What is a lesbian?

By Kagure Mugo/@tiffmugo

‘What is lesbian now?’

With this phrase you feel the need to begin explaining to your grandmother about ‘queer theory’ and the diffusion of human rights and international instruments that hold states accountable to macro obligations.

Problem is these terms and phrases mean nothing to her.

You try to tell her about Foucault and ‘theories of identity’ and she asks you if ‘Foucault is your husband’. Suddenly all those hours spent in a lecture hall doing third year gender seem powerless against the sheer titanium force that are the gates of her mind, a mind-set tempered by 80 plus years of a world view informed by culture and a hint of goat herding.

You look her dead in the eyes and your only answer is ‘no’ and hers is to shrug and say ‘see? All that education and you are alone.’

Except you are not.

You have a wonderful girlfriend of three years, but the conversation has already died a premature death. And in your heart, even as a gender student living within the African shores, you aren’t completely sure what queer theory actually entails.

So the question is: how does one curb issues of homophobia and move towards a place of acceptance?

The key is in changing the narrative as well as who tells the story.

The matter of homophobia and the lack of acceptance of alternative sexualities within the continent is based, pure and simple, on the notion that all Africans are straight.

We are not bent or even slightly crooked.

We are straight-laced ‘God Fearing Folk’ trying to populate our beautiful land through the holy union of man and woman. Anything outside of this does not form part of the African identity and is therefore to be cast into the dark night where Satan and his minions live.

African identity and what is deemed to fit into this framework is what is key.

When people come together it is a question of what it means to be a part of ‘the group’; what gets you a ticket in or what gets the bouncer at the door giving you the ‘keep it moving’ stare down. Questions of what it means to be a feminist, a white African, gay, a worker, a leader.

The question is what is it that lets you into the collective, do you fit the criteria? The problem with alternative sexualities is that when these make up part of your identity you do not tick the right boxes to make you ‘African’.

However ‘Homosexuality’ has been here far longer than homophobia. This argument is not new but it is little known. Documented as early as the 16th Century, homoerotic acts have been present on the continent. These acts and same-sex practices were present in Africa for a whole host of reasons: spiritual, economic and even just plain sexual. These practices were placed within the realms of rituals, sacred practices or even secret spaces and designated social roles.

Anthropologists within the colonial period found alternative sexualities on the continent and silenced and ignored them by arguing that homosexuality was for modern and civilised nations that understood pleasure.

It was merely another thing that we could not understand being far too close to nature.

African erotic and sexuality was wildly changed by the colonial landscape both through its ‘science’ and religion bringing us to a point where nothing but confusion and only a fuzzy memory of what came before are left.

capturing-love-gay-lesbian-wedding-kat-forder-photographyA point where we misunderstand and fear sexuality so much we attack same sex couples and strip women in the streets in the name of morality. We have concreted the idea of what we are based on a turbulent abusive history.

On of the major problems with arguing that being a ‘lesbian’ is African may also be because that ‘hard’ label does not take into cognisance the intricacies of past histories and present realities of sexuality on the continent. Problems of self-identification can be seen in the fact that so many within the LGBTI community dress and act like their western (mainly American) counterparts furthering the notion to others (and I suspect themselves) that homosexuality is Un-African.

With seemingly nothing to turn to here, we look out there.

It would seem that for many there is little engagement with the idea that there is a sexuality within the continent other than ‘straight’ but is not necessarily ‘gay’. Its something that we should explore and find out what it looks like here.

Articulating to your 80 year old grandmother what a lesbian is whilst looking like Ellen De Generes will not help matters. If one is to change the narrative then one needs to conceptualise what the African sexual identity is and not import one from outside and force people to accept this stranger.

It is this change in the way we speak about sexuality that needs to become the focus. Merely stating to people ‘homophobia is Un-African’ is not enough if alternative sexualities are then cloaked in language and notions that are foreign. The best and brightest amongst us need to take us back to the past and bring out what it means to be non-heterosexual and African, a past that very much existed.

If we are to tackle the damage done by the silence surrounding African sexuality (not just for alternative sexualities but heterosexuals as well) then we need to understand where we came from. We must also understand that we have the space and power as Africans to define ourselves, something we often fail to do within many realms be it the economic, the academic, the political or even the social.

Once we all understand our sexuality historically and, what this means in a current context, maybe we can all have a little more fun. All our best histories have been erased and silenced. Our time as philosophers, kings, pharaohs, economic powerhouses and erotic sexually aware sentient beings have been conveniently omitted. The constant call of an African identity and ‘things being our culture’ remains a laughable idea as long as so much of what we do is tied to various notions and ideas that came from very far away.

Plus explaining queer theory can be an extremely taxing process.

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For more on being LGBT in Africa check out Dare to call me lesbianAfrica: are we really just super gay?,  Homosexuality is ‘Un-African’ In pre-colonial Africa and Pre-colonial Igboland: Woman on Woman Marriage.



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So glad to see you back!

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