Monday, March 20th, 2023

The History of the Idea that Homosexuality Is “UnAfrican”

Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS

by Marc Epprecht

Published by Ohio University Press
New African Histories series

Published September 23, 2008
Nonfiction (history/ethnography)
240 pgs. • Find on Amazon.comWorldCat

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

June 22, 2010

Marc Epprecht, who teaches African history at Queen’s University and earlier worked in Zimbabwe and Lesotho, wrote one of the very best books on homosexualities in any particular geographic area, and certainly the best one on an area in Africa (the southeast).

I am referring to his book Hungochani: The History of a Dissident Sexuality in Southern Africa (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). Epprecht mined the judicial archives in Zimbabwe, examining cases in the early days of the Southern Rhodesia colony that involved male-male couples (more than a few of whom brought cases against estranged partners) and revealing what Shona males expected of/from male-male sexual relations. Epprecht also founded an oral history project and trained Zimbabweans to interview elders about (homo)sexuality in mining camps and in home villages during the first half of the twentieth century. In Hungochani, he marshaled material from ethnographies and memoirs along with the oral history, early-20th-century government commissions investigating conditions in mining camps, and forensic records into a readable and sensitive account of southeastern African homosexualities. Epprecht’s archival research showed, beyond any reasonable doubt, that male-male sexual relations were quietly taking place among Africans. This became obvious to the invaders as soon as they set up their police and court structure.

How did male-male sexual relations come to be regarded as “un-African” both in writings about Africa by non-Africans (notable pioneers being Edward Gibbon, who never visited the continent; and Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, who did) and by African heads of state (the pioneer being Jomo Kenyatta who had been a student of Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics, preceding some very vehement ones in power now)?

In Heterosexual Africa? Epprecht delves into the overlapping history of three outsiders’ discourses (before turning to literature by Africans): anthropology, ethnopsychiatry, and the initial AIDS epidemiology. Although these histories are externalist in terms of changes in African societies (migration, decolonization), they are relatively internalist in examining the particular discourses. Epprecht attends to the networks of what may loosely be called “researchers” (loosely in that the research of many relied on what a few officials or missionaries told them rather than on any attempt to find out what Sub-Saharan African individuals were doing).

As I know from the African portion of my survey of homosexualities across space and time (Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, St. Martin’s Press, 1998), there were attestations—almost always en passant—of male-male sex and female-female sex in the ethnographic record, though such “unspeakable” relations were not the focus of research and were very rarely indexed in the titles of articles, let alone books. It is behavior rather than identity that transmits viruses, and when the promiscuity paradigm as an explanation of AIDS was being constructed of traditional prejudices, Africanist anthropologists did not speak up about what was not invisible, though certainly not foregrounded in the ethnographic literature. The ethnology that fed into the pop-Freudian and pop-Jungian tradition was entirely spurious. It was certainly uninterested in non-normative behavior, if in behavior at all.

Intellectual historians try to think their way into what it was like to believe what used to be believed, such as the sun revolving around the earth, or black Africans being too simple for homosexual debauchery (given the ready availability of partners of the other sex: “primitive promiscuity” was part of the model, not least in the social evolutionary model of Friedrich Engels). I have tried and failed to do this with Burton’s “Sotadic Zone,” an explanation of the distributional prominence of male-male sexual relations (with an implicit distinction between those differentiated by age and those differentiated by gender) around the Mediterranean. I do not understand how climate can be determinative in the eastern hemisphere but not the western (the whole of the Americas was included in Burton’s Sotadic Zone, which also reached up to include Japan).

I would have similar difficulties trying to think my way into the “primitive mind” models. Even being familiar with the “noble savage” tradition of Rousseau (in marked contrast to the “state of nature” as conceived by Thomas Hobbes) and the attempts by Lucien Lévy-Brühl to elaborate “primitive mentality,” the ethnopsychiatric literature about the “African mind” strikes me as claptrap. Epprecht is not that blunt, but he does not seek to inhabit the mentality of the primitivists. He also confines himself almost entirely to the Freudian and Jungian African carriers of this tradition, who came along rather late in the history of primitivism, and ignores the rise and fall of “culture and personality” work in psychology and anthropology, particularly in positing “national characters” on the basis of a few interviews with “natives” who happened to be in New York City.

The chapter on the epidemiology of AIDS focuses on the more recent past and, thus, the possibility of querying those who created an entirely separate epidemiology for AIDS in Africa (where HIV was born, though not where it was first recognized). Well, not entirely separate in that at a higher level of abstraction a promiscuity paradigm rose for both: promiscuous urban gay men in Canada, France, and the USA; promiscuous Africans, particularly the most mobile ones, long-distance truckers, along with prostitutes. In both (separate but equal?) incarnations, the focus on risk groups (prostitutes everywhere, gay men in western societies) was an impediment to risk-reduction. Though men who sometimes have sex with men or boys are far less likely to be open about such behavior (let alone making it a basis of their identities) in Africa than in Anglo North America, HIV-transmission risk is in unprotected intercourse, not in recognizing oneself as being “homosexual.”

Research on behavior, particularly among those migrating to work in cities (or South African mines), recurrently finds same-sexual relations and even relationships, but this mostly unspoken-about conduct was ignored by AIDS entrepreneurs in Africa (scientific, religious, or political ones) who maintained that there is no homosexuality in Africa. Epprecht explores various reasons for projecting this image of “natural” African sexual behavior, a nature including polygamy and ready to demonize prostitutes – whose existence is blamed on colonial dislocations of African naturvölk (in the singular). Intra-African diversity is as blanked out in the claims of homosexuality being “un-African” now as in Gibbons in the 18th century.

Epprecht is justly skeptical of not only the wording of questions in particular African languages but of the concept of “sex.” If “sex” is understood as behavior that might result in conception, homosex is not “sex,” and there is evidence from a number of African sites that it is regarded as “play” and, therefore, not as “sex” (as in the southern U.S., where fellatio is not regarded as “sex;” and in Brazil where some women, who have experienced anal intercourse but have intact hymens, are considered “virgins”). Engaging in such play does not make men consider themselves “one of them” (demonized “homosexuals”).

The final discourse Epprecht examines is fiction (and some plays and movies) by Black Africans. As with the ethnographic literature, representations of sexual relations and relationships are there if one looks, though in much of the literature of the first two decades of independent African states, the conduct was often linked to outsiders (either Americans or Europeans in Africa or Africans in Europe).

As in North America four and more decades ago, many of the characters who love members of their own sex marry and have children. A distinct, oppositional gay/lesbian community is little developed in African countries, though the possibility of exclusively homosexual conduct is not altogether missing in southern African cities. I do not suggest that exclusive homosexuality is an inevitable differentiation. It is the possibility, not the ubiquity, that is a marker of the gay organization of homosexuality, and there are gay- or lesbian-identified people in, say Toronto, who are or have been married and/or have children.

In terms of a separate gay world, there is some sense to a lack of homosexuality in Africa, but the (relative) absence of gay identification does not ensure that HIV transmission does not happen. Indeed, the organization of covert, occasional male-male sex on the part of men who also have sex with women increases the risk of transmission. The refusal to consider such risk has been built into the epidemiology and prevention of transmission programs, so the bad old ideas of resolutely heterosexual African naturvölk has real consequences.

Epprecht’s history is most certainly presentist in seeking to challenge the idea of Africa free of the “taint” of “civilization” and “corruption.” That idea, common among Christian missionaries for more than a century, has been picked up by some African leaders (many of whom were schooled by missionaries and/or in Western universities) who make common cause with Muslim and Christian religious leaders in condemning and denying “perversion.” All three have also exhibited a shared interest in continuing to treat Africans as child-like and in need of domination by those who know better (the Christian and Muslim religious leaders and the government officials).

©22 June 2010, Stephen O. Murray


About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.