The myth of “heterosexual Africa”

Heterosexual Africa?:

The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS

IN RECENT months, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) and human rights groups around the world have been speaking out against proposed legislation in Uganda that would expand the criminalization of “homosexual acts” to include punishments as severe as the death penalty. Ugandan politicians and Christian ministers who support this legislation have taken to castigating same-sex relations as sinful, and calling for the defense of the “traditional heterosexual family.” Such language may sound disturbingly familiar to LGBTI activists in the United States, and, in fact, a number of conservative American ministers have been exposed for actively encouraging and funding many of the homophobic voices currently heard in Uganda.

Backers of the bill in Uganda, however, often include an additional argument to bolster their cause—that homosexuality was not a part of “traditional” African societies, and has been introduced to the continent through the corrupting influence of western imperialism. Last November, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni told a group of young Ugandans “I hear European homosexuals are recruiting in Africa…we used to have very few homosexuals traditionally.” Across the continent, from Namibia to Zimbabwe to Nigeria, over the past decade and a half, other high-ranking African political leaders have utilized similar arguments, masking homophobia with anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Marc Epprecht’s Heterosexual Africa? explores this conception—that homosexual practices are foreign to Africa—by looking at the idea’s historical origins, and offers an explanation for why such a fallacy continues to be repeated by both non-African and African writers. Epprecht argues that European colonial authorities, settlers and scholars, did not introduce homosexual practices to Africa, but did introduce their own homophobia and racism, projecting those ideas onto studies of sexuality in Africa.

The result has been the pervasive myth of a timeless, “singular African sexuality” defined by “heterosexual promiscuity, gender violence, and [a] lack of…internalized moral restraints.” Despite ample evidence to the contrary, this racist, colonial myth sank deep roots, and was still taken for granted by most European and American scientists attempting to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic that began sweeping across parts of Africa in the 1980s. Such assumptions about “African sexuality” created an extremely dangerous “blind spot” in AIDS prevention programs, by discounting the possibility of male-to-male transmissions. In doing so, Epprecht points out, many early AIDS researchers reified the false idea that homosexual relations were relatively unknown in Africa, inadvertently bolstering some of the homophobic rhetoric heard in Africa today.

Heterosexual Africa? is, in many ways, a complement to Epprecht’s previous book, which illuminated the rich history of same-sex sexual practices and ideas in southern Africa, stretching back well before contact with Europeans. Entitled Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa, the text shattered any idea that only heterosexuality and strict binary gender representations have been present in African societies. In neither work does Epprecht portray any part of Africa as having been a utopia of sexual freedom. Instead, most African adults have long been expected to engage in heterosexual practices, at least for purposes of procreation. However, this has not meant that sexual practices with someone of the same sex were necessarily viewed in opposition to heterosexual practices. In certain times and places in Africa they were punished, but in others encouraged, or became a well-known “secret” referred to through various euphemisms.

Rather than a history of lived sexualities in Africa, Heterosexual Africa? primarily traces written accounts of these sexualities over the last 130 years, penned by European travelers, colonial authorities, ethnographers, psychologists, African nationalists, AIDS researchers, and novelists. Given his own expertise and the content of most of his sources, Epprecht’s book tends to center on representations of male sexualities in the southern part of the continent. Still, the breadth of his research is staggering, resulting in a book that feels compellingly comprehensive, if not a bit encyclopedic at times.

Although accounts of early European sailors and plunderers alluded to the existence of non-heterosexual practices in Africa, Epprecht notes that with the colonial scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a “collective silence descended on the topic.” New ruling-class ideas in Europe about the existence of a distinct group of diseased “homosexuals” mixed with racist conceptions of Africans. Since colonial writers perceived Africans as “uncivilized and close to nature” they also saw them as incapable of exerting control over their natural “heterosexual instincts.” Early observations of gender or sexual realities in Africa which seemed to contradict this stereotype were generally blamed on the influence of Arabs, Turks, or Muslims—all groups that European authorities saw as having succumbed to sexual decadence, (i.e. homosexuality), and effeminacy among men. 

However, colonial and apartheid rule quickly led to the creation of new environments—mines, prisons, hostels, work camps, industrial ports, and military barracks—where same-sex sexual contact was increased, particularly between men. These institutions were vital to colonial powers and private corporations as they sought to exploit and control the African population. But Europeans also showcased these same institutions to claim that they were “civilizing” Africans through discipline and wage labor. Hence, most writers connected to colonial projects avoided publishing potentially embarrassing studies of same-sex relations in these new locations.

By the end of the Second World War, black African revolutionaries and nationalists began to mount an increasingly effective challenge to foreign rule. Epprecht argues that despite their ability to debunk many of the racist ideas promoted by colonialism and apartheid, writers and leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Frantz Fanon ultimately remained complicit in perpetuating the myth of a “heterosexual Africa.” For many anti-colonialists, restoring African self-respect, and more specifically African “manhood,” became a necessary first step after years of adult African men and women being treated, and referred to, as “boys” and “girls” by their white bosses and authorities.

According to Epprecht, assertions of this manhood were often linked to a rejection of all demeaning practices connected to colonial rule, which included homosexuality. Such a conclusion on the part of otherwise brilliant radicals like Fanon is not hard to understand: The most visible same-sex relations in Africa were then found in precisely those places where colonial rule was the most brutal and violent—prisons, mines, slums, and hostels.

Epprecht’s critique of Fanon and other African writers should also be understood in its global context. During the 1950s and early 1960s, when African nationalist movements flourished, nowhere in the world was the defense of same-sex sexuality, much less women’s liberation, yet a mainstay of the left. Moreover, without successful struggles against colonialism and apartheid, doors to LGBTI activism may have been closed much longer in Africa. For example, while homophobia remains a major problem in South Africa, the links forged during the anti-apartheid struggle helped South Africa became the first country in the world to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2006, the country legalized same-sex marriage, a struggle that activists in the United States are still fighting.

Epprecht is perhaps strongest in his critiques of early HIV/AIDS research in Africa. Reacting to an epidemic on a scale not seen elsewhere, scientists quickly drew conclusions about the nature of transmissions, often on sparse research. While heterosexual, vaginal sex has clearly been the primary means by which the infection has spread in Africa, studies often completely wrote out same-sex practices as even a mere possibility. First, many of the scientists conducting research came from the United States, or those nations that had previously colonized central and southern Africa. Some did not ask patients about sexual histories, taking for granted the myth of a uniform “African heterosexuality.” Those who did ask about sexual histories often could not do so in African languages, and reverted to western terms, like “homosexuality,” which often had very different connotations to their African patients.

In addition, as Epprecht argues, there is good reason to believe that many patients would not choose to be open about same-sex practices with foreign researchers due to

African memories of colonialism, and in particular of its punitive and paternalistic sexual health campaigns and associated rhetoric. Suspicions by African leaders of a Western conspiracy to dredge up old colonial slanders about African sexuality were evident from the earliest days of the epidemic and, without question, media coverage in the West was sometimes so unbalanced, inaccurate and almost frankly racist that it understandably raised hackles in Africa.

As a result, Epprecht points out, HIV/AIDS researchers largely overlooked how the virus may have been passed by men engaged in sexual relations with both women and other men.

Belatedly, the pandemic eventually inspired, or forced, many writers inside and outside of Africa to look more honestly at sexual practices in Africa. This ushered in a period of heightened attention, from the 1990s to the present, aided by the emergence of explicit LGBTI groups across sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Somalia to Zimbabwe. Increased visibility, however, also brought a backlash from some powerful African leaders, many of whom had rarely concerned themselves with the subject in the past. Epprecht reminds us that the 1990s saw the full impact of “structural adjustment programs” coming to bear on African societies. Pushed by western financial institutions and countries like the United States, these programs left many African leaders wealthy, while impoverishing the vast majority. One method of diverting potential anti-government unrest was to find a scapegoat, whether ethnic, national, or in some cases sexual.

Much of this dynamic remains apparent in the anti-LGBTI sentiment on display in Uganda today. Epprecht’s argument—that imperialism ultimately brought homophobia to Africa, not an introduction of homosexual acts—has become an important tool for African LGBTI and human rights activists. Sylvia Tamale, a Ugandan feminist and academic, recently spoke out against the proposed legislation in her country by invoking this important correction to history. Reading more deeply into Epprecht’s book can also provide some useful lessons for those in the U.S. wishing to express solidarity with struggles against homophobia in Africa. Perhaps most importantly, we must present our own challenge to the U.S. imperialism of today, whether it takes the form of harmful financial arrangements, corporate plunder, or increasing military intervention.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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