26 February 2014

Africa: Is Current Theorising On Same-Sex Sexuality Relevant to the African Context?


The need for more African voices on theorising same-sex desire in Africa

Whereas much of the work in the West has assisted African same-sex sexualities in providing visibility to same-sex desire, the theorising has not sufficiently provided for a contextual understanding of phenomenon - that of unpacking deeply entrenched ideas of fundamentalist conceptions of religion and patriarchy, and of untangling a psychological colonization resultant from a colonial past


This paper argues that sociological theory relating to issues of same-sex sexuality, in taking its location in the West for granted, fails by being insufficiently inclusive.

Specifically, it fails to take the contextual realities, history and conditions of Africa into account, and to explore how Africans have understood same-sex desire.

The African context is one in which political leadership campaigns against same-sex desire have found centre-stage and where virulent media campaigns against same-sex desire are normalised. It is contended that this results from psychological colonisation.

The argument is that Western theories on same-sex desire are inadequate in addressing the concerns of those marginalised in African contexts. The paper moves on to call for greater voices from Africa in theorising sexuality - a terrain long ignored in African scholarship.

Key words: theory, homophobia, Africa, sexuality, psychological colonization


In this paper I ask whether current Western sociological theorising on same-sex sexuality sufficiently responds to the needs in the African continent.

In many African contexts the existence of individuals who engage in same-sex relations has been marred by brutal denial and structured silences geared towards rendering any such identities as foreign and against God (see Epprecht, 1998).

Essentially I argue that while much of the work in the West has assisted African same-sex sexualities in providing visibility to same-sex desire, the theorising has not sufficiently provided for a contextual understanding of same-sex desire- that of unpacking deeply entrenched ideas of fundamentalist conceptions of religion and patriarchy, and of untangling a psychological colonization resultant from a colonial past.

This has made it extremely difficult to shatter destructive perceptions of same-sex desire as unAfrican and has in some contexts reinforced reactionary actions against individuals who engage in same-sex relations (see Msibi, 2011).

It is important at this early stage to point out that this paper is not motivated by arguments related to African exceptionalism, nor the often racist ideologies which view Africa as a 'dark' continent that is highly homophobic and in need of rescuing.

Rather, the paper is driven by the need to prioritise theory which captures the contextual realities, complications and experiences of African peoples over totalising theory, often driven by Western experiences, presenting sexualities in static, decontextualized and apolitical terms.

The paper is divided into four parts. The first section traces the historical emergence of sexuality theories, with the aim being to demonstrate the Western nature of current theorising on sexuality.

The second section explores the political and historical challenges which make current theorising on sexuality impracticable in many African contexts.

This is followed by a related section exploring the complicated sexual performances in African contexts. Both the second and third sections seek to highlight the need for new theorising which will capture and address the needs and complications of the African context. Lastly, the paper concludes with a brief discussion on how this new theorising might be effected.


There is no doubt that the emergence of sociological theory on same-sex desire has been in the West, with the United States of America and Europe being the key drivers (Gamson, 1995; Connell, 2007). Tierney and Dilley (1998) argue that there have been three waves that have characterised research on same-sex desire.

The first wave looked at same-sex desire as deviance. This meant either silencing the existence of homosexuality or constructing it as dangerous, contagious and a disease. Willard Waller (1932), in his famous book, The Sociology of Teaching, characterises homosexuality as contagious and warns that teachers who engage in same-sex relations should not in any way be allowed to teach as they would convert heterosexual learners.

Stein and Plummer (1994) note that theorising in this period sought to 'classify etiologies of homosexuality' (p. 179) and focussed on 'the homosexual' as an object of study. Simply put, homosexuality was theorized during this period as abnormal and an aberration to social norms.

The second wave of research began around the 1970s and was largely concerned with normalising same-sex desire. McIntosh's (1968) work is credited as being key towards this shift. Her work questioned the functions of the 'homosexual role', therefore shifting away from homosexuality as a psychological condition.

Work around this period was largely about bringing visibility for individuals who engaged in same-sex relations and the improvement of their experiences. Also driven by the Stonewall riots in the US, this work pushed for individuals to 'come out' and claim their gay or lesbian identities without fear of being subjected to ridicule or social ostracism.

The work covered 'legal issues, historical work, curricular change, psychological health, and school-based projects' (Tierney and Dilley, 1998, p. 53). The focus was on challenging homophobia and heterosexism as broader social phenomena. The assumption for this period was that 'if society could just get over its homophobia and heterosexism, then lesbian and gay people's second-class status would end'. (ibid, p. 59).

It was also at this stage that that scholarship began to demarcate people according to categories of sexual orientation, such as gay, lesbian, etc.

This work was highly influenced by the growing strength of feminist scholarship and was not without challenges. For example Gamson (1995) notes that 'within lesbian and gay male organizing, the meanings of 'lesbian' and 'gay' were contested as soon as began to have political currency as quasi-ethnic statuses.' (p. 397).

The third wave of theorising evolved from postmodernist and poststructuralist theorising and has been concerned with disrupting the assumed fixed nature of identity.

This wave is informed by Queer theory. Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Adrienne Rich, Diana Fuss and David Halperin are among the many key theorists who have made significant contributions towards this body of work. Gamson (1995, p. 390) notes that Queer theory 'builds on central difficulties of identity-based organizing: the instability of identities both individual and collective, their made-up yet necessary character. It exaggerates and explodes these troubles, haphazardly attempting to build a politics from the rubble of deconstructed collective categories.'

In short, Queer theory challenges what is taken for granted about the nature of identity. It challenges categories and places agency, power and negotiation as key to identification.

Stein and Plummer (1994) trace the emergence of Queer theory to academics from prestigious institutions in the US during the 1980s who were concerned that 'the term lesbian and gay studies did not seem inclusive enough; it did not encapsulate the ambivalence toward sexual categorisation which many lesbian/gay scholars felt' (p. 181).

Queer theory is therefore a 'plea for massive transgression of all conventional categorisation and analyses' (ibid, p. 182).

Although Queer theory has been challenged by some as reducing the experiences of gay and lesbian people and ignoring the institutional constructions of heterosexuality, Queer theory has been rapidly appropriated in the West with many gay and lesbian individuals simply defining themselves as 'queer'.

More recently, research which seems to challenge the 'static' nature of Queer theory has emerged in Western sociological theory. This I would characterize as the fourth wave of research.

While not posing as an alternative to Queer theory, this work seems to suggest an expiry of Queer theory (Halley & Parker, 2007). Words such as (anti)queer (McKee, 1999), 'post-queer' (Noble, 2006) and 'after-queer' (Crowley & Rasmussen, 2010) have been burnished to define the various positions of this movement.

In essence this work seeks to highlight the challenges with current understanding and use of Queer theory in (mostly) Western societies, with some arguing that Queer theory has taken a fixed 'ethnic identity' meaning which it was not intended to take. This work signals the inevitable evolution of Queer theory, pointing to the need to further extend knowledge in the field of sexual theorising.

From the above it becomes clear that the development of sociological theory as it concerns questions of sexuality has been driven by the West; these transitions, while interesting and productive, have taken place largely [1] without involvement of theorists from the South.

The appropriation of Western theory in other localities assumes a commonality in experience and history. It does not take context and location into account. Connell (2007) apportions blame for such a trend to the fact that Western scholarship is not sufficiently reflective about its own location: it follows that sociological theory needs to draw also on the theorising of those in the South.

While there are of course other theories which seek to theorise the experiences of African people such as post-colonial theories, critical feminist theories and Southern theories, these theories also have a limitation in that they minimally address issues of sexuality and are often not developed by African people themselves.

While I do not wish to pose all Western theories as impracticable in African contexts, I argue that the ahistorical and apolitical positioning of such theories reduces location and context to insignificance. This is not only problematic but often results in the failure of these theories in relating to African people. This is a point I now move to discuss.


The practices and politics of homosexuality in Africa cannot be assumed to be similar to that of the West: the context is very different, and Western theorising fails to take this into account [2].

Africa is haunted by a powerful history of colonialism and imperialism which has tended to erase 'truth' around issues of homosexuality, often drawing largely instead on fundamental conceptions of Christianity. This is what Hall and Livingston (2003) define as psychological colonisation.

They note that this is involves 'the standardization of ideas previously less relevant to native populations ... [such standardization includes] eradication, exclusion, or assimilation' (p. 639). This form of colonisation is most evident in the rhetoric that has come from African leaders in so far as homosexuality is concerned.

While we know for example that same-sex relations have always existed across the continent (see Epprecht, 1998, 2008), many African leaders have not been shy to inform us that homosexuality is a Western imposition. Robert Mugabe has for example declared that individuals who engaged in same-sex relations were 'worse than dogs and pigs' (Kaswende, 2010). Similar sentiments have been expressed by other African leaders.

For example, past leaders of Zambia, Namibia, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, Kenya and Egypt have conveyed some of the harshest criticisms and treatments against individuals who engage in same-sex relations (Reddy, 2001).

Most of the criticism levelled against same-sex desiring individuals are often guised under 'our culture', yet closer scrutiny reveals concerted efforts of cultural manipulations and distortions by those in power.

Indeed, as already noted there's convincing evidence from Marc Epprecht and other scholars of the existence of same-sex engagements predating the arrival of the missionaries and colonialists in Africa.

Although individuals could not claim sexual identifications in the Western sense (such as gay, lesbian, bisexual etc), same-sex desire was common and well known in many African states (see Msibi, 2011).

It was the arrival of missionaries together with the colonial legal systems which barred same-sex engagements under a proliferation of sodomy laws across the continent.

As Welch (1984) observes, the colonial authorities arrived and implemented European penal laws to an Africa that had its own systems in place.

Simply put, the appeal to culture by many African leaders is a reflection of a deep-seated psychological colonisation: much of what is claimed as unAfrican in terms of same-sex desire reflects particular colonial cultural beliefs and practices (whether through laws or religion) which were adopted into local cultures and assumed to be of local origin.

Alongside this psychological colonisation from African leaders is the systemic denial of existence for those who engage in same-sex relations.

For example, in 38 African countries, it is still illegal to engage in consensual 'gay' sex (Blandy, 2010), with an increasing number of African countries enforcing stricter laws against homosexuality.

It is important that I stress here that my contention is not that Africans are more homophobic than Western people, but rather that the historic and systemic conditions that exist in Africa are radically different to those in Western countries, and therefore require different theorising.

While I acknowledge and indeed accept that a man living deep in the South of the US may be subjected to homophobic utterances and violations, I argue that the systemic nature of homophobia in many parts of Africa takes on particularly rigid and gendered forms rooted in collective notions of culture and religion, a key difference to many Western experiences.

Mama (1997) accredits this gendered nature of violence in many African contexts today to the deep history of colonial violence which remains unaddressed in many African states. This view is further supported by other scholars. For example, Ibhawoh (2000) notes that:

'The roots of the dismal human rights records of contemporary African states, particularly at the formal public level, should be sought partly in their colonial experiences... [The] imposition of colonial rule and the authoritarianism that characterised it abridged the recognition and protection of human rights in traditional African societies' (p. 846)

As already noted, many states in Africa continue to use and strengthen colonial laws in subjecting those who engage in same-sex relations to the most horrific forms of abuse.

This history of colonial struggles and its continuing legacy are often unacknowledged in much of the Western theorising on same-sex desire, with only Western sexual and political histories being reflected.

Further, the media in many African contexts has been used most instrumentally in support of homophobic sentiment and rhetoric. Writing about the media in Malawi, Kapasula (2006) notes that 'the media treats homosexuality as a 'new' menace, an 'alien sin' that needs to be swiftly rooted out before it spreads' (p. 68). .

A clear example of this is found in Uganda where Giles Muhame, the editor of Rolling Stone, a newspaper based in Uganda, has made it his mission to 'wage a war against homosexuality' (Dixon, 2010) by publishing names, photographs and, on occasions, addresses of individuals who engage in same-sex relations. Similar experiences have been identified in Nigeria where the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act has been passed.

The Act criminalises same-sex marriage, same-sex clubs, associations and organisations with punishment of up to 14 years in jail. The social reality in most African contexts demands a different form of social theorising - one that understands the impact of colonisation, patriarchy and the consequent rigidities.

Moreover, Africa in itself is different from one country to the next. South Africa for example has one of the most evolved constitutions where matters of same-sex desire are concerned.

The equality clause in the South African constitution (Act 108 of 1996) grants full rights to individuals who engage in same-sex relations; individuals by law can therefore not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation.

This applies to society across the board, including the media, which has shifted towards a more education-oriented approach in changing public opinion against same-sex desire, with characters who engage in same sex relations being positively portrayed in the scripts of local soaps like Isidingo, Generations and Rhythm City.

Having said this however, this does not mean that homophobia has declined. To the contrary, similar patterns to those of other African countries have been witnessed, again with gender-based violence being a strong feature.

Mkhize, Bennett, Reddy and Moletsane (2010) as well as the report entitled 'We'll Show You You're a Woman' by the Human Rights Watch (2011) point to the pervasive nature of violence against lesbian women in South Africa, with the aim being to enforce and entrench compulsory heterosexuality on those whose 'gender bending' behaviour troubles normative gender roles.

For many people who engage in same-sex relations in South Africa, the promises of acceptance and inclusion espoused in the country's constitution remain nothing but a distant dream, with many continuing to have negative experiences.

Many lesbian women continue to be raped through 'lesbophobic' [3] rape for transgressing 'social norms' (Msibi, 2009). All these examples point to a need for theorising that is cognisant of the history and practices in Africa.


Apart from the key political and historical challenges in Africa which are often not reflected in Western social theory on same-sex desire, it also is the varying understandings and practices of same-sex engagements in African contexts which make Western theory at times redundant, if not impracticable.

As noted elsewhere, Marc Epprecht has written prolifically about the existence of same-sex practices in Africa, and the differing understandings of sexuality compared to Western societies. For Epprecht, scholars need to 'challenge their own Western-specific, possibly homophobic assumptions about sexuality' (2004, p. 20).

This is because a Western understanding of sexuality has dominated theorising on same-sex sexuality, ignoring practices which may be outside the Western sexual 'norms'. African societies have for instance historically never had 'gay' or 'lesbian' identities [4].

This however does not mean that same-sex sexuality was not present- Murray and Roscoe (1998) present a collection of essays highlighting the historical existence of same-sex practices throughout the African continent.

Rather, same-sex sexuality was understood, "contained, explained, honoured and 'invisibilized'" (Epprecht, 2004, p. 21) variously depending on the context, and was differently understood compared to Western society.

Kendall's (1998) fascinating work clearly highlights the disjuncture between Western theorising and that of African practices. Writing about her research conducted in 1992, Kendall notes that she arrived in Lesotho, a small country landlocked by South Africa, looking to interview lesbian women.

However by the end of her study, she had not found a single individual personally labelling herself as lesbian. However, she did find 'widespread, apparently normative erotic relationships among the Basotho women [she] knew, in conjunction with the absence of a concept of this behavior as 'sexual' or as something that might have a name.' (p. 157).

Women who were both wives and mothers often had equally passionate, loving relationships with other women. From this Kendall argues that same-sex practices in Africa are not foreign impositions, but rather that homophobia, in the Western sense of the word, was an imposition.

Additionally, Kendall's work pushes readers to go beyond the conventional Western understandings of sex and sexuality as the women she observed in her study engaged in various culturally sanctioned erotic activities which included touching, kissing and sex-play, but were not defined as sex by the women.

These activities did not require 'coming out' in the Western sense of the word. Kendall explains that her attempts to 'come out' to the Basotho women were laughed at and simply not understood by the women, therefore highlighting the disjuncture between Western and African understanding of sexualities).

Epprecht's work (1998, 2004, 2008) also captures this varied approach to sexual practices when dealing with Southern African men (in mines, prisons and communities) who engaged in sexual relationships with other men. These men did not express themselves as 'gay' or 'bisexual', but freely engaged in relations with other men.

Similarly, in a doctoral study I recently completed (Msibi, 2012) my informants related stories of wide-spread sexual practices between South African rural and township men who were seen as 'straight' and those who identified as 'gay' or 'bisexual'.

These relationships were often gendered and deeply connected to power (in the form of class) - men who were regarded as 'straight' were even penetrated by those considered 'gay' so long as the engagements remained in the private space. In addition to this, there appeared to be a lot of confusion in terms of understanding and use of Western sexual categories with those who identified as gay being seen 'visible' and wanting to be like women.

This in part confirms Mclean and Ngcobo's (1994) findings on same-sex practices in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sigamoney and Epprecht (2013) have additionally shown, through a large-scale study in the context of South Africa, the limitations presented by Western concepts such as 'homosexuality', as many Africans do not use or understand these.

The above discussions not only suggest divergent and differing view of sexuality and same-sex desire between Western and African contexts, they also point to the needs for theory to be responsive to these differences.

An immediate criticism to my assertions may be that Queer theory, a theory with strong Western origins, already captures the complexities and pluralities highlighted above.

However, while Queer theory does in many ways speak to the complexities highlighted above, it remains silent on addressing negative African experiences presented by rigid communal cultures, not least because of its rootedness in individual agency.

Queer theory places too much emphasis on the individual's ability to take action by placing themselves outside the will of the collective. This ignores the burdens of history and the organisation of African societies.

In an evolving Africa, where homophobia has characterised the experiences of many of those who engage in same-sex relations, the need for collective organising becomes particularly important, especially in environments where one faces powerful state machinery. In such instances, Queer theory does little in supporting those who need to respond to collective oppression in collective ways.


The examples noted above suggest that current Western theorising fails to capture accurately the structural, cultural, historical and societal complexities found in the African context. Theory cannot be assumed to have similar meaning and application in the West as it does in Africa.

Indeed as Connell (2007), cited in Epstein and Morrell (2012), notes '... the social experience of the colonized world requires different agendas for theory than the familiar agendas arising from the experience of the colonizing societies' (p. 472).

How, for example, can one speak of Queer theory and agency in places where same-sex desire is still an aberration and taboo? Surely the blind acceptance and usage of current Western theories mimics colonisation which sought to erase the distinct African cultures by imposing Western norms?

Is it not this very idea of imposition which has been used by opportunistic Afrocentrists like Mugabe who have sought to deny individuals who engage in same-sex relations their rights to exist?

Social theory needs to respond to contextual realities and provide space for varied African voices to speak in a world that often seeks to speak for African peoples. By this I mean that African sociologists need to, while learning from Western theories, develop theory that is reflective and conscious of the social and historical realities that exist in Africa.

One key method of doing this can be through the emergence of more African voices on these issues, instead of the fear of doing 'gay work'. Challenging the naturalness of patriarchy and heterosexuality requires that African scholars begin to understand that the one-size-fits-all mentality does not work.

To assume that the evolution of social theory on sexuality is without a history and therefore applicable to all contexts is an erasure of reality and therefore yet another 'colonial' imposition.

This position does not argue for the rejection of Western theories, but rather learning from what has worked in the West by integrating, questioning, troubling and even queering its relevance for our own contexts in Africa.

- Thabo Msibi is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He lecturers and researches on matters of curriculum and same-sex desire.


[1] While it is not disputed that Southern scholars have contributed in the development of various sociological theories, the roots of theorizing as it concerns sexuality have essentially been Western, arising out of particular Western experiences.

[2] I highlight the differences below.

[3] I use this concept to avoid using 'curative rape' or 'corrective rape'. In the past I have used both these terms to highlight the ruthless, gendered nature of the rape of lesbian women, who are often raped by men who believe that they can 'correct' or 'cure' the sexual orientation of lesbian women. In order to avoid the normalization and essentialisation of these terms I use the borrowed concept of 'lesbophobic rapes' (Muholi, 2004).

[4] I acknowledge that this too is a fairly recent development in the West.


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