Book Channel Essay: Perspectives on Understanding Homosexuality and Homophobia in Africa


When President Barack Obama visited Kenya this past summer (2015) many Kenyans joyfully celebrated his return to the country, which was also the first visit to Kenya by a sitting US president. Groups of Kenyans, however, openly protested his visit, which came just a few months after the Obergefell v. Hodges US Supreme Court ruling that granted equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. William Ruto, Kenya’s deputy president, warned Obama not to push homosexual rights and “other dirty things” onto African countries. Ruto’s statement alarmed many activists and observers given the Kenyan state’s relatively neutral position on homosexuality. Although it is officially banned in Kenya, police rarely  prosecute people suspected of being gay or engaging in homosexual activities. In issuing his warning, Ruto joined a chorus of political leaders and religious figures across Africa who have denounced “homosexuality” as a dangerous and corrupt Western import. In extreme cases, such as Uganda and Nigeria, legislators passed legislation that established severe penalties for people engaging in or even expressing support for homosexuality.

These laws and their accompanying public discourse have coincided with growing attention to issues of homophobia and the experiences of sexual minorities in Africa. The laws in Nigeria and Uganda added to widespread and unquestioned assumptions that Africa is uniquely rife with homophobia.  An editorial in the New York Times framed the issue this way: “As acceptance of gays and lesbians has grown in the United States and Europe, intolerance and persecution has been rising in other parts of the world. African nations are leaders in this cruel and dehumanizing trend.” Such characterizations have added to already existing constructions of Africans as fundamentally conservative, traditionalist, and anti-modern. Another New York Times article characterized Uganda as “exceptionally lush, mostly rural country where conservative Christian groups wield enormous influence,” describing it as the “land of proposed virginity scholarships, with songs about Jesus playing in the airport.”  Historian Marc Epprecht (2013), whose research emphasizes gay rights and gender, criticizes popular representations of homophobia in Africa that are not fully accurate and that elide the West’s own problematic history concerning LGBTQ rights.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Scholars of Africa, while condemning hostility to gays, lesbians, and transgender people, recognize the need to assess and historicize factors that lead to homophobia, as well as the cultural nuances that shape the perspectives and identities of African sexual minorities. The issue of gay rights, and anti-gay persecution has raised important conceptual questions in academic literature: How do Africans establish sexual identities on their own terms? Conversely what has been the impact of transnational connections and discourses regarding LBGTQ rights on local sexual identities? What are the historical sources of homophobia in many places across Africa? By calling attention to these questions, scholars of sexual minorities in Africa have contributed to broader academic discussions concerning gender and sexuality.

The study of African sexual minorities is not new. During the late 1990s and 2000s, there were comprehensive monographs and edited volumes concerning Africa queer identities, or otherwise non-conforming sexualities from Murray and Roscoe (1999), Epprecht (2005), Rudolf Gaudio (2009),  and Hoad and Reid( 2006). These scholars framed their work within the context of increasing social persecution of sexual minorities in Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa. Their works dispelled claims of homosexuality’s incongruence within African cultures, while at the same time remaining mindful of superimposing Western political configurations onto nuanced and locally construed sexual identities and conflicts. Sexual identities in Africa, they emphasize, are themselves diverse, contested, and often distinct from the political expectations of Western LGBTQ advocates. In his ethnographyof “sexual outlaws”--yan daudu—in Kano, Nigeria, Anthropologist Rudolf Gaudio interacted with men who identify as devoted Muslims, husbands, and fathers, while at the same time engaging in dynamic sexual and romantic relationships with men. Gaudio calls attention to the fluidity of gender that allows these “sexual outlaws” to live their lives happily and in accordance with the expectations of their community. 

Scholars of Africa tend to evaluate African sexual identities in terms of local practices, mores, and cultural conventions. This emphasis is not to diminish the political importance of LGBTQ activism, nor lend credence to the idea that there are “no gays in Africa”; rather, scholars recognize Western identities as embodied in politics and stress the importance of representing African sexual practices, and identities according to their own terminology, praxes and ideologies. Scholars’ emphasis on the local, nonetheless, invites speculation as to what role global LBGTQ advocacy may have in Africa, where attitudes and conceptions of sexuality—as in much of the rest of the world—have been dynamic. As scholars have increasingly emphasized interregional methodologies and transnationalism, is there space to show sexual identities as a medium that connects people globally as well as locally? What can Western LGBTQ activists and scholars learn from the language, ideologies, and perspectives of sexual minorities in Africa? A less discussed facet of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda was that it occurred within a context of increasing LGBTQ activism and vibrant networking. Advocacy for the rights of sexual minorities is not new in Africa, rather is the product of years—if not decades—of work by local activists. The photography of South African photographer Zanele Muholi has enhanced visibility of queer identities in South Africa to Western audiences. Her work has been exhibited in Europe and the United States, including recently at the Brooklyn Museuem.

Such a transnational perspective can be found in the work of Grahem Reid (2013), an anthropologist. His recent monograph (2013) addresses local South Africans’ engagement with global discourses concerning queer identities. Reid conducted his field work in Wesselton, a black neighborhood of the small South African town of Ermelo and documents the experiences of gay youths as they struggle with essential questions of “how to be a real gay.”  South Africa has been one of the few states to incorporate legal protections for gays and lesbians as part of a broader human rights platform. This has allowed internationally funded organizations freedom to provide educational workshops to local communities concerning the language, terminology, and political platform of the LBGTQ rights movement. For example, these workshops emphasize the importance of “coming out” to gay identity. Examining encounters within hair salons, weddings, and identity workshops, Reid calls attention to the convergence of local gendered conceptions and behaviors with global discourse concerning gay identity into a “hybrid form of Subjectivity.”  Reid highlights the potential of identity workshops to be a site of interaction and cultural dialogue between international LGBTQ advocacy, and the perspectives of local activists and sexual minorities

If gay identities in Africa occur within an interplay between local, interregional, and global discourses, what about the origins of homophobia and anti-gay hysteria?  A recent documentary God Loves Uganda (2013), blames antigay hysteria on a group of evangelical preachers who, frustrated with the progression of LGBTQ rights in the United States, took their crusades to Uganda, where they found more support for their ideas. While the film received critical praise, some scholars have criticized its portrayal of homophobia in Africa as unfair, particularly its portrayal of Ugandan church-goers as hapless recipients of Western bigotry. A recent manuscript by Marc Epprecht (2013) challenges the totality of homophobia in African culture, while historicizing its origins and manifestation in recent political discourse. While anti-gay legislation and violence towards sexual minorities makes headlines, sexual minorities across Africa have struggled for and won everyday victories concerning their legal rights, health, and dignity without receiving the same degree of attention from the Western press. Epprecht also contextualizes homophobia within changing political economies and debates over the role of the state. “Attacks on sexual minorities in the name of national or African or traditional values,” he argues, are “often also only thinly veiled attacks on feminism, gender equality and religious and other civil freedoms generally.” Epprecht, a historian, views homophobia as derived from nuanced historical processes, rather than as a sudden mania—fanned by corrupt U.S preachers—or as a demarcation of intrinsic cultural modernism.

As Western LGBTQ activists have made substantial political gains in the United States and western Europe, they are now extending their advocacy to other regions of the world. Their efforts put them in contact with local sexual minorities and activists who situate their work and identities within their own cultural contexts.  Recent scholarship has sought to confront these trends, by emphasizing the importance of history, locality, and culture to shape the experiences of sexual minorities in Africa. Literature on these topics is still sparse, but will surely increase in light of anti-homosexuality laws and LGBTQ activism across Africa. Existing scholarship, however, provides useful resources to understanding homophobia in Africa, and the experiences of African sexual minorities. By understanding the complexities of sexuality in Africa, and the driving historical causes of homophobia, scholars, activists, and supporters of sexual minorities can engage these issues in Africa in ways that are nuanced, empathetic, and culturally sensitive.

Caleb Owen is a Ph.D candidate in African history at Michigan State University (East Lansing). His research examines issue of land use debates, leisure, and gender in urban Kenya. He is currently the Assistant Editor for the H-Net Book Channel

Recommended Readings

Aarmo, Margrete. "How Homosexuality Became 'Un-African': The Case of Zimbabwe." In Same-Sex Relations and Female Desires: Transgender Practices Across Cultures, edited by Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, 255-80. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Cameron, Edwin, and Mark Gevisser, editor. Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa. New York: Routledge, 1995

Epprecht, Marc. Hungochani The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013

---------------Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Gaudio, Rudolf Pell. Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Hoad, Neville Wallace, Karen Martin, and Graeme Reid. Sex and Politics in South Africa. Cape Town: Double Storey, 2005

Kendall. "Women in Lesotho and the (Western) Construction of Homophobia." In Same-Sex Relations and Female Desires: Transgender Practices Across Cultures, edited by Evelyn Blackwood and Saskia E. Wieringa, 157-78. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Morgan, Ruth Zilla, and Saskia Wieringa. Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa. Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2005.

Murray, Stephen O., and Will Roscoe, editors. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Reid, Graeme. How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South Africa. South Africa: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2013.


Editor's note: A recent review on the H-Histsex network of the volume Sexual Diversity in Africa: Politics, Theory, and Citizenship, edited by S. N. Nyeck and Marc Epprecht (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013), may be of interest to readers of this essay.