Africa and its queer history: I am not less African

February 25, 2021

Couple sitting on a stone wall, 2020, photography by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

Olivia Opara examines African LGBTQ+ practices in the past and in the here and now

In the UK, it is LGBT+ history month and across the pond, it is Black History Month. With this in mind, why don’t we take a trip down the rabbit hole of queerness in Africa?

Queerness in present-day Africa
Shunned and demonised, being queer in present-day Africa is both mentally and emotionally taxing. Many African countries have criminalised homosexuality, with some taking the extreme of making it punishable by death. So homophobia is present, rampant, and spreading.

With the older generations passing on ingrained bigotry, young queer Africans are often cast out as not truly being African or being too westernised.

But the truth is I am not less African. If anything, like Bandy Kiki reports, “I am more African than the homophobic people using a foreign religious book and colonial laws to erase me.”

So, what was Africa like for queer people before colonisation, when western powers imposed toxic ideals?

Queerness in ancient Africa
Before colonisation, queerness was in fact heralded in Africa. It was championed by spiritual beliefs previously practised by the majority of Africans. There were no gender binaries nor was heterosexuality imposed as the norm. There were, of course, many ways in which ancient Africans not only celebrated queerness but also practised it.

Female husbands – when women take wives
Just as it sounds, female husbands was a practice in Africa where a woman, typically an older one, would take another woman, typically younger, to form a marriage contract.

This practice came about as a way to navigate barrenness or the lack of an heir within a relationship. Usually, when a man’s wife was unable to have a child, he would go on to marry a younger woman, in the hope that he and his family would have a successor.

Women did the same within marriage. Same-sex relationships between women weren’t demonised back then. Denise O’Brien, author of ‘Female Husbands in South Bantu Societies’ (1977), defined this practice as “a woman takes on the legal status and social role of a husband and father by marrying another woman.”

However in Europe, marriage between women was taboo, so those who arrived to colonise and capture slaves from Africa, were surprised to witness females living together as married couples. A British anthropologist, Northcote Thomas recorded this as a “strange custom” in his 1914 paper ‘Anthropological report on the Igbo-speaking peoples of Nigeria’.

Eight years later, Fredrick Lugurd, explorer of Africa, also noticed how female husbands were particularly common amongst the Igbo tribes of Nigeria.

It was one of the oldest queer practices in Africa with the powerful, courageous and influential figure, Queen Nzinga Mbande of Angola (1624–1663) known to have actively married other women. You can read more about Nzinga here.

Drawing of Nzinga Mbande (1583–1663), Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo, Angola (1624–1663)

Sylvia Tamale, a leading human rights activist in Uganda writes, “Even today, marriages between women for reproductive, economic and diplomatic reasons still exist among the Nandi and Kisii of Kenya, the Igbo of Nigeria, the Nuer of Sudan and in the Kuria of Tanzania.” in her article ‘Homosexuality is not un-African’ (2014).

You can learn more about female husbands here and by reading this journal article by Chantal Zabus.

Chibados – the ‘third gender’ natives of precolonial Angola
Like homosexuality, being transgender was a common occurrence in Africa. First documented by Catholic priests, the Chibados (or Quimbandas) were male diviners who lived mostly as women. They dressed as females and were believed to have superpowers and magical insight, and in some cases acted like women.

They also spoke effeminately and married other men, which was seen as a spiritually good thing “to unite in wrongful lust with them.” You can read more about the Chibados in this paper A Third Sex Around the World.

It wasn’t just the Chibados who were considered third gender or different gender in Africa. There were the ‘mudoko dako‘ or effeminate males among the Langi of northern Uganda and the ‘gor-digen’ of Senegal, to name a few.

Before colonisation, there were no gender binaries in Africa which is not only proven by the documentation of those considered as third gender natives, but also by our native languages that are typically not gendered. Transgendered people were treated with the utmost respect within some African countries and communities and still are today.

Shanna Collins writes, “The Lugbara people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda are among those in Central Africa who still conduct spiritual ceremonies with transgender priests.”  You can learn more about transgenderism in Africa in Collins’ interesting article.

Androgynous Africa
In pre-colonial Africa, gender was not dependent upon sexual anatomy. Gender roles and identities were less rigid. Not only was there gender fluidity for people, but there were also many African beliefs that had deities outside of today’s gender norms. For instance, there were the Nommo, primordial ancestral spirits in Dogon religion and cosmogony (sometimes referred to as demi deities), venerated by the Dogon people of Mali.

In Ancient Egypt, there were the Goddesses Mut and Sekment who were pictured with male and female characteristics. The worship of androgynous (and intersex) deities in Africa was so prevalent that African spiritual beliefs in intersexual deities and sex/gender transformation among their followers have been documented among 26 different tribes, named here.

Transgender priests in religious ceremonies were still reported to be practising in 20th century West Africa. And cross-dressing is a feature of modern Brazilian and Haitian ceremonies derived from West African religions. More about Transgender Warriors here.

Queer and African
Today Africa is rife with murderous homophobia, a cold and unrecognisable reflection of what the continent truly was. As Sylvia Tamale says in her article, the idea that homosexuality is un-African “is a myth anchored on an old practice of selectively invoking African culture by those in power.”

Homosexuality and transgenderism are not alien to Africa. Being LGBT+ does not make you or me any less African. Our truth is written in history: our history. So this LGBT+ month my black queer friends, let us continue to live our truth, for we are not less African for being queer.

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