Did Europe Bring Homophobia to Africa?

LGBT actvists out the Milimani High Court after the court declined to abolish colonial era laws decriminalizing gay sex at Nairobi, Kenya on May 24, 2019 (Shutterstock)


Recently at a public forum, someone asked me if “same-sex relations in Africa [are] un-African?” While answering the question, another interjected, “all these foreign White man’s practices [are] forced on us,” evidently alluding to the fact that same-sex relations is inherently a “western import,” foisted on Africans by European colonizers. 

Indeed, few issues are as difficult to grapple with as the fact that precolonial Africa practiced same sex relations with the practice itself being hotly contested in Africa for centuries. In nearly all African countries today, same-sex relations are considered a taboo. Many allege that European colonizers brought with them the “ungodly gift of homosexuality,” despite the range of available historical evidence to the contrary. Even some historians and Africanist scholars have either denied or ignored African same-sex patterns while others have claimed that such patterns were outright colonial importations. This piece argues to the contrary and contends that homophobia was a colonial imposition.

The myth that same-sex relations were absent in precolonial Africa is one of the most enduring. Digging through history and drawing from African-derived examples, it becomes clear that traditional Africa was tolerant of different sexualities, orientations and gender relations. Thus, it is disservice to history to say that same-sex relations in Africa was introduced by Europeans.

In my review of Nwando Achebe’s Female Monarchs and Merchant Queens in Africa, I highlighted the African phenomenon of “gendered males” and “gendered females” which refers to the way that the interconnected universe allows males to transform themselves into females and females to transform themselves into males. As Achebe argued, “these transformations are encouraged by a milieu that recognizes that . . . sex and gender do not coincide; that gender is a social construct and is flexible and fluid, allowing . . . women to become gendered men, and . . . men, gendered women.” 

So, to understand same-sex relations in traditional Africa, one must understand African cosmology. There is a close relationship between spirituality and sexuality in African cosmology as well as with the different types of spiritual power associated with each sex. This worldview not only gave rise to male and female gendered spiritual forces but also allowed for the practice of same-sex relations. 

Several instances in oral histories, critical texts, folklore, and ethnographic reports confirm that traditional Africa recognized same-sex relations. Thousands of years ago, evidence from rock paintings show the prevalence of anal sex between San men in present-day Zimbabwe. In Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men, the authors identified several same sex practices in ancient and contemporary Africa while in Egypt, as far back as 2400 BCE, excavated bodies of two men, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, showed them apparently cuddled to each other as lovers. Also, in some traditional African societies, certain magic rituals and rites of passage from boyhood to adulthood often involved same-sex activities.

In precolonial northern Congo, Azande warrior-men routinely married boys who operated as temporary wives. According to Boy Wives and Female Husbands, the practice was institutionalized to the extent that the warriors paid bride price to the parents of the boys. When these boys became warrior-men, they too married “boy-wives.”

The Portuguese, among the first Europeans to explore the African continent, noted in their ethnographic reports a range of male-to-male sexual relations among the Congo people which they referred to as “unnatural damnation.” Writing about the Imbangala people present-day Angola, Andrew Battell confirmed there were “men in women’s apparel, with whom they kept amongst their wives” while Jean Baptiste Labat reported about a caste of cross-dressing male diviners known as chibados whose leader “dresses ordinarily as a woman and makes an honor of being called Grandmother.”

Additionally, female husbandry demonstrates the fluidity of gender relations and queerness in traditional Africa. For example, Queen Njinga Mbanda, ruler of the Mbundu people in present-day Angola, who rose to power in 1624 and strongly resisted Portuguese dominion, assumed multiple sexual and gender roles and/or identities. She often dressed as a man, married “female wives” and had a harem of men whom she had to dress as women. As a “female-husband,” she undoubtedly transgressed gender binaries and even answered to the title of “King” during battles.

In ancient Buganda (present-day Uganda), King Mwanga II, who strongly opposed colonialism and Christianity, was an openly gay monarch. The practice of same-sex relations was rife among the Siwa people of Egypt, Benin people of Nigeria, Nzima people of Ghana, San people of Zibmabwe and Pangwe people of present-day Gabon and Cameroon.

Another noteworthy point is that some precolonial African societies did not have a binary of genders. Among the Igbo and Yoruba of Nigeria, gender was not assigned to babies at birth until later life. Paulla Ebron writes that ‘[i]n many places in West Africa, gender is not something that newborns are fully equipped with. The making of women and men is formally performed through age-grade systems that usher children into women and men.” 

Findings on gender relations in precolonial Igbo culture demonstrate that gender and sex did not coincide. Instead, gender was flexible and fluid, allowing women to become men and vice versa. It was a culture in which gender was re-constructed and performed according to social need. In contemporary Igboland, female-husband practices are still allowed with the understanding that the “wives” in the relationship will render any male children they bear to the female-husband in order to provide a male heir.

Regarding gender and spirituality, African metaphors for God do not necessarily reflect the ways in which theologians and religious historians of Africa write about God. African names for God are gender-neutral or genderless and in some societies, the Creator God is female. In ancient African societies, many deities were portrayed as having both male and female characteristics and being neither distinguishably masculine nor feminine. More so, goddesses such as Mut (the goddess of Mother[hood]) and Sekmeht (goddess of war) in ancient Egypt were often depicted as women with erect penises.

Additionally, the fact that these relations were sometimes identified with specific terms and lingo in precolonial times demonstrate their prevalence. Among the Hausa of Nigeria, yan dauda is a term used to describe effeminate men and male wives. Among the Khoikhoi of South Africa, koetsire is a term used to refer to men who are sexually receptive to other men. Among the Yoruba, adofuro is an euphemism used to describe someone or an intersex person who has anal sex. Although these terms are used derogatorily today, they are not new, rather, they are as old as the cultures where they are used.

One reason lies with the religious repercussions of colonization and the popularity of fundamental Christianity which have been used to argue that same-sex relations are un-African. Missionary activity, evangelization and subsequent colonial conquest led to the criminalization and demonization of same-sex relations in Africa. Using the Bible and Christianity as the credo of African morality, Western heteronormativity displaced notions of traditional African sexual fluidity. British archival reports show how European Penal Codes, enacted in colonial Africa, criminalized gay relations. For instance, the 1860 Indian Penal Code of 1860 and the 1899 Queensland Criminal Code forbade same sex practices in African colonies. Hence, same-sex relations, though commonly practiced, and maybe even accepted, throughout traditional Africa, were seen in bad taste, and seldom publicly recognized in colonial Africa.

Such a rigid perception of human sexuality is problematic. Claude Summers argued that because “human sexuality, human behaviour and emotions, are fluid and various rather than static or exclusive . . . the terms homosexual and heterosexual should more properly be used as adjectives rather than nouns, referring to acts and emotions but not to people.” Unquestionably, homophobia was deeply rooted both in European racial perception of the “Other” and colonial rule. Observations of same-sex relations in many African cultures were considered by European colonizers as further proof of African inferiority. Unquestionably, early African scholarship was also influenced by experiences of colonial rule while contemporary America’s conservative evangelicals have also wielded an uncanny influence on Africa’s sexual politics.

These examples, and many others not mentioned, confirm the historicity and visibility of same-sex relations in precolonial Africa. Same-sex relations in Africa are not un-African. While the practice may not have been accepted in all cultures at all times, it certainly predated the European colonial conquest of Africa. If anything, Europeans brought homophobia to Africa; they were intolerant of same-sex relations and established systems of surveillance and regulation for expressing it. In the end, the main challenge is for academics, civil society, media and activists to reckon with history and [re]tell it in a way that recognizes the multiple facets of gender and human sexuality in both traditional and contemporary Africa and the Black world. At the same time, this is a clarion call for a change of attitude, inclusivity, mutual respect, and tolerance for all regardless of their sexualities.

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Bright Alozie

Bright Alozie is an assistant professor of Black Studies at Portland State University, and specializes in the social and political history of Nigeria, as well as gender and sexuality in West Africa.