Fighting for expression: how homosexuality is breaking out into the African public sphere.

Istabane. Kuchu. The Gays.

Issues of sexuality are a hot button topic. Either people are arguing that homosexuality is “un-African”, being wildly successful and queer, sleeping with another woman on the down low, or enacting violence against members of the LGBT community. In one way or another sexuality is a big part of our lives and there is a cacophony of voices surrounding it.

The idea that “homosexuality is not African” is very disturbing. Historically it has always been present in African society. From marital and economic practices in which women married other women to maintain the household, to religious practices or even simply desire.

Sexual fluidity in African societies, where neither gender nor sexual preference is fixed, exists and this is a fact we cannot deny anymore. It is not a “western” gay agenda.  And now there is an evident shift in social thinking and political change. A good example of this shift can be seen in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria where due to wider internet access in Kenya, they have some of the  highest searches for gay porn in the world. It is clear that “the gay” is here to stay.

Political changes to the landscape

The continent remains a multi-faceted site of contention when it comes to issues surrounding LGBTI persons as reflected in two recent occurrences. First was the legal win by Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO), the only LGBTI organisation in Botswana, allowing them to register as an organisation. The court case – Attorney General v Thuto Rammoge and 19 Others, was the culmination of  an 11 year struggle to register the organisation and saw a full bench of the Court of Appeal of Botswana uphold the decision of the High Court. They ordered the Botswana government to register LEGABIBO as a society in terms of the Societies Act.


The judgement, in favour of LEGABIBO, saw the organisation allowed to register, even though  homosexuality is not legal within the country. Coordinator at the organisation,  Anna Mmolai-Chalmers,  stated that “this judgment is one of the many occurrences in Botswana where democracy has come to play, the courts are protecting minority rights and giving a voice to the LGBTI community.”

Taking the situation in Botswana further, Seychelles recently decriminalised same sex practices within the country.  Seychelles’ National Assembly has passed an amendment to the penal code that decriminalizes the act of sodomy. The possible change was first floated by President James Michel during his state of the nation address and a representative from the ruling Parti Lepep  urged politicians to fight for equality, including that of sexual preference.

Another discernible political shift was the first Africa Regional Seminar on “Finding Practical Solutions to Address Violence and Discrimination. against Persons Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression”. This event marked a change in the social political climate in terms of sexuality on the continent as the meeting brought together human rights organisations, activists and even an awkward government official or two to discuss how best to tackle the widespread violence faced by persons due to their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Expression (SOGIE).

This conference had an open dialogue between multiple facets of society from almost every country on the continent. Although some prominent and powerful figures may have shown some slight discomfort at speaking on “gay issues” it indicated a move towards open dialogue on issues of violence occurred amongst African citizens. The core theme that emerged was that, no matter your views or personal ideas about sexuality, violence against other Africans is never justified.

The conversations and connections were taken further when the 3rd annual Pan Africa IGLA conference was held in Johannesburg. The regional LGBTI conference saw over 180 delegates hailing from 34 countries gather together in a space that saw them speak to an array of issues that they faced, have contentious conversations, build capacity and come together.

Cultural curbing of homophobia and spreading of same sex ideas

Not only has there been a change politically but it can be seen in the artistic space as well. The literary scene is increasingly rife with stories of same sex relationships and experiences.  Examples include the Short Sharp story anthology, queer adaptations of popular African novels and collections such as Queer Africa and Walking the Tight Rope. The most recent addition to this African literary canon is the Proudly Malawian anthology which is a collection of stories by lesbians and non-gender conforming persons. This follows in the footsteps of a previous anthology titled Queer Malawi which focused on chronicling the lives of Malawians within the LGBTI community.

The music scene also followed suit with the release of the Same Love (Remix) in Kenya which sparked a national debate on sexuality, pornography and all things taboo. The video by Kenyan group Art Attack, which was banned by the Kenyan Film and Classification Board, became somewhat of a phenomenon with the YouTube based video garnering hundreds of thousands of views as well as the story being picked up by local and international platforms. And let one not forget about the realm of film making in which movies such as Whilst You Werent Looking make waves. This film centered around the lives of various LGBTI persons within Cape Town, South Africa. Another film that came out this year was ‘Tchindas‘ was a film from Cape Verde staring trans women which ended up being nominated for best documentary the African Movie Academy Awards. The movie even has an IMDB rating of 7/10.

Still from video- Same Love Remix

Try as one might, it would seem that we cannot escape the “gay” in the continent anymore. With every wave of societal backlash in the form of violence and discrimination there seems to be an equal opposing wave in the form of political reform, social justice, art and  even in some cases economic – with some places selling the notion of gay friendly spaces.

It may be time that we all disembark from this struggle bus in which we continue to pretend that we do not understand sex and sexuality on the continent outside of the missionary position once a week within the confines of marriage. This continent is filled with a passionate, eclectic people with a wisdom and understanding of life.

So whether we are marching, protesting against homosexuality, peddling homophobia or adding to arts and culture we cannot say sexuality remains a non-issue. The notion that one can continue to sweep the idea of multiple sexualities under the carpet is something that is no longer feasible. This denial not only breeds a society that is prone to violence but also one that shows little understanding and empathy.

With internet penetration in Africa set to be the highest in the world, we cannot break the internet searching for same sex porn all day while pretending we do not “do that stuff here.”

This was first published on This Is Africa.

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