Same-sex “soul” brothers (and sisters); gay/lesbian interactions in Africa and the Diaspora 

The issue of homosexuality and same-sex relationships as it pertains to people of African and Indian descent is an extremely divisive one. As I pointed out in my preceding article, regarding African people, it is as deeply contentious in Africa as it is here in the Americas.

Some of that has to do with the very legitimate issue of examining African and other non-Western cultural practices with Eurocentric cultural ideas, assumptions and knowledge production. The arrogance of European/Euro-American academia continues to contaminate the ways we examine ourselves and other peoples of the Global South, many of whom had sophisticated cultures that are far older than Europe’s. 

Photo: A same-sex couple in Tanzania.

The question of (homo)sexuality is a great example. As J Matory argues, what (Euro-)American conservatives classify as natural or unnatural sex is more in keeping with egregious historical and cultural choices about what they took for granted. 

In T&T and the wider Caribbean, colonial-era prejudices and religio-Victorian “morality” are definitely the chief culprits. In my own assessment, some of the contention, indeed the revulsion felt at the mere thought of two men being sexually intimate—somewhat less than at the thought of two women “zammying”—stems from the internalising by formerly colonised peoples of deeply racist, anti-sexual, white masculinist world views and their emotional reactions while fighting to assert the humanity frequently denied us in environments shaped by said worldview. These are bigoted ideas imposed by Western (and Westernised) educators and theologians who were in the service of a wider colonial expansionism. 

Note, however, that these are schizophrenic attitudes embedded in Western patriarchal thought concerning all sexual interactions. They are traceable back to patriarchal ideas in ancient Eurasian hunter-warrior cultures—it had nothing to do with any god although it did profoundly influence how these cultures defined what was “godly” in numerous pre-Christian beliefs as well as in Christianity itself. 

That many African people share Western homophobia is testimony to how thorough the coloniser has been in trying to erase and distort non-Western cultures in general and Native African cultures in particular and how sexual interactions were approached. The presence of ‘ssengas’ for instance, professional Ugandan sex-coaches who were stand-ins for the sister of a girl’s father, who taught her sex in preparation for womanhood. Such activities like their stretching of the labia upset many European sensibilities and could easily be misinterpreted as lesbianism. Variations of this sex-coach, known by different names, have been found all over Africa. 

Photo: Same-sex relationships as depicted in ancient Greek art.

Space doesn’t permit the kind of detail this issue deserves but let’s be clear on at least this: the notion that what Westernised thought labels ‘homosexuality’ and ‘lesbianism’ is un-African and was brought in by colonialism is not supported by the history. What Africans consider (homo)sexuality, however, is often a completely different thing. Although most African societies placed high premium on heterosexual unions, many forms of same-sex expressions and cross-dressing existed, some of which were within the parameters of rituals and symbolic customs. 

Married Pangwe men in the Cameroon, for instance, performed acts of “sodomy” that they considered acts of “wealth medicine” and not acts of pleasure. Other research points to erotic relationships among women within the context of divination ceremonies. Same-sex unions of varying kinds—not necessarily erotic—can be traced back to the ancient Nile Valley. There are published accounts of early European travellers although, of course, one must allow for prejudices and exaggerations.

In the 1625 book “The Strange Adventures of Andrew Battell of Leigh, in Angola and the Adjoining Regions,” we read that Africans “(A)re beastly in their living, for they have men in women’s apparel, whom they keep among their wives.”

In our own-time books, like Ifi Amadiume’s “Male Daughters, Female Husbands,” Marc Apprecht’s “Heterosexual Africa?,” Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe’s “Boy Wives, Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities” and J Matory’s “Sex and the Empire that is no more” provide important information on social, marital and sexual interactions among select African peoples.

Photo: A same-sex couple represented in Greek art.

They also show us just how incredibly complex human sexual and social interactions are; not all of these same-sex arrangements were sexual or even erotic (although some were). Some were what I call administrative, such as the female husbands of the Nnobi people of the Nigerian Igbos.

In order to acquire or retain property in certain families in cultures where there were rigid gender and/or lineage roles, some women married other women and were considered their “husbands” although they themselves married and had sexual relations with other men and bore children. Amadiume and Matory point out that both male wives and female husbands were vital figures in Yoruba societies.

There were also male Yoruba and Igbo possession priests who dressed as women to carry out their functions as priests for Divine Feminine deities. We should note here the evidence suggesting that the vestments of Catholic and Anglican priests can be traced back to ancient vestments worn by priestesses and priests of pre-Christian Mother-Goddess belief systems. 

Further, certain forms of anal and between the thighs penetration among men in South Africa, Cameroon, Nigeria, Uganda and other regions were intended to aid in greater virility in marriage.  

All this was looked upon with horror and self-righteous disgust by Western missionaries and traders. Many of them used this to justify the need for military incursions so as to “save” the benighted Africans—in reality, justifications for the securing of the mineral resources. All this went into the making of hypermasculinity in this country while contributing to the erasure of cultural identity and sense of self.

Photo: A same-sex couple in USA.
(Copyright The Seattle Lesbian)

In the struggle to assert a sense of humanity so as to access greater mobility in the colonised hierarchy, many African and Afro-Caribbeans disavowed any connection to their sexual selves as determined by their ancestral customs. This is the battle we still face today, a battle connected, as it has always been, to the right the West arrogated unto itself to siphon off the mineral resources of Global South countries for its own enrichment.

My next article will look at how sexual expression was historically viewed in the West and what impact that had on people of colour. 

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