By Blessing-Miles Tendi
Zimbabwe’s Sunday Mail newspaper, which is controlled by Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party, ran an article last week headlined “Gay rights furore”. It claimed that “Zimbabwe’s major political parties are on a collision course over the inclusion of gay rights in the new constitution” because Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC is campaigning for the recognition of gay rights, while Zanu PF is against the idea for cultural reasons.
In turn Tsvangirai’s MDC has denounced what it regards as “attempts by Zanu PF to distort the MDC constitution principles through media reports that the party is lobbying for gay rights in the new constitution:
Â Â Â “Nowhere in our principles document is there any reference to gays and lesbians. For the record, it is well-known that homosexuality is practised in Zanu PF where senior officials from that party have been jailed while others are under police probe on allegations of sodomy. It is in Zanu PF where homosexuality is a religion.”
Zanu PF and the MDC’s use of the gay rights debate for political mileage and in order to deflect attention from other subjects are superficial explanations for these homophobic political developments. They are symptomatic of a broad disinclination for open and factual discussion about gay rights in many African states and black communities around the world. Myths about African culture, the strength of religion and black masculinity are the main reasons.
The standard explanation offered by Africans opposed to gay rights is that homosexuality is alien to their culture and was introduced to Africa by European colonialists. A good deal of African-American homophobia relies on the same justification. But late 19th-century records on Africa and African oral history show that homosexual practices existed in pre-colonial Africa. One case in point are the Azande people in the north-east of modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where it was acceptable for kings, princes and soldiers to take young male lovers.
Further evidence for the existence of homosexuality is that pre-colonial African ethnic groups ascribed tribal classifications to gay people. While some of these categorisations had negative associations, many had neutral connotations. Certain tribes in pre-colonial Burkina Faso and South Africa regarded lesbians as astrologers and traditional healers. A number of tribal groups in Cameroon and Gabon believed homosexuality had a medicinal effect. In pre-colonial Benin, homosexuality was viewed as a boyhood phase that males passed through and eventually grew out of.
Indeed, European contact altered some pre-colonial African attitudes towards homosexuality considerably. For instance, early colonial Portuguese penal codes criminalised homosexuality in Angola. Prior to Portuguese control, homosexual men called chibados had been free to exercise their sexuality. Portuguese colonial laws either gave rise to or intensified homophobia in Africa. Homophobia is more colonial than the practice of homosexuality in Africa. The contradiction could not be starker.
Moreover, it is wrong to claim that nowadays the west campaigns for gay rights in Africa. In fact, the American evangelical right invests as much financial and advocacy effort in influencing religious Africans to shun gay rights as do pro-gay rights western non-governmental organisations working in Africa.
Along with the moralisms of Traditional African religions, Christianity and Islam â€“ which were brought to Africa by European missionaries and Arab traders respectively â€“ facilitated homophobia because they regard homosexuality as sin. Today religion shapes many African and African-American social and political designs. Churches in Africa are major players in the production of homophobia. In black America, churches are the most dominant homophobic institutions. Not all African and African-American churches, however, are intolerant to homosexuals.
The response of many Africans and African-Americans to European colonialism, racism and slavery was the construction of a black masculinity pitted against white supremacy. The enduring legacy of this is that black Africans and African-Americans often interpret homosexuals and white males alike as synonymous with femininity and vulnerability.
From my experience as a black boy growing up in a white Zimbabwean neighbourhood and during my higher education in the west, I am all too conscious of how my masculinity is partly formed by continuing racial stereotypes of black men as sexually rapacious solely towards women. There is no scope for black male homosexuality in this pigeonhole. Little surprise sex between black men is ridiculed and criminalised more than sex between black women in African and African-American communities.
Black Africans and African-Americans must address constructions of their masculinity, the myth that pre-colonial Africa was exclusively heterosexual and anti-homosexual attitudes emanating from religion if they are to rise above homophobia.Â The Guardian (UK)
Blessing-Miles Tendi is a researcher and freelance writer on contemporary Zimbabwean politics.