Saturday, 22 October 2011

Out in Africa

Historians usually mention Edward Gibbon writing in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” in 1781 that Africa has no indigenous homosexual culture. This was generally accepted by later writers. So much so that it spread across the emerging colonial Africa and into the minds of modern westernised African politics. Some African leaders claim that homosexuality is a “white man’s disease”. This is bigotry borne out of ignorance. Anthropologists have yet to find a culture that doesn’t have some form of lgbt sub-culture.

Because most of African heritage was not written down as much as in, say Europe, much of what is known comes from tradition and current practice.

As the continent varies in ethnic make-up from north to south so does its lgbt heritage. The northern part of Africa has been heavily influenced by Islam and much of its lgbt heritage has become merged with native practices.

In many ways the attitudes to homosexuality in central and southern Africa echo that of the Ancient Greeks. Same-sex activity was acceptable in society as a means of initiation into adulthood. Some tribes went further than the Greeks in having “boy-brides”. They believe that sex with women sapped their virility, even their masculinity, and it is recorded that men I some Sudanese tribes spent more nights with young men than with their wives.

In South Africa, a modern country noted for its pioneering legislation on lgbt rights in Africa, some boy-brides  performed a ritual transvestic dance at the wedding feast in which they wore false wooden breasts which they  only removed when their “husbands” paid them to do so.

What we also see in Africa is something not seen in Ancient Greece – a major role in society for cross-dressing men who live as women, something akin to Indian culture. In the Congo the cross-dressing “bitesha” were considered a third gender.

African women also have a wide variety of same-sex activity spanning the continent. A lot of these are reminiscent of the western “Boston marriage”, where women pair up for companionship rather than for sexual activity. In Lesotho the women go a little further in a relationship they call “mummy-baby”. Again there is an echo of Ancient Greece in that the relationship, like the Greek athletes I mentioned a few weeks ago, was conducted by a same-sex couple of different generations, as the name “mummy-baby” suggests. Unlike the Greeks, however, the sexual nature of the mummy-baby relationship often ended on the marriage of the “baby” but the close friendship continued.

There seems to be very little evidence of female cross-dressing in traditional African cultures. Generally women remained within their gender stereotypes and their tribes and communities didn’t allow women to express masculinity.

Africa is a large continent. In the ever-developing world of gender studies all we can say is that we don’t know enough. But what research has always shown us is that the spectrum of sexuality in Africa is perhaps more complex than it is in western culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment