It’s past time to quell the remnants of queerphobia begat by colonialism in Africa
Queer Africans are not people who have been poisoned by Western influence—we have always been here.
I have always known that I will never be African in the way my parents are: I can’t speak our language with the same fluidity as them, my Jollof rice is never quite as red as my grandmother’s, and their pop-culture references often go over my head. I’ve always been happy to accept these flaws as little concessions that are inherent parts of being a diaspora baby.
I even took pride in these cultural peccadilloes, seeing them as evidence of my multicultural, expatriate upbringing. But, while I could deal with mispronouncing words and mixing up recipes, my queerness felt like an irredeemable part of my identity—one that was a resounding contradiction to the African heritage I love so dearly.
In my African home, queerness was always described as what roughly translates to “white people’s things.” My family’s ideas about queerness were decisive, and my memory is littered with casual moments of queerphobia—my mother, before sending my sister to an all-girls school, warning us about the existence of “gross” lesbians; my grandparents, disgustedly throwing away a newspaper because the front page story was about a transgender man; and aunties relentlessly criticising my short hair and butch attire.
Again and again, I watched my family casually display their vitriol towards queerness, this supposed “white people thing.” Indeed, they could tolerate queerness when it was performed or embodied by white people, but scoffed at the possibility that one of us might be queer. In my youth, I internalised this idea and spent years telling myself I was straight, simply because I believed queerness could not be me, could not be African.
After years of denial and self-hatred, I eventually became desperate to live my life authentically, but the question of whether or not to come out felt more like making a choice between being queer or being African. With aggressive homophobia so deeply embedded into our culture, I saw queerness and African-ness as a zero sum game, and through the hostility of The Closet and in my desperation to stand in my truth, I was resigned to acquiesce to being only the former, only being queer. I hated myself for it, and spent many years feeling like I had given up on my African identity. Tragically, this feeling is all too familiar for queer Africans throughout the diaspora.
From cultural narratives that align queerness with disease and demonic possession, to laws across the continent that punish homosexuality with prison sentences, queerphobia in Africa is certainly ubiquitous. It is not, however, indigenous. Rock paintings in Zimbabwe from thousands of years ago depict sex between men. The Azande people of Congo practiced lesbianism in polyamorous households. Gay marriage was common among the Nzima people of Ghana. Lesbian marriages were normal facets of dozens of communities across sub-Saharan Africa.
Queer Africans are not people who have been poisoned by Western influence—we have always been here. And while I am cautious about over-ideating pre-colonial Africa, it is clear that long before Western intervention, queer people were accepted and celebrated parts of the African social fabric. European colonisers in fact used the prominence of queerness in indigenous African society to justify the Christian proselyte mission, making compulsory heterosexuality a rigid dimension of the project of assimilation tacit to colonialism.
But while queerphobia in Africa undoubtedly originated in the violence of empire, we as African people must hold ourselves accountable to our own shortcomings. In our attempt to heal our colonial wounds and forge an identity beyond the gaze of Europe, we made the grave mistake of deeming heteronormativity to be an axis of difference from the West.
We actively steward homophobia, erroneously thinking it to be a statement of an authentic, unalloyed African self. To say, however, that Africans are not and cannot be queer, is not the emancipatory, Afrocentrist declaration it is often thought to be. It is rather, to define Africa in terms stipulated by European colonisers.
African people are a diverse, resilient, and beautiful people who have spent centuries being brutalised, violated, and exploited. Our right to self-determination was often taken away from us through colonial violence. As such, we are are still asking ourselves who we are. We must, however, do better in our effort to cultivate an African consciousness. As we mine our history to better understand and define who we are now, we must accept that we simply cannot paint a picture of an authentic Africa without using all the colours of the rainbow. If there is one way to reclaim our African identity, agency, history, and culture—it is to celebrate queerness as a significant part of Africa-ness.
When I was younger, I’d often read Chinua Achebe’s essay “What Nigeria Means To Me” when I was feeling insecure about my cultural identity. The essay is one of my favourite literary pieces—I can practically recite it by heart—not only because Achebe has an unparalleled way with words, but because in it, Achebe reminds me that Africa and our relationship to it is not a prescribed notion. It is one that develops and evolves as we learn more about ourselves, and the history and people of our ancestral home.
I’m so lucky today to have access to a queer African content: I can enjoy books like She Called Me Woman, artists like Zanele Muholi and films like Rafiki, and feel hope for a more queer African future. But as we make strides towards queer acceptance in my home and among my people, I can be absolutely certain of one thing: my queerness is, and always will be, African.