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Homosexuality has always been African, but the term LGBT is new and divisive

By Steeves Winner

Marc Epprecht (at left) at a 2017 conference on "Gender and Sexuality in Africa". (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Marc Epprecht (at left) at a 2017 conference on “Gender and Sexuality in Africa”. (Photo courtesy of Dartmouth College)

Although homosexual practices exist everywhere on the African continent, many Africans reject the idea of a homosexual identity. The very notion of sex remains a blind spot.

As Canadian researcher Marc Epprecht has shown, African men who have sex with other men, or African women who have sex with other women, tend not to see themselves as gay, lesbian, homosexual or bisexual. They rarely belong to LGBT-type organizations. In Africa, as in Latin America and elsewhere, the term “LGBTQIA” is a subject of dispute.  The validity of the term is widely accepted in the West and widely rejected in Africa.

Many in Africa and in the Arab world define themselves by their resistance to Westernization. “Gay” and “lesbian”, terms used  in the struggle of sexual liberation in Western countries, and more recently the word “queer”, notably popularized by a current of academic thought, are signs of globalization of sexual identity.

However, these words, imported into Africa via colonial European languages, often clash with local designations and practices. For example, in South Africa, a man who plays an active role in a sexual relationship with another man is called “straight” and is therefore not perceived as “gay” because he penetrates his partner.

“Homosexual practices have always existed on our continent,” says one iconoclastic observer. “In Cameroon, several ethnic rites have homosexual features. Africa has very specific sexualities that we need to celebrate, not reject.”

Roger Ross Williams, director of "God Loves Uganda"

Roger Ross Williams, director of “God Loves Uganda”

The Christian church in Africa, especially its evangelical branch, displays clear disgust at homosexuality, which it considers an abomination against God. Roger Ross Williams, the first African-American director to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, suggested in his second film, God Loves Uganda, that African missionaries were guilty of inflammatory sermons against same-sex relationships in a country like Uganda, despite Uganda being one of the world’s leading consumers of gay pornography.

Homosexuality is often portrayed in Africa as an import from the perverted West. But the African continent has always had cases of gender diversity — long before colonization. It’s surprising therefore that homosexuality and African cultures continue to be seen as mutually exclusive, but that the rigid position that many Africans take on the basis of their (originally non-African) religion, whether Christian or Muslim.

Steeves Winner, the author of this article, is a Cameroonian journalist who writes under a pseudonym. Contact him at [email protected].

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