By Mpho Buntse
In this essay I explore the history and existence of same sex desiring and the complex dynamics of the history of oppression, violation and silencing of Queer bodies in the continent. I draw an important conclusion that there is a fundamental problem embedded in the many misconceptions about the realities and lived experiences of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex, Questioning and Queer plus communities. It is because of these misconceptions that the community remains to be subjected to condemnation, violation, discrimination and silencing.
In an attempt to misspell some of these misconceptions I position the realities of same sex desiring in precolonial accounts embedded in many vintage textual archives, some mythical, others biblical as well based on the lived experiences of individuals. I also position ‘Queer’ visibility within the history of the South African struggle and post-colonial discourse and finally I articulate the contemporary problems the community is subjected to at the hands of state, religious, cultural as well as traditional institutions and spaces because of thisentrenched homophobia and transphobia.
I am more interested in the trajectory of queer visibility and to this end there is overwhelming existence of same-sex visibility in many context across the global community that continue to shape the status quo for the community. My assertion in this regard remains one of the believe that history is not obsolete and because historical accounts are narrated by people, we can’t completely erase the existence and reality of how some histories were tempered with, changed or told in a bias voice. A classic example of this could simply be this idea of human evolution. Human evolution has for many centuries divided science and religion, it is in the wake of the 19th century that the West even questioned the truth of the bible. Proximity to contemporary knowledge takes us on a journey of the rise of fields of paleontology and archeology. Charles Darwin introduces humanity for the first time in 1859 to a plausible possibility that human beings might be descended not from Adam and Eve but from primates, of course many have and still believe this to be hogwash and focus effort on confirming the truth of the bible. One such individual is George Smith, who presented the closest account to the story of Noah and the great flood that wiped humanity off the face of earth.
In his extraditions, Smith also collected an important piece of text that I believe sets the scene for articulating this idea of same sex desiring, The Epic Gilgamesh. Although mythical in nature, The Epic Gilgamesh accounts of a story of a mythical king immortalized in literature, Gilgamesh is portrayed initially as a problematic misogynist who enforces droit du seigneur, the idea that premarriage all brides must spend the night with him. Following concerns about his treacherous behaviour Gods brings a friend to distract him. When he meets Enkedu who is initially enraged with his behaviour, they become instantly connected. Enkedu is described here as another strong, wild and powerful man. The heart of this poem is found in its many gaps and ambiguities. The Epic Gilgamesh also offers Queer Scholars the gradations, although subtle of what developed to be an intimate companionship between two men in a pre-historic context.
Throughout history some men and some women have engaged in romantic and intimate companionships with the same sex. In our collective efforts to demystifying the many misconceptions about same sex desiring we need to start by unpacking these historical contexts as urgency to unlearn and learn about human sexuality, thus media and the academy have an important role to play in deriving and driving this narrative. This narrative encompasses a wide spectrum that articulate amongst others decolonizing same sex desiring and the language used to denote Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, there is a view held that due to the absence of the language theorizing same sex desiring, therefore it is unAfrican and did not exist from time immemorial.
Professor Thabo Msibi in his paper titled “The Lies We Have Been Told: On (Homo) Sexuality in Africa” offers a broader term of Same Sex Desiring individuals as acknowledgement that “same-sex erotics, practiced by many people in many different historical contexts, do not always necessarily lead to the emergence of a “gay” identity”, a position he derives Deborah Amory (1997:5). The presence of same sex desiring for instance in the continent could be traced through many experiences. Msibi presents evidence that homophobia is not only publicly approved by African leaders, but relies on unsubstantiated claims of an imposed homosexual identity, contradictory ideas on morality, and the use of outdated laws, bluntly these are used to erase the history that in reality does and has existed throughout human history.
This global pre time history also explores the works of Sappho, a Greek lyric poet from the Island of Lesbos and believed to have lived between 630 and 570 BC. Her poetry became prolific and esteem amongst many scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria, an era covering the period of Mediterranean history between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the emergence of the Roman Empire. It is also widely believed that the term Lesbian evolves from this context. Her work became popular in the 6th century and to date her sexuality is still a great subject of debate amongst many sexuality scholars. Although early translations of her work were heterosexualised, today Sappho’s poetry portrays homoerotic feelings. We also draw historic lessons from the accounts of many ancient Greek militaries. The Trojan War of the 12th century in particular carries the accounts of male companionship, Homer in the poem Iliad tells of a deep and meaningful relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Although many contemporary cinematic portrayals have erased this history, one such film is the movie Troy portraying Patroclus as a younger relative of Achilles and no companionship, there is still literary archives to suggest that their relationship exceeded the common bounds of friendship.
Beyond Europe, where Christianity was not present or as prevalent as the ‘proclamation of truth’ we are continuously reminded that coloniality is not an African issue. Therefore, deciphering queer experiences across the world outside the West confirms the idea that colonisation eroded lived experiences and we contemporarily find these environments to still shun upon homosexuality. In Asia for instance homosexuality was historically accepted as part of the local cultures prior to the rise of Christian ideologies. As with the Greek accounts, many ancient legends detail accounts of same sex desiring, particularly through textual archives emerging from the Ming and Han Dynasties where men, in addition to their female counterparts would also take on male lovers. These Asian experience also account of Japan’s pre-Meiji period where Monks and Samurai engaged in same sex relations. In one account relayed by a European missionary:
“Your lordship will know that the priests of these kings are generally called byssus. They grow no hair on their beards, dress in a womanly fashion, and grow their hair long and braided, they imitate female speech because they adopt all of the female gestures and inclinations. They marry and are received, according to the custom of the land, with other common men, and they live indoors, uniting carnally in their secret places with the men whom they have for husbands…”
Religion , bigotry and West influence
Generally the Western culture and tradition comes from the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures, both influences emerge out of the ancient Greek and Roman cultures. Ancient Greece is considered the birthplace of many elements of Western culture including the reality that from as early as the 4th century, Christianity has played a major role in shaping Western civilization. However, contrary to this view anywhere in the world where Christianity was not as prevalent as in the West same sex desiring found expression and societies maintained their sexual codes and vocabularies. The bigotry of Sodomy to condemn homosexuality.
Through this paper I posit that there are many biblical myths and of these myths I explore the idea of sodomy. The description and emergence of this idea first emerges out of Christian teachings, and not entirely the scripture itself or what it actually denote in its original meaning. We are first introduced to this term in the book of Genesis. Many theologians have derived the use of this word from the city of Sodom and Gomorrah though its destruction by rain of fire as punishment for sin and vise, to date we still hear of many theologians identifying homosexuality as the ground for this retribution by God.
In its truest description, Sodom was not destroyed because of same sex desiring, in fact if we are to focus on sodomy as the act of non-normative sex, much of the evidence still points to an emphasis on a myriad of biblical sexual offences including adultery, fornication, lust and sexual impurity. However not as the basis for the destruction of the city, but because of the lack of hospitality. Today many conservative countries hold the position that Sodomy describe same sex. Professor Nick Grier posit that there are two theological positions:
“The first, if homosexuals are inherently evil, then that means God created them such; or secondly, the more orthodox and acceptable is the view that all humans are created in the image of God and all that God create is good. Therefore, if God creates homosexuals the way they are, then God must intend that they are and integral part of the human community”
He notes an interesting point that Jesus did not interpret the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah as sexual, rather speaks across context of sexual sins that we’ve known people to commit despite their sexuality. Frankly does not even speak of anything specific in relation to the sin of homosexuality anywhere in the Gospel, in fact a prominent bone of contention here should be the idea that he and the rest of the gospel placed focus on this idea of the gender-binary and reproduction. There is however a general contemporary understanding and position that the idea of Sodomy was not to denote homosexuality, but rather the abuse and stigmitazation of strangers or outsiders and neglecting those that are poor and needy. Although the Sodomite’s intention in this given context were sexual, this does not entirely imply homosexuality, but rather the exercise of power and violence embedded even in the patriarchy and misogyny seen through our contemporary world. According to Msibi:
“the increased expressions of homophobia in Africa today are not only a reaction to the “personified” and visible homosexual identity, but also a tool for sexism, an attempt to solidify men’s position in society”.
According to Ezekiel the inhabitants of this city “had pride, abundance of food and did not come to the aid of the poor” an idea clearly painted through how King Lot received mercy from the destruction because of his unique hospitality among the inhabitants of the city. Matthew 10 verse 5 confirms and highlight that when Jesus sends out his disciples to preach in Israel, he warns that those who fails to welcome them will be judged more harsher than the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. To this end the conclusion remains according to Grier whether we reject or accept the sexual meaning of sodomy, if the word ‘sodomite’ should be reserved, to even be used at all to denote those who use sex to dominate, humiliate or inflict terror, then we should reserve the word homosexual in this context for people who love the same sex.
Queering in the Post-colonial Africa
Many African sexuality scholars have all dismissed the famous misconception that homosexuality is unAfrican. The mistaken claim that anything can even be un-African is anchored on the essentialist supposition that Africa is in its nature a homogeneous environment. This is not true, Africa is and has been characterized by its diversity. In fact it is colonization that should be blamed for the suppression of same sex realities in the continent.
This project has been driven by European missionaries and ethnographers as a way of introducing and promoting slavery and imperialism. According to Marc Epprect and Professor Thabo Msibi, linguistically the terminology describing same sex desiring is foreign to the African context, thus making it unAfrican. However the practices around same sex desiring far predates colonisation. Msibi assert that “colonial influence have always served to erode truth in Africa, mainly by imposing Western norms”. This is also indicative of how religion, Christianity in particular had been used as a tool to condemn homosexuality and by extension we see this manifested through personal and institutional homophobia entrenched in cultural, traditional principles, biases and prejudices carried by many societal leaders driving the political, social and economic narratives. In Africa we have learnt of many heads of state, the likes of the late Robert Mugabe, former African National Congress president Jacob Zuma and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, condemning homosexuality on the grounds that it is unAfrican, evil or nonnormative. As Sylvia Tamale rightly putsit “It is legalized homophobia, not samesex relations, that is alien to Africa.”
I argue that the existence of same sax desiring as an accepted social practice has mainly been eroded by the erasure of vocabularies in African Sexualities. There exist a pool of vocabulary that is found in many African languages some have emerged out of a derogatory history, while some have been appropriated, all have different meanings and historiesfor communities who appropriate and use them. The point is that, the fact that they exist in our traditional languages is enough to dispel the ‘un-African’ myth. The greater Southern African regions have used words such as inkotshane to express same sex between men, while the word for “homosexual” is adofuro inYoruba, a colloquialism for someone who engages in anal sex. In Nigeria, the word yan daudu was used in most Northern parts of the country, a Hausa term to describe effeminate men who are considered to be wives to men. The Nilotico Lango tribes of Nothern Uganda used the term mudoko dako to describe an effeminate male who is considered to be of a different gender, however were mostly treated as woman among the Langi people.
In additions to languages, visual evidence has been found through many Bushmen rock paintings portraying men having sex. Many other scholars including Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe have explored many reports of same sex desiring by some African monarchs. King Mwanga II of the Buganda Kingdom of Uganda was widely reported to have been openly gay, Queen Ndzinga joins this list as one of the monarchs who eliminated the gender binary as a ruler and has been reported to have taken men and women as ‘wives’. As history progresses, we also see the migration of men from across Southern Africa into South African mining towns, a space that also gave expression to same sex desiring in the wake of colonization.
Queer organizing within the context and history of South Africa
The history of Queer organizing intersects with the history of the struggle for black emancipation in South Africa. The existence and voice of the community had been projected throughout many struggles, including that of black emancipation and freedom. This history follows what has become the most famous example of how the very same struggle perpetuated the silencing and erasure of queer voices and realities. The late stalwart and symbolic leader of the African National Congress, Ruth Mompati when interviewed by Human Rights campaigner Peter Tatchell in 1987 she says:
‘I hope that in liberated South Africa people will live a normal life. I emphasise the word normal… Tell me, are lesbians and gays normal? No, it is not normal. I cannot even begin to understand why people want lesbian and gay rights. The gays have no problems. They have nice houses and plenty to eat. I don’t see them suffering. No one is persecuting them… We haven’t heard about this problem in South Africa until recently. It seems to be fashionable in the West.’
But perhaps this is also an important turning point for the ANC as this would fundamentally surface the questions about homophobia in the ANC and forced the movement to envision embracing gay and lesbian rights for the first time. This history is followed by another important account through the contributions of anti-apartheid and gay activist, Simon Tseko Nkoli. Nkoli was born on 26 November 1957 in poverty stricken family and it is during his early teen years that he directly experienced the harsh realities of the apartheid regime, with constant police invasions at his family home. Having moved between the Orange Free State, Sebokeng, Soweto and ending up in Hillbrow, one would tell that he was shaped by all these experiences.
Nkoli becomes an integral icon when engaging the history of LGBT visibility and organizing in South Africa. A courageous leader who despite the silencing of Queer expression in and outside the congress movement, lived as an openly gay man while serving this movement that was characterized by great antagonism and held conservative views regarding homosexuality at that time. He became integral in merging the anti-apartheid and gay liberation movements as an effort to express his intersectional voice, and he never neglected this approach. He notably said in 1990:
“I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles. In South Africa, I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am a gay man. So, when I fight for my freedom I must fight against both oppressions… All those who believe in a democratic South Africa must fight against all oppression, all intolerance, all injustice”
His idea of intersectionality offers the movement important lessons for striving for equality and complete visibility, through this work he took up white queer spaces and preached inclusivity and the idea of a single movement. As a Queer activist he co-founded notable LGBTQ organisations including the Gay Association of South Africa (an organization that later refused to support him during his detention), the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality and most notably, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand, a reaction to GASA’s white apolitical standpoint and his solution to reconcile both sides of his activism. It is through his leadership at GLOW that he proposed and led the first ever pride on the African soil with his protégé Dr Bev Ditsie. Prior to this he had served as the secretary of the Congress of South African Students Transvaal branch where he also came out to his comrades, needless to say his sexuality became a subject of great debate, however was allowed to continue serving despite this reality.
This culture of having to defend his sexuality in the ranks of the United Democratic Front and the ANC was something he had been accustomed to during his time in the movement. In 1984 Nkoli was detained with other 21 activists of the UDM and ANC in what was to be known as one of the longest running trials, the Delmas Treason Trial. The 22 were on trial for initially leading a protest march against rent increases in the township of Sebokeng, and on 23 September 1984 were arrested while attending the mass funeral of those killed during the protest. In the letters he wrote to his partner Roy Shepard, Nkoli reflects on the hardships of also having to defend his sexuality to the other comrades he was tried with, to a point where the collective was divided in accepting to be tried alongside Nkoli. At this time Nkoli had already started receiving solidarity support from across the world. Two years later the trial was declared invalid and Nkoli acquitted of all charges.
In post-apartheid South Africa Nkoli together with many other Queer activists including Phumi Mthetwa and Julia Nicol became instrumental in ensuring that the rights of LGBTQI+ people were included in South Africa’s new constitution.
He led a delegation of members of the community to meet the late Nelson Mandela when he became president. Nkoli died on 30 November 1998 after succumbing to HIV-related complications. The HIV/AIDS work also became a space he also advocated for through the Soweto based Saturday Group and the Township Aids Project. Today his legacy still can’t find expression in many history books, even in what he called a political home. This home has a great responsibility to immortalize his legacy and that of many anti-apartheid activists who were ‘othered’ throughout the history of a struggle that recognizes the Gender binary politics and erases others.
Despite the numerous constitutional and legislative advances, many LGBTIQ people are still subjected to harsh realities entrenched in homophobia, transphobia and biphobia by members of society, the state and institutions including cultural and religious spaces. In a survey conducted by the Inclusive Society Institute it was found that 59% members of the community experience some form of rejection and or discrimination when wanting to access their cultural rights and 67% faced rejection and discrimination when wanting to express their personal religious beliefs (Buntse & Swanepoel).
Despite this reality, the past 28 years in Africa have been characterized by queer visibility, perhaps this as a result of the rise of Queer activism and new various other global phenomena such as homonationalism, globalization and the rise in the Pink economy across the globe, ideas that I explore deeply in my paper titled The Somizification Discourse: A Theory of the Framing of Gay Image in the South African Showbusiness Industry.
For as long as the notions that homosexuality is un-African persist in the continent Queer people will continue to bare the brunt driven uninformed views about same sex desiring. The community requires better allies who will protect the humanity of all people lead personal initiatives to unlearn without the expectation that the community should conscientise and sensitize them. The LGBTIQ community also remain key in re-telling our history, a history that celebrates diversity, that promotes equality and acceptance, and recognises the contribution of everyone, regardless of their sexulity.