Explaining African Homophobia?

In a recent article on “African homophobia,” Madeleine Bunting opens with the claim that there is “rightly huge concern and anger in the west at the recent increased homophobia in Africa.” This inauspicious opening leads to a series of claims that purport to explain “African homophobia.” I have no doubt that Ms. Bunting has good intentions, but I want to respond to her article as a Kenyan intellectual and as a scholar trained in gender and sexuality, in short, as precisely the kind of African intellectual whose presence is sorely lacking from her article.

We might begin with the expression of concern that opens the article, and that strange word “rightly.” I am puzzled at why there is “rightly huge concern and anger in the west” about homophobia. Puzzled because “the west” has been “rightly” concerned about everything in Africa for as long as I can remember: women’s roles, AIDS, polygamy, corruption, disease, hunger.

Being “rightly” concerned is, as far as I can tell, a full time occupation where Africa is concerned. To be western, Ms. Bunting suggests, is to have “the right” to be concerned and angry about what happens in Africa. 40 years after African’s independence from colonialism, I remain puzzled at what gives “the west” any rights over Africa. And because I am an intellectual, I wonder at Ms. Bunting’s need to posit an autonomous “west” against a knowable “Africa,” even after more than 30 years of scholarship that has emphasized the cross-hybridization of these two spaces.

Because Ms. Bunting is somewhat responsible, she tells us that it is impossible to generalize about Africa. And then proceeds to do just that, claiming that such a stance is possible if one has “spent any time in Africa or with Africans.” “Any” time allows Ms. Bunting to speak with authority about the “vast majority of Africans.” How much time is any time? Does it even matter? All those poor Africanists who spend years learning languages and working in remote fields to write books and articles have clearly wasted their time because one only needs to spend “any time” in Africa or with Africans to tell a story about the continent.

Ms. Bunting’s evidence about African homophobia? A half-remembered conversation in a chaotic noisy restaurant with African professionals. Why, based on such evidence, one can make all kinds of generalizations about everyone. At dinner tonight in Silver Spring, Maryland, in a loud crowded bar, I overheard a young white man exclaim how much he loathes immigrants. Based on this, I can only conclude that white men across the U.S. hate immigrants.

Given the article’s authoritative tone, I would have assumed that, at the very least, Ms. Bunting would take the time to read the body of activist and scholarly work available on African homosexualities and African homophobia, much of which lives online. Had she bothered, she might have found the long-standing website Behind the Mask, which offers a range of resources and reports on Africa. She might have discovered the erudite scholar writer Sokari Ekine whose blog is a historical and scholarly resource. A little digging might have turned up Feminist Africa , which has devoted special issues to questions of sexuality in Africa, including a moving article by Uganda-based professor Sylvia Tamale.

If Ms. Bunting had cared to actually study her subject, she might have discovered scholarly monographs by South African Neville Hoad and Canadian Marc Epprecht, both of which offer nuanced, historically grounded analyses of homosexual and homophobic practices and discussions in Africa.

If, indeed, Ms. Bunting did look at these sources, and I want to be generous, then she chose to ignore them, and that, sadly, happens all too often with scholarship on Africa and by Africans.

Simply, Ms. Bunting seems unwilling to admit that such a thing as Africanist scholarship exists or that African intellectuals have anything substantive to say. Instead, a half-remembered conversation in a “noisy” and “chaotic” space grounds her argument. Shaky foundations indeed.

We learn from Ms. Bunting that African homophobia, which apparently is more virulent than homophobia anywhere else in the world, stems from power-hungry preachers and emasculated men. I was surprised to learn that religious positions are “one of the most competitive and lucrative career options for upwardly mobile Africans.” One could say much the same thing about U.S. mega-churches or positions in the Vatican.

I was similarly surprised to learn of the “rapid and chaotic African urbanization” that strains African kinship relations. Surprised because African urbanization has been going on for over a century and because all urbanization is rapid and chaotic. I am not sure I understand what is especially “chaotic,” an adjective Bunting seems to love, about “African urbanization.”

But the real problem is the African man. He feels emasculated by the west. He does not like condoms. And he must produce children to prove that he is a man. Poor African men, so atavistic in their longings, so unable to inhabit the truly progressive forms of masculinity available in the west. Where there are African men, there is sure to be homophobia, and no condoms.

This mish-mash of speculations and partial observations might have some value, but it is limited and, frankly, insulting to those of us African intellectuals who have actually devoted time to thinking and writing about homosexuality and homophobia in Africa.

As an African intellectual, I am insulted by what passes for knowledge about Africa. As a queer intellectual, I am disgusted by the nonsense that passes for truth about Africa. As a scholar and a thinker, I am disheartened that the work we African scholars and thinkers do is continually made invisible by “experts” like Ms. Bunting.

10 thoughts on “Explaining African Homophobia?

  1. So why the homophobia?

    Why call do many (well, at least in Kenya) call homosexuality ‘foreign’ based on judeo-christian which is an imported concept in most of Africa?

  2. Point taken. But as a queer whowantstocontiuneto work in East Africa I would be interested to hear how you view the recent increase in expressions of homophobia and how we can be most supportive to our gay and lesbian peers.

  3. While I understand that you may have some issues with her methodology but you don’t address whether the conclusion reached is so-far off the mark.

  4. To answer in quick, though not elaborate, succession.

    Coldtusker: Why does homophobia exist? I am not sure there is any single answer to this question. It is clear from my reading, however, that it is not unique to Africa and is not uniquely tied to colonialism or urbanization, as Bunting might suggest. We do need more nuanced analysis of how national and ethnic and class and gender politics affect our ideas and practices of sexuality. And some of the links I provide above help to flesh out this story. I would especially recommend the articles from Feminist Africa.

    I have myself argued, elsewhere on this blog, that homosexuality is an imported idea. And by this I mean I take very seriously the academic work that has traced how homosexuality emerges as a concept in Europe at a very particular time, moving from being simply practices to identity, a primary way individuals conceive of themselves. It is not clear to me that the homosexual/heterosexual binary was central to how many Africans conceived of their relationships to the world. But this idea needs more nuance, and we need to be more attuned to local histories and cultures. And so my challenge to you is to read about diverse cultures across Africa and see what picture emerges.

    Kiprop: I have little faith that anything African intellectuals say gets taken seriously in the west, especially by so-called experts on Africa. It is an ongoing battle, and a tedious one.

    Hladd: learn from local queers. Listen to them, figure out how you can help them and extend their work. Be critical, but also realize local needs always come first and make the most sense. To be clear, I am not opposed to work in Africa and on Africa by non-Africans, as I hope my citation of Marc Epprecht makes clear. I am opposed to sloppy generalizations that ignore African activists and intellectuals. Because I am an intellectual, I am especially opposed to work that erases any sense that Africans think about the world in complex, nuanced ways.

    Swandiver: the article is sloppy. And its generalizations are laughable. One could say the same thing about homophobia anywhere in the world. It emerges from the depredations of capitalism; it reflects religious fundamentalism; it is tied to the alienation of modernity; it expresses class resentments. All of these statements are pretty much true across the globe. What is specific about Africa? Or, to be more precise, what can she point to in a specific country in Africa? What kinds of histories and cultures are involved? Do we have to actually know anything about a place, its people, its languages, its politics, its histories, before we can make generalizations?

    It is not that her article is unique. It is that it is tediously familiar.

    Are her conclusions “accurate”? To my mind, they read very much like saying most food has flavor. True only in the most banal and useless way.

    Her expressions of solidarity with African queers might have been more convincing had she bothered to actually cite or talk to any of them.

  5. It is slightly surreal that African intellectuals find themselves still responding to the same old hoary carcass after all these years: others do not understand that Africans think, sometimes quite well, even. The mask of earnest good will never completely hides the determination to maintain the inarticulate, inexpressive African. The desire traces its own pathos, really. As of course do the supporting economies of knowledge which bestow “expertise” on this studied non-listening posture. Shutting their eyes, plugging their ears with their fingers and murmuring loudly to themselves to prevent the possibility of accidentally hearing what Africans might have to say on the matter, or indeed, to avoid the threatening leakage of nuance or complexity into their sensibility, from whatever source. Suggestive.

  6. Well, you probably shouldn’t take Ms Bunting too seriously. She wasn’t writing a scholarly essay. Her MO is to take an issue of the day and pull her opinions from her arse.

  7. Dr. Zen,

    The problem has little to do with Bunting’s qualifications and is, instead, about the public nature of her work. Many of the comments that followed her article were willing, all too willing, to believe her general claims. And while I accept that more discerning readers will conduct their own independent research, I cannot expect that to happen.

    As my good friend WM keeps reminding me, African intellectuals attempt to engage publics who are often too eager to accept easy generalizations about a space that is complex and diverse. We keep insisting on that diversity, even when we want to move on (and do move on) to more interesting intellectual and aesthetic projects.

  8. Homophobia seems to exist simply because humans, especially those in poor or stressed situations, don’t extend their humanity to “others” very often … especially small internal minorities. That, and gender / sex always seems a dicy topic.

  9. Jake,

    By that characterization, we all live in proximity to homophobia, precisely because we are all prone to stress, if not certain kinds of poverty, not least of the imagination.

    I am wary of linking ethics, understood as extending or granting humanity to others, and economic well being. Of course it exists–shared resources that create comfortable lives enable ways of living–but there is also and always a conservative push back from those invested in reproducing social hierarchies of hetero-privilege, and the most successful at reproducing such hierarchies are often comfortable, if not privileged.

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