As part of my involvement in the Living in Love and Faith project, I’ve been writing some short papers on my own areas of research for the History group; these are then shared in a Dropbox folder with everyone in this and the other groups, as well as with all the bishops. That’s how it works, so far, although in January we move into ‘interdisciplinary groups’ in which we discuss themes across the various subject groups. In addition – and this is one of the most interesting aspects for me – I’ve also been doing some reading outside my own areas, trying to understand more about topics which have been raised in my group, or in the other thematic groups.
One of these is the claim that homosexuality was not part of African culture until the colonial period. Many years back, my first degree was a joint honours in Ancient History and Social Anthropology, and as part of that I took a compulsory module on West Africa and then went on to choose to take another one at SOAS on ‘Religious change in sub-Saharan Africa, 1850 to the present day’. Yet I’d never encountered this claim, which felt all wrong to me. So what did I do? I went on Twitter and asked an academic in the field – Adriaan van Klinken of Leeds – to recommend some reading matter. He responded immediately: the generosity of academics!
His main suggestion was Marc Epprecht, Heterosexual Africa? The history of an idea from the age of exploration to the age of AIDS (Ohio University Press, 2008) and I’ve found it a very interesting read. As well as taking me back to my social anthropology roots, it even fits with my more recent professional work in medical history. Epprecht begins by examining the detrimental effects that claims of ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ had on the spread of HIV-AIDS – because of these claims, it was thought that in Africa the virus was mainly transmitted by heterosexual sex and that there was no point doing public health and education work with men having sex with men (msm), because there just weren’t any. The other side of this denial of African homosexuality was that ‘African sexuality’ was considered both heterosexual and promiscuous.
In 2017, when I was demonstrating at General Synod before the debate which led to the Living in Love and Faith process (and before I was put on to the History group), a group of LGBTI African people were demonstrating too. So the ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ slogan clearly didn’t apply there. But what were its origins? This is where Epprecht’s historical study is invaluable.
Epprecht notes that, historically, there may not have been many ‘homosexuals’ in Africa:
… the word homosexuality, notably, suggests a clarity arising from a specific history of scientific enquiry, social relations, and political struggle that did not historically exist in Africa and still does not very accurately describe the majority of men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women in Africa (8).
However, there most certainly was plenty of same-sex practice. This included men with ‘mine wives’ – younger men who act as servant and sexual partner while those men are away from their wives back home – as well as those who regard sex with other men as ‘wealth medicine’, bringing potential luck precisely because they see it as transgressive. In addition, many groups have some individuals whose dress and behaviour indicates that they do not identify with the sex into which they were born, and that’s taken as fine.
In Africa there was and is a strong focus on heterosexual marriage and fertility but,
... while most African societies historically did and still do tend to place a very high priority on heterosexual marriage and reproduction, many allowed or even celebrated “pseudohomosexualities” and “sex games”, providing they occurred within the bounds of specific rituals, sacred or secret places, and designated sexual roles. (9)
Sexual ‘play’, including ‘thigh sex’, whether between people of the same or different sexes, does not count as ‘sex’ and so preserves the highly-valued chastity of young girls. That category of ‘play’ could include mutual masturbation and anal sex. Does that sound familiar? It reminded me of a question I’ve already addressed on this blog: what behaviours count as ‘sex’?
Epprecht notes that, so far, female sexuality remains under-investigated, something which I would also say about discussions within the Church of England, but he mentions many contexts in which women had, and have, sex with other women without defining themselves as lesbians; for example, women spirit mediums. In the literature on Africa, girls showing each other how to masturbate or massaging each other’s labia majora were almost invariably presented as helping to prepare each other for heterosexual activity, because of course there’s ‘no homosexuality in Africa’!
There are many points at which Epprecht’s work also reminds me of the perils of studying sexuality in ancient Greek and Roman culture. For example, translation: what does a term really mean, and are we going to use a euphemism instead? What about when the original term is itself a euphemism? And words change their meanings over time (think of ‘gay’, for one…). In general, Epprecht prefers to use local terms for sexualities, because western categories like ‘bisexuality’ don’t match them precisely. He also uses lower case lgbti “as a gesture to [the] mutability and contested meanings” of these local terms. I wondered why he uses ‘African’ rather than bringing out the differences between the various groups in the continent, but he made the decision because of the many parallels between these groups, because of critical pan-Africanist theory, and because “the struggle for lgbti rights and gender transformation has moved to the continental scale” (25).
There is also much on ‘othering’ here. Just as we project our visions or our fears on to the ancient world, either by making the ancient Greeks look just like us or alternatively seeing them as the opposite of ‘Christian values’, so Epprecht shows how the constructions of ‘Africa’ have supported the interests of the West with the result that
What appears or is asserted as timeless African tradition today, in other words, is often historically quite recent and contested. (10)
For me, one of the most interesting points was Epprecht’s demonstration that earlier scholarship – whether historical or anthropological – that appeared to be rigorously scientific was in fact responding to various constraints. The long period in which African homosexualities were invisible (strongest perhaps in the 1940s-1960s) was the result of Western trends, most such work at that point still being done by outsiders rather than Africans. There were anthropologists not wanting to give the impression that they only wrote about sex, and others whose strong identification with ‘their’ tribe meant that they were determined to protect them against any allegations of anything remotely non-heteronormative! Things changed with decolonialisation, and when homosexuality was decriminalised in the West; it’s interesting that Evans-Pritchard’s 1930s research on what he called ‘sexual inversion’ among the Azande was not published until the start of the 1970s.
Even now, those in some African countries claim that homosexuality is the result of colonial contacts rather than a traditional practice. So African scholars and politicians describing African sexuality can “emphasize what they regard as its positive or moral elements in comparison to corrupting Western influences” (161) and thus support that ‘no homosexuality in Africa’ myth, claiming that same-sex practices were introduced by ‘the West’ or by other incomers such as the Chinese or the Arabs. Bizarrely, this has currently resulted in “a striking harmony of opinion between secular, traditionalist, Christian, and Islamic leaders” (161).
To quote from Epprecht’s conclusion:
… heteronormativity and ‘African family values’ are not the whole story. Subtle or unacknowledged spaces and vocabularies did exist for individual variation from the ideals, including for msm and wsw. These changed over time in response to many factors, including debates and fashions coming from the West but also, indisputably, from African men and women who for their own diverse reasons constantly pushed the limits of the meanings of tradition and normal. (162)
Even more pertinent to our current discussions in the Church of England,
How could men who could not even agree among themselves what sodomy, bisexuality, or even sex meant have expected consistent responses from their African informants and translators on questions pertaining to those activities, particularly as those activities were for the most part illegal or held in severe disdain under the colonial dispensation? (163-4).