Decolonizing queerness: Reflections on the Queer African Revolution

By Gabriel Hoosain Khan

This is a long reflection on decolonizing ‪‎queer ‪activism in ‪Africa.

I was lucky to spend quite a bit of time at the 2016 Pan Africa Regional LGBTI Conference for Joburg, ‪(#‎PAI2016) conference hosted by Pan Africa ‪ILGA and ‪Iranti Org. Congratulations to the parties for putting it together because it was so amazing to connect with activist and organisations from across #Africa working to strengthen access to ‪‎Human Rights of ‪LGBTI people, and fighting against ‪transphobia, homophobia and ‪patriarchy. From Johannesburg to سوسة queer activist are doing a great deal in difficult and risky circumstances.

Thinking back to the various panels a key theme that stuck with me was a session on decolonizing queer on the African continent. The panel led by an amazing group of ‪‎black, queer, ‪‎trans and ‪feminist activist unpacked some of the tensions and possibilities of LGBTI activism on the continent.


In reflecting on LGBTI rights work on the continent – I realized that a lot of what we say seems contradictory. In the ways our strong (and justified) efforts to create visibility around sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) issues may allow us to be less critical of broader unfair practices (like sexism, transphobia, capitalism, racism etc.). Or in the ways in which we critique and buy into (existing) unfair relationships with donors as African civil society/ non-profit organisations.

I realized that this is due to the embedded nature of LGBTI rights work- embedded in a language (SOGI or LGBTI), a donor environment (rich states largely from the global north) and advocacy approach which is rooted in an unfair and polarised geopolitical dynamic. This dynamic being an unfair one in which states and people of the global south engage in economic/social and cultural relationships with states and peoples of north – which do not always benefit peoples and states of the south. These northern states also often being perpetrators of, or profiteers from colonialism.

The decolonisation argument is nothing new

I also realized that as South Africans – we are quite arrogant. In many ways we have come late to the conversation about decolonialisation. We have started talking about the decolonial project (again) recently. In our (new) conversation about the decolonial project – we forget to engage how this conversation has already played out and led to action/legislation in other parts of Africa, in South America, the Arab world and South Asia. When talking about decolonizing our ideas about SOGI or LGBTI in Africa – it is important to not only decentre the north, but to decentre‪ South Africa as well.


Of course I don’t deny that Africa has a long history of culturally sanctioned forms of same-sex love and gender diversity. I am asking that we address the implications of the euro-epistemic roots of the “homosexual”, “gay”, trangender” or even the “LGBTI”.

In beginning to think about the de-colonial project in Africa – queer might offer a useful starting point. There are two critiques of the usual de-colonial arguments.

Firstly, a decolonial argument can be reactionary in its critique of colonialism. As example of this may be the Pan-Arab construction of the “west” as a counterpoint to the “Arab”. Whilst the counterpoint created an alternative – this alternative was defined by it’s different to (the west), and it’s need to be a single point of difference. This single point, allowed for other differences in the form of minority cultures, language and religions to be erased or suppressed in this vision of the Arab world.

Secondly, a decolonial argument can be Romantic in its construction of the precolony. An example of this may be the construction of precolonial India in a manner which evades difficult questions about caste, religion and territorial tensions. This Romantic remembering and the associated evasion allows for articulations of current tensions to stop at the coloniser, and for “us” to evade our own responsibility. Queer might offer an alternate – in its implied critique of heteropatriarchy, and in its (creative) articulation of other ways of being (through performing, enacting or articulating something different)? I am wondering about this – how can queer be used in the decolonial project.

In moving the conversation about decolonizing queer in Africa – there needs to be a concerted effort to address and respond to language. And I wonder here (as I have shared previously) – what if we started the conversation with “homosexuality is unAfrica” as a way of acknowledging the colonial roots of language, the associated research practice which informed this language and the advocacy which too emerged from this language.

Of course I don’t deny that Africa has a long history of culturally sanctioned forms of same-sex love and gender diversity. I am asking that we address the implications of the euro-epistemic roots of the “homosexual”, “gay”, trangender” or even the “LGBTI”.

If we think about the emergence of the “homosexual” in medical research on white men having sex with other white men, or “gay” in largely white spaces initially, or “transgender” in literature on affluent white bodies flying across the world to access the medical care they needed – it becomes apparent that the language is far from neutral. It emerges from particular conversations about particular bodies in particular spaces. I am wondering what utility and limitations this language offers here?

The research practices (often unfair to the bodies listed above) – let to forms of organising and activism. I think that our efforts to engage the law, in the memetic nature of Pride, and even IDAHOT – activism in the south, mirrors language and modes of activism. I am wondering what this modes and approaches have to offer to queer folk on the African continent? I am also wondering if we can use this language, methods and approach – and be committed to decolonization?

HOLAA, IDAHOT, LGBT Africa, Lesotho
Photo Cred: Meri Hyöky

Lastly I also want to highlight the role of donors in this language. In the way language of donors infiltrates practices of groups, and in the way strategic choices and supported approaches of donors can define work in large parts of the continent. I am thinking about some of Scott Long’s writing here – in the way donors can manufacture movements – through supporting a language and an approach.


Taking all of this into account what can we do?

In writing this, I keep reflecting on my own contradictions in doing work in this. I think that we need to have honest conversations about the implications of our contradictions. I don’t think any of our organisations or approaches is contradiction free, but I wonder if we can start being more authentic?

  1. Donors: there is a strong and justified argument from Africa LGBTI organisations that relationships with donors are unfair, colonial and often reproduce injustice. However, we are still trapped within this relationships – we have continuing relationships with donors and in many ways need these resources in order for our organisations to function. I wonder then: what would fair and adequate relationships with donors look like, are we calling for restitution? What is our proposal?
  2. Language: there is a strong argument from African LGBTI organisations that there are problems and limitations in using the current language apparent in SOGI and LGBTI and even in queer. However, we continue to use this language because we fought hard for it and because it is the language that donors the multilateral institutions understand. I wonder then: what would rethinking, adapting and decolonizing this language look like? What is our proposal?
  3. Organisational structure: there is a strong argument from African LGBTI activists that organisational structures themselves are unfair – leaving staff overworked, emotionally drained; but more so the structures are hierarchical, staff often earn very little and organisations tend to “own” the products of the LGBTI community. However, we continue to use and reproduce these models because they are deemed legitimate. I wonder then: what would an alternate (queer/decolonial) model for organizing look like? What is our proposal?
  4. Approach and method: there is a strong argument from African LGBTI organisation and activists that the models we use have had limited success. We have some hard-earned wins on the continent in Botswana, Mozambique and the Seychelles – but these are still few. Yet we will still use certain approaches:
  • Dialogues
  • Capacity building
  • Advocacy
  • Strategic litigation and others.

I wonder then: what would de-colonial methods like – would a de-colonial method be a NGO lobbying for a single issue? Or would it be somewhat different?

Gabriel works at HIVOS and is a queer activist in South Africa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *