IN MAY, Seychelles became the third African country in recent years to decriminalise homosexuality. The country’s parliament recalled a colonial era law that provided for prison sentences of up to 14 years for same-sex intimacy between men – a law that was largely unenforced.
With the vote, Seychelles joined Mozambique, which overturned the law on homosexuality in 2014, and the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, which dropped its anti-gay law in 2012.
Even as Africa is painted in broad strokes as homophobic, there are at least 21 countries – now including Seychelles – where homosexuality is either legal, or not explicitly illegal.
Most of these are former French colonies, where there tended to be no specific laws against homosexuality. In the former British colonies, however, most countries have retained the explicit anti-gay provisions in the colonial penal code.
Same-sex sexuality is often seen as something Western, introduced, imposed, and foreign to traditional African societies, but the argument that homosexuality is “unAfrican” is contested.
Anthropological evidence indicates that same-sex attraction and practice existed, was tolerated, even flourished.[advanced_iframe securitykey=”68f51ed951ec4f22230bb7eb91315944cb08a912″ src=”//datawrapper.dwcdn.net/hP4EE/1/” frameborder=”0″ transparency=”true” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”100%” height=”411″]
In Congo for example, E. E. Evans-Pritchard recorded that in the past male Azande warriors in the northern Congo routinely took on young male lovers between the ages of twelve and twenty, who helped with household tasks and participated in intercrural sex with their older lovers.
In Lesotho, women in Lesotho engaged in socially endorsed long term, erotic relationships with other women; this other woman would be called their motsoalle. These women were married to men, and their husbands knew of the motsoalle relationship.
There is also the case of Mwanga II Kabaka (king) of Buganda in the late 19th century. Mwanga is remembered in history for executing 26 of his pageboys, converts to Christianity, apparently for refusing to have sex with him.
The 22 who were Catholic became saints – the Uganda Martyrs – complete with a national holiday. But the executions were part of a larger political struggle in the royal court, which is often reduced to caricature – Mwanga’s legacy became the story of an evil homosexual rapist king, while Christianity was portrayed as being under siege for fighting for sexual purity. In reality, there was more to the story.
British colonialism came as Victorian England was in the throes of a “social purity movement”, which opposed all forms of non-reproductive sexual contact. It preached sexual purity in all forms, denouncing prostitution, masturbation, and even sex for pleasure within marriage.
PERCEPTIONS OF POWER
Indeed, there is the argument it was the colonialists themselves (especially the British) who introduced anti-gay laws, and so stoked homophobic sentiment – whereas before, there was no particular identity in being “gay”, and certainly no political significance in gayness.
But whether or not homosexuality or homophobia are unAfrican or not is to miss the bigger point.
Our attitudes about sex and morality often have little to do with sexual acts themselves. They are more often about our perceptions of power or powerlessness, as scholar Suzanne La Font argues in this paper exploring sexual mores in Jamaica (many thanks to @OkechAwino).
Jamaica is known for being a severely homophobic country; it is not only gay sex that is rejected, but even heterosexual oral and anal sex acts — which LaFont broadly calls anti-sodomism.
In one famous incident, the lone Jamaican gay rights organization, JFLAG, declared that they were going to rally and march through a major commercial area in Kingston. Hundreds of citizens, women and men, young and old, armed themselves and lined the streets daring any sodomites or battyman/chi chi man [homosexuals] to show themselves. None did.
Many Jamaicans believe that the international pressure to liberalise their sexual morés is a form of post colonial imperialism. But LaFont argues that sexual intolerance and began during the slave era as a complex tension between colonial elites and Afro-Jamaicans.
Historically, respectability and rectitude evolved as the Afro-Jamaican response to the slave experience. Today these values persist as a source of national pride while also functioning to distance Afro-Jamaicans from their colonial past.
In other words, as the result of being dehumanised and degraded at every turn by the elite – the master who preyed upon and degraded slave women – Afro-Jamaican (men, especially) attempted to maintain their dignity.
The image of the immoral, evil, or irresponsible elite provided Afro-Jamaicans with an enemy whom they could reject on moral grounds, allowing them to assert their own moral superiority. They could not exert economic or political superiority, but they could cultivate a sense of moral superiority — indeed it was one of the only ways to assert dignity and pride.
LaFont argues that marriage was never a prerequisite for sexual activity in Jamaica, but sex itself needed to be respectable — no “nastiness” such as oral, anal, or same-sex sexual behaviour.
The parallels with post-colonial Africa are clear. In the 1960s and 70s, there were impassioned debates in Africa about miniskirts and women wearing trousers, which was partly about an assertion of dignity and respectability – which was important for newly independent African countries seeking recognition on the international stage.
You see the same kind of defiance with the Sapeurs of Congo, who use fine threads and expensive designer fashion as a statement against poverty and misery.
Recently, on the global stage, Africa has been caught up in the throes of trying to assert its sovereignty – most recently with threats of a mass walk-out from the International Criminal Court.
The global economy is in deterioration, most African commodity exporters are in a bad place; the continent is suffering more conflict, fragility, forced displacement and religious extremism. Don’t be surprised if the homosexuality debate ends up being the continent’s last stand.