sign away communities’ land in deals with mining companies. Mokgoroane job as a human rights lawyer — and work as a race, gender and sexuality activist and podcaster — is to give people access to vital information about laws that detrimentally affect them. Ramaphosa’s signing of the Traditional Khoisan Leadership Bill — a piece of legislation that is inherently patriarchal in nature — is why Mokgoroane actively works to expose the problematic canonisation of heterosexual male thinkers in African thought.

“I am trying to agitate and disturb the canon,” he says. “People think that critique is a bad thing [but] critique is useful [as] someone’s positionality may be limited and critique can allow other positionalities to the forefront,” he says.

He argues that every African — whether in cities or rural areas — has vital knowledge to add to create an all-inclusive Pan-Africanist movement.

As I embrace Letlhogonolo and walk towards my car, leaving Constitutional Hill, I’m struck by the similarity in his and Moo’s points of view in that, as queer social-justice activists, they have both spoken about the simple human need to get through a single day in one piece. Queer social justice activism is as much about caring for oneself as it is about caring for marginalised queer communities. Mokgoroane’s earlier words come back to me: “Sometimes being Pan-African is just about getting through the day in a system that continually tries to kill you; the fact that you [as a queer person] are alive is a revolution.”

These words continue to ring in my ear as I watch the documentary Simon and I, by queer and anti-apartheid activist and filmmaker Beverly Ditsie on her friendship with her comrade Simon Nkoli. In the documentary, she reminds us that “people think it’s unAfrican to be gay because no one [supposedly] spoke about it [before colonialism] and if we keep quiet about it now then the next generation is going to say the same thing: that we don’t exist.”

It seems, then, that the real struggle in realising Queer Pan-Africanism on the continent lies in finding creative ways to drive home the message that being black and queer is not a separate struggle — as Simon Nkoli famously quipped. It is one struggle: the struggle to shed the vestiges of colonial law and morality, which still oppress queer Africans across the continent.

Ditsie does well to show that every social-justice activist, even Nkoli, has their limitations and that no single person has all the answers to every social-justice issue. This, to me, points to the fact that queer people in Africa need one another. We need the work of filmmakers like Beverly Ditsie, we need the work of queer writers from Nigeria like Akweake Emezi and Romeo Oriogun (who are part of a cohort of young Nigerian queer writers expanding Nigeria’s literary landscape), and we need the work of Pan-Africanist organizations like The Coalition of African Lesbians, who work across borders to build a feminist future on the African continent.

This is a future that acknowledges the value of African cultures, but not as fixed quantities and certainly not at the expense of human dignity.

It is a Queer Pan-Africanist future that sees critique as a necessary tool in revitalising traditions and freeing the continent of colonialist ideas. It is a future that I see slowly and painstakingly unfolding in South Africa, where in 2019 I witnessed Christians holding up placards at the Johannesburg Pride Parade apologising for the way queer people have been treated by religious organisations. Contrast this with images from Simon and I, showing Christians vehemently protesting the first Gay Pride March in 1990. Perhaps one can argue that the needle has moved slightly for queer people — but there still remains a lot more work to be done.

Thompson is a queer, coloured writer, researcher and academic. He has published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in multiple publication, including the forthcoming in Living While Feminist Anthology, to be published in 2020 by Kwela Books and compiled by Jennifer Thorpe.

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