This paper is a reflection on the proceedings from the “Gender and Sexuality in Africa: Transdisciplinary Conversation” symposium, which was presented by Dartmouth College’s African and African American Studies Program in November, 2017. Convened by Ayo Coly, Marc Epprecht, Chika Unigwe and Jesse Shipley and co-sponsored by the Dean of Interdisciplinary Studies, the Dickey Center, the Leslie Center, and the Office of the Provost, speakers included Elnathan John, Fungai Machirori, Frieda Ekotto, Z’etoile Imma, Edwin Kwame Otu and Chika Unigwe.
In 2014, then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill criminalizing same-sex relationships with a prison sentence of up to 14 years for anyone caught in “amorous relationships” with a person of the same-sex. Currently, 33 out of 54 African nations have criminalized same-sex relationships. Even South Africa where same-sex marriage is legal and the constitution provides legal protection for LGBTQ people, violence and discrimination against people seen as non-normative remain widespread. According to a 2017 article by Michael Morris, four out of ten LGBTQ South Africans know of someone who has been killed for being LGBTQ.
Recent works by (African) scholars and writers on sexuality and gender emphasize that everyone has a right to live in inchoate or unnamable ways. The very act of naming and the potentials and possibilities of remaining unnamed, yet legible, are at the center of struggles over the politicization of sexuality. As scholars and writers, we are concerned with the historical prevalence of non-binary gender identities in Africa, how non-conforming sex and gender practices are identified and the effects of their legibility on their livability. And we find that, as Ayo Coly has argued, the gendering of identities is often what draws them into political spaces by aligning moral judgement with national belonging.
Legal and extra-legal violence against gender non-conformism and same-sex practices is rampant. This violence, in many African contexts, entails accusations that Western, foreign influence has brought same-sex practices to the African continent, in the process tainting traditional cultural values. As the argument goes, before Western influence Africans did not engage in such activities. Indeed, accusations that foreign influence brought gay and lesbian practices to Africa are often forged in dialogue with American and European conservatives. In Uganda, for instance, American evangelicals teamed with national religious leaders to demonize same-sex practices and encourage their violent opposition.
The criminalization of and violence against peoples identified by their non-normative sex and gender practices requires naming and codifying normativity. Identifying certain sexual activities as foreign and threatening to social values leads to their public visibility and justifies violence in the language of culture by identifying non-normative sexualities and genders as un-African. For conservative politicians and publics, the language of traditional culture provides a framework for defining deviant acts, placing them outside of the moral protections of society and marking them as threats to progress.
Naming sexual practices and gender identities is a form of policing that requires creating and controlling a cultural history of purity and eliminating threats to it. Intimate acts become public performances that define enduring cultural and national identities. In this way, the politics of citizenship and rights are located with particular intensity in the sexual practices of certain types of bodies.
Gender and Sexuality (in Africa) have long been sites of silence, resistance and power. European colonial regimes fetishized African bodies as hyper-sexual and regulated them through moralizing institutions such as schools and missionary churches. Their aims at “civilizing” Africa entailed making African lives public and visible and policing everything from forms of dress and dance to marriage and child rearing practices. In recent decades, sexual practices and gender identities seem increasingly under surveillance by state, religious and social organizations as they are seen as indicators of moral social ordering. In this moment, defined in many parts of Africa and indeed across the world by a resurgence of intolerance and violence in the name of self-defense, sexual practices and gender identities are often at the center of struggles over rights to live and control life.
Yvonne Vera, the Zimbabwean author, writes in her 1998 novel, Butterfly Burning, “To build something New, you have to be prepared to destroy the past,” and there is perhaps, in various African contexts, nowhere where the desire to build something new is more pronounced than in our “African culture,” that loaded term often appropriated in the service and perpetuation of patriarchy. At the forefront of this useful and urgent reconstruction are artists, particularly this generation of writers—those fictionistas, poets, bloggers, social media activists, and scholars who use words with care and intent. And nowhere is this desire “to build something new” more pronounced than in relation to Gender and Sexuality. Increasingly, African writers are coming to terms with the by now old activist adage that the personal is political, freeing them to reflect on subjects hitherto avoided in African literature, and exploring the complexities and evolving interpretations of gender and sexuality.
Take same-sex practices for instance: when it appeared in Ama Ata Aidoo ‘s Our Sister Killjoy(1977) and Rebecca Njau (1975) in Ripples in the Pool, the two earliest works of fiction by African writers to include lesbian characters, homosexual attraction was treated as deviant. Desire was deemed valid and given maximum expression only if it fit heteronormative norms. Indeed, both authors and their characters seemed uncertain about the political valence of naming non-normative sexual practices. But in recent literature by African writers, the release of Binyavanga’s “Lost Chapter”, Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare, Jude Dibia’s BlackBird, to name a few have been centered on same-sex attraction. In addition, the new generation of writers and activists are intervening into debates on sexual and gender rights by subverting and rejecting existing master scripts on sexuality and gender relations. They are destroying stereotypes, myths and dominant narratives of masculinity, femininity and sexuality in order to include people purportedly at the margins by re-centering alternate possibilities. Artists and activists challenge and confront heteronormativity and patriarchal structures, contesting both hegemonic femininity and masculinity, while at the same time being cognizant of the intersections of gender and sexuality with other identities, class, race, and power, and rejecting essentialist notions that discriminate against or totally erase a good part of the population.
The northern Nigerian writer, Elnathan John, more recently describes how gender non-conforming people struggle to live their lives and how identity politics, at times, makes them more visible, vulnerable and the subjects of violence. Many writers identify how the association of same-sex practices and gender non-conformity with Western culture creates a contradictory bind for contemporary Africans. For many, morality is associated with a fixed idea of African traditional life and anything outside of its codified forms is cast as a form of neo-colonialism. But rather, as activist and poet Unoma Azuah states in a recent interview promoting the anthology Blessed Body, a compilation of stories of LGBTQ lives in Nigeria, “homophobia is unAfrican”. Indeed, Nigerian sodomy laws were inherited from the British for whom controlling African sexuality was tied to the moral project of creating good colonial subjects.
African scholars and writers understand that location matters: framing African sexuality and gender from a non-African controlled space and in non-African languages requires challenging existing terminology to fit African concepts of gender and sexuality. It is dangerous to accept naming and language that was constructed by people with colonizing and nationalizing agendas. Nomenclature, therefore, must expand and transform to fit location specific experiences. As artists, intellectuals, and activists push the boundaries of the acceptable they also must contend with the further effects that reflexive debate and new legibilities have on lived experience.
Even as artists, scholars, and activists recognize the dangers of legibility there is the need to expand nomenclature. There is a growing discontent, for instance, with the inadequacies of Western languages and normative categories to contain or explain the aesthetics of African gendering experiences. For instance, Elnathan John uses the Hausa term, Yan Daudu—while working primarily in English—to locate masculinities specific to Northern Nigeria while showing their untranslatability. In the process, he shows the dangers of that can come with naming and monolithic opposition politics. John’s work shows how heteronormative masculinity relies upon identifying and violently attacking other masculinities. Z’étoile Imma, in contrast, focuses on renaming. She has coined the term Black Pussy Aesthetics as a way of envisioning black queer bodies and recenter discussions of sexual pleasure and agency.
The political work of claiming rights begins with contesting how we name. Naming can be both an act of rebelling and an act of claiming. What is named is claimed and therefore cannot be considered alien. That, African scholars and writers understand, is an efficient way of fighting structures that continue to perpetuate harmful sexual myths and dangerous gender stereotypes.
About the Authors:
Jesse Weaver Shipley, professor of African and African American Studies at Dartmouth College, is an ethnographer, filmmaker, and artist. He is the author of two books: Living the Hiplife: Celebrity and Entrepreneurship in Ghanaian Popular Music and Trickster Theatre: The Poetics of Freedom in Urban Africa.
Chika Unigwe is writer. She is the author of four novels—The Phoenix, On Black Sisters’ Street, Night Dancer, and Black Messiah—as well as numerous short stories and essays.