queer, thinking

African Queer Studies

The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.
—Saidiya Hartman

Like many other book-reading people, my path into queerness was as much intellectual as it was libidinal. In my Christian “youth,” I devoured articles in evangelical publications about the “scourge” of homosexuality. My body had yet to catch up with my brain, so I understood this as a purely intellectual exercise. After all, the anti-Christ was a “homosexual,” and so one had to learn as much as possible about this condition to combat it—the conflation is deliberate. The only other sources of information were my mother’s 1970s psychology textbooks, which had nothing good to say about “the vice.”

My exit from Kenya and entry into a U.S. university allowed for questions I did not know I had to find expression. The B&N in downtown Pittsburgh had a small, but exciting, Lesbian and Gay section, where I acquired my first copies of Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, Patrick Merla’s Boys Like Us, Kate Bornstein’s Gender Warrior, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Andrew Tobias’s The Best Little Boy in the World, and Gordon Merrick’s The Lord Won’t Mind. I don’t recall now whether it was in downtown Pittsburgh or in Squirrel Hill where I also picked up E. Lynn Harris, Thom Gunn, James Earl Hardy, and the life-saving Gay and Lesbian Poetry of Our Time edited by Carl Morse and Joan Larkin. Other anthologies followed. And a RuPaul autobiography!

Once I’d finally found the courage, I started to haunt the surprisingly useful LGBT section at the Catholic university I attended. One had to tread warily, to make sure no one was looking, to look away as books were being checked out. If B&N provided narrative and poetic foundations, the library began to fill these out across time and space. A partial list of names: Eve Sedgwick, John Bosworth, David Greenberg, Karla Jay, Diana Fuss, Kaja Silverman, Jonathan Dollimore, Judith Butler, Alan Bray, Alan Sinfield, Stephen Murray, Judy Grahn, George Chauncey, Jr. And all of this created—or coincided with—other hungers for more familiar geographies, for the black and postcolonial, if not for the African.

It was the black and postcolonial that started making trouble.

Two brief articles on African “homosexualities” stand out in memory: a survey of African homosexualities by Wayne Dynes, with the subtitle “An Unnecessary Controversy,” and an essay by Deborah Amory arguing for the importance of same-sex research in African studies. Dynes provided a bibliography of (mostly) colonial-era ethnographic sources that, he claimed, demonstrated the presence of same-sex relations in Africa. Whereas I could discuss the Molly houses in Alan Bray’s England with great facility, the contested meanings of same-sex acts in the Medieval period with some confidence thanks to Bosworth, and even the legislative shifts, class contests, and English-Irish disputes that led to Wilde’s imprisonment, Dyne’s cursory method left me with little-to-nothing. I do not contest the usefulness of bibliographies; I do object to the tone of “An Unnecessary Controversy,” which presumes the undisputed truth value of the bibliographic sources.

Since she provided the language, let me use Kath Weston’s words:

In the international arena, the “salvage anthropology” of indigenous homosexualities remains largely insulated from important new theoretical work on postcolonial relations. The story is a familiar one in the annals of the discipline: well-meaning ethnographers rush out to record “traditional” practices and rituals before the latter change or disappear. At their worst, these efforts repackage colonial discourse (e.g. “primitive” societies) for consumption by Anglo-European audiences. At their best, they resurrect the vision of the Noble Savage living in a Noble Society that provides an honored place for at least some forms of transgendering or same-sex sexual activity.[1]

Weston’s 1993 critique is still urgently needed as Dynes’s “method” of uncritically citing colonial-era records has been widely adopted across academic and activist spaces. The routine citations of “x ethnic group embraced sexual/gender dissidence” continue to reproduce ethno-national, a-contextual versions of Africa and African knowledge. Often lacking from such discussions is an awareness, or even interest, in the Africanist scholarship describing the making of ethno-nationalist groups during colonial modernity (in Kenya, the work of Bethwell Ogot, Gideon Were, Tabitha Kanogo); the geo-historical shifts in the meanings of gender and sexuality under colonial modernity (discussed by Oyewumi, Amadiume, Nzweku among others); and the limitations of colonial-era ethnography (discussed by many people, including Talal Asad, Maxwell Owusu, and Johannes Fabian). Of even less interest to various advocates of this method is the notion that African diversities exist: while some populations may have embraced forms of sexual and gender dissidence, others might not. How might such distinctions be analytically useful?

In contrast to Dynes’s polemic, Amory’s brief survey of a still-emergent field imagined Queer Africa (still known as “homosexual Africa”) as a problem to be considered, one whose consideration would draw on the “importance of situated knowledges,” emphasizing “the emergence of specific discourses and representations (including academic theories) within their historical and political contexts of production.”[2] It detailed the exigencies and contexts of the research—the growth and spread of “political homophobia” in Africa, the quotidian violence directed against gays and lesbians in Africa, and the “emergence of post-colonial gay and lesbian identities and liberation movements around the world.” In a characterization of African Queer studies that still holds true, Amory writes, “What we are witnessing, then, are two related but distinct developments in African Studies (and around the world): one branch of research documents and theorizes diverse African histories of sexuality and gender, while another articulates emerging postcolonial liberation movements organized around lesbian and gay identities and rights.” Today, we might ask about the relationship between liberation-minded and neoliberal models of queer organizing in Africa.

The one, troubling note on which Dynes and Amory agreed was that “homophobia,” not “homosexuality,” had been “brought” to Africa by colonialism or, put more aptly, institutionalized through colonial bureaucratic procedures. This claim runs through much activist and academic literature by key figures including Sylvia Tamale, Marc Epprecht, and Neville Hoad. This claim is true to the extent that the archives of colonial bureaucracy are much more accessible than, say, what is now considered “customary law” or “tradition” across a range of African groups.[3] And, certainly, if we are to speak across the nation-wide and state-wide prohibitions against homosexuality, we must turn, first, to the colonial documents that imagined and forged the bounded territories we now describe as countries. And, even when we turn to “customary law,” or even “African philosophy,” we must contend with the processes of (often missionary) education, whether explicit in the sense that writers attended missionary schools or implicit in the sense that missionaries were instrumental in translating and transcribing many African languages and concepts. While I understand (and value) the polemical work of this claim—that “homophobia, not homosexuality” is a western import—its repetition, to the point where it’s dogma now, is, frankly, irritating. It is ahistorical and untheorized.

To preview a later argument: if African studies is to learn anything from Foucault’s History of Sexuality, it surely must be that a deeply genealogical method is needed to understand how certain figures become imbued with, and represent, the intimate anxieties of their geo-histories. Focusing on the acceptability of homosexual acts and identities leaves unexplored other histories of intimate dissidence and policing. African queer histories are impoverished by this inattention to specific histories of unlivability and disposability.

By no means am I claiming that Dynes and Amory were the first to write on queer Africa. Simply, they are the names that stuck in my mind. Also, I read them because they spoke about a somewhat familiar geography. I was interested in Queer studies, but I had charted a different path that went through Frank O’Hara and Jack Spicer and ended with Reginald Shepherd and Carl Philips.

When I finally turned to African Queer studies in grad school—in part because an earlier trajectory had proved impossible—it was with a different sense of the labor. By that point, the schism between LGBTI studies and Queer studies had widened considerably, so much so that they might have been speaking different languages—often, they were. My interest in psychoanalysis had deepened. Under the influence of my advisors, and because I had access to an amazing library, I had become newly interested in the problem of the archive. With a mass of new key terms—intimacy, public, colonial modernity, subjectification, allochrony—and with new (to me) scholarship to build on by Neville Hoad, Rudi Bleys, Megan Vaughan, Gaurav Desai, Siobhan Somerville (at the time, I was also in a year-long postcolonial reading group led by Ania Loomba that incarnated true interdisciplinarity), I turned to sexology’s archives. The shape of the previous sentence, with all its awkward embedding and squashing tries to convey the immense rush (excitement and headache) of this moment. Fabian and Hoad and Loomba had taught me how to ask about the developmental logics and scales that defined “the human.” The African appeared in sexology’s archives as hypo- and hyper-developed: too uncivilized to be homosexual, a condition that afflicted the “over-civilized” races, and too excessively bodily not to be queer (the too-large penises, too-large clitorises, too much appetite). Broadly, Africa appeared in the sexological archives Foucault had used, the archives on which much Queer studies depended. To his four categories—the homosexual, the masturbating child, the hysterical woman, and the Malthusian couple—one could very easily have added “the primitive.”

How had this “fifth” figure escaped Queer theory’s gaze? How had the foundational works that built on Foucault simply ignored this figure? And, if it was to be used, how was it to be used?

One might argue that the figure of the “primitive” or “savage,” to the extent that it was enfleshed in captured, enslaved, and destroyed bodies, made unhuman through the logics of accumulation, fungibility, and dispossession, could not allow many of the fictions of Queer studies to exist. What, after all, is an identitarian/anti-identitarian or anti-social/communitarian claim when applied to the unhuman?

Again, I get ahead of myself.

Those entering Queer African studies now encounter a richly conceived field shaped by multiple collaborations among artists, activists, and academics. The recently published Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas, models a continent-wide and diasporic example of this work. It follows similar anthologies from South Africa, including Sex and Politics in South Africa, edited by Graeme Reid, Neville Hoad, and Karen Martin. As it travels through popular culture, legal cultures, life narratives, organizational politics, and the politics of representation, it models the ethics of dissensus, as contributors debate the pasts, presents, and futures of queer (the term is also debated) lives, politics, and aesthetics. We might say that in this volume, peer review emerges not as a silent (invisible) background, but as vigorous, visible conversation. Amending myself, I’d now say that “theory” is enacted as practice—the academic in me would still have liked/would like to see some of these theoretical stakes outlined more clearly, but this is a deeply theorized volume.

In what might be considered the “homosexual-focused” branch of African Queer studies, Neville Hoad has offered what I consider the defining statement of this scholarship:

“homosexuality” is one of the many imaginary contents, fantasies, or significations (sometimes in the negative, sometimes not) that circulate in the production of African sovereignties and identities in their representations by Africans and others[4]

As I wrote in a review of the book, “This claim re-visions V. Y. Mudimbe’s classic argument on the ‘invention’ of Africa by emphasizing the foundational role of embodied, intimate practices.” Hoad’s argument has gained in strength since African Intimacies was published, as Nigeria, Uganda, and now Kenya have proposed or passed legislation defining national and African identity against “homosexuality.” Even as “homosexuality” floats as a contested term in much of this legislation. One notes, for instance, that the law has invented a punishable category known as “the intention to commit homosexuality,” where, ostensibly, desire, or what it “read as desire,” is punishable.[5]

Hoad’s literary and cultural scholarship joins work by Jarrod Hayes on the Maghreb, Brenna Munro on South Africa, and, Chantal Zabus on Africa. In sociology and anthropology—more broadly ethnographic approaches—books by Zethu Matebeni, Ashley Currier, Amanda Swarr, and Rudy Gaudio detail life stories, community formations, and political organizing. Located squarely in history, Marc Epprecht’s Hungochani is the finest historical study of southern African homosexualities. This, I must note, is a rather idiosyncratic sampling of an increasing body of work. In privileging book-length works, I have left out important scholarship by Lindsey Green-Simms, Unoma Azuah, Desiree Lewis, T.J. Tallie, Xavier Livermon, Serena Dankwa, Robert Lorway (who has a forthcoming book on Namibia), Sikhumbuzo Mngadi, Thabo Mbisi, Zackie Achmat, and Vasu Reddy. The South-Africa-based journals Agenda and Feminist Africa continue to support a range of queer-themed scholarship.

Let me emphasize again that this is a fairly idiosyncratic list. (Yes, I see you Cheryl Stobie and Henriette Gunkel.)

Rather schematically, the list is dominated by scholars who work on South Africa or southern Africa. So much so, that Queer Africa is too easily conflated with Queer South Africa. Or, as I suggest in work that I’m tired of trying to get published, two notions of Africa emerge: the homophilic South Africa and the homophobic elsewhere. (Brenna Munro’s book is exemplary in contesting the notion of a homophilic South Africa; but because it’s set in South Africa, it simply produces South Africa as both homophilic and homophobic.) My sense is that this focus on South Africa has taken on a disciplinary lens, or, more aptly, a framing lens: scholarship that does not follow a certain South African framing—a focus on legislation, the role of the nation, the post-apartheid racial stakes—simply becomes illegible. (For instance, I’m yet to see any work that considers the place of ethnicity and inter-ethnic negotiations around sexuality.)

My other sense is that Queer African studies has yet to grapple with its theoretical foundations. On the one hand, theoretical questions emerge from the archives we engage. And so I note that archived are still being assembled. At the same time, I worry about the ease with which certain white figures of Queer studies are taken up or discarded while Black Queer studies is rarely engaged. (Some of this, I suspect, stems from the U.S.-centric nature of Black Queer studies, but surely that limitation should also apply to foundational work in Queer studies. And, I would add, we need a conversation between Queer African studies and Queer Caribbean studies. These conversations happen informally—we certainly read each other—but we have yet to figure out where to meet in conceptual space.)
*
And, so, a turn. I’m going to try to learn from (mainstream) Queer studies and Black Queer studies (especially in its diasporic and Caribbean forms) to pose some theoretical questions African Queer studies might want to ask at some point. Perhaps idiosyncratically, I’m going to privilege African philosophy as a place from which to ask these questions.
*
Feminism and Postcolonial studies were my first encounters with the “problem” of the human. Did the “human” include “women” and the “less civilized races”? These are the questions that drew me (and keep me) in Black Diaspora studies and Queer studies, both of which, in their most radical (at the root) articulations, continue to ask how the human is envisioned and how the human can be re-envisioned. What notion of the human, for instance, is invoked in “human rights”? What version of the human circulates in mainstream ontology? What versions of the human ground disciplinary and interdisciplinary formations? What genealogies and genres of the human are in play when Africa is invoked?

The argument that colonial modernity introduced homophobia rather than homosexuality into African cultures is often based on troubling ethnographic evidence, as I have already said. Repetition is not bad. The peculiar taxonomic gaze that always already knows how to see Africa has been so dominated by particular categories of sexual and gender dissidence: difference (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, intersex) that it has not stopped to ask how else genealogies of African sexual and gender dissidence might be read within Africanist paradigms of personhood. As philosopher Leke Adeofe asks, “What is a person in the African view?”[6]

(I shall avoid going down the Blyden/Mbiti route as I’ve been there several times. I shall note, only, that their work remains foundational to African philosophy.)

In a widely cited (and debated) statement, Ifeanyi Menkiti argues, “personhood is the sort of thing which has to be achieved, the sort of thing at which individuals could fail.”[7] Complementing Menkiti, Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani argues, “the important question is not at what point in time an individual becomes a person, but rather what constitutes the completeness of humanhood.”[8] Several terms are in play here: individual, person, human, achievement, failure, and completeness. To these, we must add the dynamic between individual and community, or what Blyden would term “duty.” Segun Gbadegesin writes, A person whose existence and personality are dependent on the community is expected in turn to contribute to the continued existence of the community. . . . The crown of personal life is to be useful to one’s community. The meaning of one’s life is therefore measured by one’s commitment to social ideals and communal existence.[9] Across many philosophers, this “commitment to social ideals and communal existence” is measured in intimate terms. Thus, representing many other positions, Kwasi Wireu summarizes, “being married with children well raised is part of the necessary conditions for personhood in the normative sense. A non-marrying, non-procreative person, however normal otherwise—not to talk of a Casanova equivalent—can permanently forget any prospect of this type of recognition in traditional Akan society. The only conceivable exceptions will be ones based on the noblest of alternative life commitments.”[10] Now, to some extent, I’ve stacked the deck. Producing out-of-context quotations to prove a point is wildly irresponsible. That said, a remarkable consistency emerges across a range of African philosophers working across Akan philosophy, Yoruba philosophy, Igbo philosophy, the Sotho-based Ubuntu philosophy, and Luo philosophy about the centrality of hetero-reproduction in conferring “full” personhood.

Given what we know about the range of diverse arrangements across Africa through which hetero-reproduction could happen—here, Nkiru Nzwegu’s scholarship on woman-woman marriage among the Igbo is exemplary, as she explains how a woman could marry another woman, who would then take a male lover to impregnate her—we might need to ask, more deeply, what constitutes intimate failure. What figures incarnated the intimate anxieties:failures we now associate with the queer? What figures “failed” to achieve “full” personhood? In my cursory reading (okay, some quite extensive), a few figures keep cropping up. One study claims that bachelors could exist because their married status depended on their economic status, but that “spinsters” were unthinkable. Other work singles out loners as “cursed people.” While yet other work speaks about people with disabilities. In an African studies still dominated by the importance of communitarianism and kinship, we might ask about the figures who fail to appear on genealogical trees and the figures who fail to repopulate those trees. Paying particular attention to how diverse communities organize their senses of self and community, confer personhood and status, we might look for those figures excluded from these designations.

By no means is what I’m suggesting easy. And, in fact, it would trouble the genealogies of African queerness that so many of us want to claim for political reasons. Asking contemporary queer movements to trace their histories not to same-sex desiring ancestors but to histories of intimate failure and incomplete personhood, that is, to histories of disposability, seems unhelpful, if not destructive. And, perhaps, that is not what I’m suggesting. At the very least, I am suggesting that a theorized African Queer studies should account, in some way, for the various intellectual genealogies of personhood and intimacy found within Africanist thinking.


[1] Kath Weston, “Lesbian/Gay Studies in the House of Anthropology,” Annual Review of Anthropology 22(1993):344-45. It’s worth clarifying that Dynes is not an ethnographer.

[2] Deborah P. Amory, “’Homosexuality’ in Africa: Issues and Debates,” Issue 25.1 (1997). Amory’s “‘Mashoga, Mabasha, and Magai’: Homosexuality on the East African Coast” remains a model of careful scholarship, attentive to place and history.

[3] As philosopher Nkiru Nzwegu points out, much of what is now called “customary law” emerges from the collusion between colonial-era ethnographers, bureaucrats, and the male leaders who were presumed to be in authority because of the patriarchal frames presumed by colonial authorities.

[4] Neville Hoad, African Intimacies

[5] The question of how this “desire” is to be read must be asked.

[6] Leke Adeofe, “Personal Identity in African Metaphysics”

[7] Ifeanyi A. Menkiti, “On the Normative Conception of a Person”

[8] Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, “African Conceptions of a Person: A Critical Survey”

[9] Segun Gbadegesin, “Ènìyàn: The Yoruba Concept of a Person”

[10] Kwasi Wiredu, “The Moral Foundations of an African Culture”