Africa: 'Bisexual People's Existence Constantly Challenged, Erased'

29 April 2022

Johannesburg — The Centre for Human Rights (CHR) and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender (CSA&G) at the University Pretoria together with the Center for Gender Studies and Feminist Futures (CGS) and the Center for Conflict Studies (CCS) at the Philipps-University Marburg has launched the first edition of the Pretoria-Marburg Queer Conversations which will be held monthly from April to September 2022.

The conversations emanate from a convergence of interests in the work on LGBTIQ+ and queer identities among the centers. While the CHR is invested in human rights education in Africa, the CSA&G advances gender, sexuality, health and HIV as key aspects in imagining and re-imagining diversity and inclusivity. The two centers based at the Philipps-University Marburg, the CGS and the CCS, are interdisciplinary institutions engaged in teaching, research, and knowledge transfer in gender studies and peace and conflict respectively.

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This six-event series, themed: Scholarly and Activist Perspectives on LGBTIQ+ Lived Realities in Africa creates a monthly space for in-depth discussions on topics such as 'queering coming out', 'colonial legacies of anti-LGBTIQ+ rights', and 'queering perspectives on power dynamics'. The discussion sessions will bring together scholars from various disciplines and renowned LGBTIQ+ activists from the continent. The panelists will shed light on the particular topics from their disciplinary and professional perspectives and engage in an interactive conversation with participants at the events.

On 21 April, at the first event of the series dubbed - Queering Coming Out: Nuances Among Queer Individuals in South Africa - Zuziwe Khuzwayo - a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand shared one of the chapters of their PhD thesis titled 'Why Do I Need to Come Out If Straight People Don't Have To'. Divergent Perspectives on the Necessities of Self-Disclosure Amongst Bisexual Women.

According to Khuzwayo, "in terms of looking at bisexuality, looking at any LGBTQI plus queer studies, evidence has shown that there has been limited studies on bisexuality. Historically, most of the focus in terms of studies has been on lesbians and gays, and recently people are looking at trans or intersex studies, but there still continues to be a limited focus on bisexual identity."

"One of the reasons this occurs is that bisexuality is a misunderstood and misconceived sexual identity. Bisexuality is viewed as a phase, as being promiscuous, that for some reasons bisexual individuals cannot necessarily be monogamous, and so that legitimacy continuously happens," Khuzwayo adds.

Khuzwayo says another reason why the misunderstanding occurs is because there's been multiple definitions on bisexual identity, and this adds to the confusion. The misunderstandings of the definition, as well as the negative connotations of the sexual identity, create a stigma towards bisexual individuals, which has resulted in some mud claiming their sexual identity in public.

"When we're looking at bisexuality in South Africa, we must recognize that historically a bisexual identity was part of the LGBTQI movement, fighting against all forms of discrimination. So whether it was queer discrimination, whether it's just the past state system fighting that discrimination, but even in the spaces we'll find that particularly in the LGBTQI movements, you are finding that bisexual identity continues to be the invisibilised and not recognized as legitimate sexual identity," says Khuzwayo.

"Currently bisexuals are part of the movement in South Africa. But nonetheless, the bisexual identity still faces a lack of acceptance and legitimacy within space. Stigma, the lack of representation and acceptance has made bisexuals very hesitant to come out and perform this act. And even those who have come out they still face various challenges," they added.

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According to Khuzwayo, bisexuality in the Global North can be traced back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who were engaging in actions and behaviors and attractions towards for those who were male, female, and those who have gender non-conforming. It was in 19th century when a definition came of bisexuality. And that was defined as "forms of life that exhibit physical characteristics of both sexes". Bisexuals not only exist but their existence has always been constantly challenged and erased.

"When we're talking about any sort of sexual identity colonialism has to be discussed, and colonialism brought with it a hetero-normative belief on sexual orientation through a Christian ideology. Now, that's not to say that queer individuals were not historically part of pre-colonial countries and contexts, but unfortunately, there's a limited documentation of non-heterosexual identities, particularly in Southern Africa, in Western Africa I think that there's a lot more documentation. I'm reading about studies where there was a king in a West African country that was engaging as a bisexual man and having these kinds of engagements," Khuzwayo insists.

"In the South African context, whenever we're talking about LGBTQI people or queer individuals, one of the big words that comes up particularly in rural parts, is a word - "istabane". The word study was first sort of documented or used in the 1800s, and it was used to denote men who are associated with banditry and suddenly in the hospitals during the cold rash. Then that definition of that word changed, and it's usually now referred in a derogatory manner to an individual who has both male and female sexual organs, and they were considered to be bisexual. So again, there's a derogatory sort of way of defining bisexuality and same sex organs, but then today, the word is used to refer to all LGBTQI individuals in a negative manner, " Khuzwayo adds.

"Non-heterosexual identity has always existed, the biggest challenge is the fact of the archiving and the documentation. I think with this kind of series, and hopefully it's with my kind of work will highlight that this has always existed, " Khuzwayo says.

"In Uganda, there is a group of women who are in romantic relationships with each other and they have been living for many years in public claiming their sexual identity, but they've never ever actually had to come out. And that indicates to you that queerness or non-heterosexual sexuality has always been a part of the continent, but I think we cannot really underestimate the role of colonialism. Colonialism brought about the ideology in order to bring about a particular economic benefit, the classification of men and woman, and who does what particular labour, the classification of what it is to be heterosexual and what it is to sort of build this family to build this labour in order to support the colonial project," Khuzwayo argues.

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"Historically, the reason why people have chosen to come out is that it allows individuals to gain social acceptance and integrate into the communities once they disclose their sexual identity. Coming out has been used as a political act to gain legal right. On the African continent, it has been used to challenge the idea that non-heterosexuality is un-African. So therefore, by performing this act, we're saying that non-heterosexual sexuality has always existed and hence, I'm going to come out to show that this is this is African," says Khuzwayo.

According to Khuzwayo, in South Africa non-heterosexual black women have experienced homophobia through physical violence in numbers and a significant number of cases has resulted in death. Women's sexuality continues to be regulated through a hetero-normative framework and that cannot be underestimated whether it is a woman who's straight or not. The issue of coming out is complicated by how bisexuality is understood, and the 'privilege' that bisexuals have in heterosexual presenting relationships.

"I think there's always this underlying belly of legitimacy of the sexual identity. And the way that that illegitimacy is sort of represents itself and this idea that you can be redeemable and then you're gonna go back to being a heterosexual things like that," Khuzwayo says.

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