The curious case of queers in Africa

2014-03-03 10:00

This needs to be said. Even if being queer were un-African, even if it were a “choice”, it is not a basis on which people should be denied basic, or any, human rights.

Let alone be pulled from their homes, assaulted and taken to the police station by an angry mob, as is reported to have happened in Abuja, Nigeria, earlier this month.

It’s also not a valid reason to write into law that people will be jailed for having sex with consenting adults of their choosing – as the Ugandan government did last week.

I am ambivalent about making this mind-numbingly elementary point because, right now, the stakes are high over which side of Africanness and “choice” being queer will be permitted to fall.

In some places it’s a matter of life or death.

As one who benefits from and supports the campaigns for gay rights, I am fully aware that subtlety and nuance could be read as equivocation.

This undermines the work activists and allies have been doing in advocating for equality, recognition and visibility for those whose gender identities or sexual orientation are viewed by society as “different”.

But this needs to be said because rarely are the supposed differences between people invoked without an ulterior motive.

This can be linked to power and a political project to attain or maintain it.

Much of the outcry about homophobia and other unspoken antigay prejudices here in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent has pivoted on the terms set by these political projects, on terms set by:

» Politicians eager to curry favour with religious and other social conservatives;

» Presidents and political parties wanting a distraction from the profligacy that yokes people in their countries topoverty and inequality;

» American evangelicals waging “spiritual warfare” on the African continent because people in their own country are growing weary of the hateful bile they preach; and

» A majority so enthralled by their own false sense of superiority that they obsess over the proclivities of sexual minorities.

It needs to be said that we’re hindered by participating in the conversation on the terms set by these political projects. What should be a conversation about human rights and how all humans are entitled to them has become, instead, about whether being queer is un-African, or a “choice”.

This as though it could be a legitimate basis on which to allow or deny people rights.

To debunk the claims of those who seek to use warped notions of African identities to exclude and oppress, activists and allies alike have felt compelled to provide “evidence”.

They’ve scoured Khoisan paintings near what later became the Kingdom of Mapungubwe for evidence of homosexual activity.

They’ve felt they must draw from precolonial records to use Queen Nzinga and her “female husbands”. Or Azande men and their “boy wives”.

This to show that queerness did not come to Africa on a boat, like the white man’s colonialism and the vengeful white god in his bible.

This needs to be said because activists and allies have felt they must answer hollow, antigay invocations of science

instead of dismissing it as irrelevant and holding fast to the unassailable principle that human rights are for all humans.

This needs to be said because, thus far, we have been implying that the oppression and brutality wrought by these arguments built on a supposed quintessential Africanness and simplistic ideas about choice in order to deny, limit or take away the rights of queer Africans might be justified.

This needs to be said because instead of crying out loudly and emphatically that much of what has been deemed to be infractions of the social codes, classes and identities that

human societies use as the bases to determine whose rights may be denied, limited or taken away has been unjust and arbitrary. So we have implied wrongly that it is the norm, not an exception, that such a basis might exist.

This needs to be said because by denying “choice” outright, we have also been implying that if people want to access their rights, they need to surrender any sense of autonomy they might feel over their sexuality.

Instead, they need to identify within restrictive norms of gender and sexual attraction.

This needs to be said because I think there’s far more to be had from activism on the basis that the supposed Africanness of a person’s gender identity or sexual interactions with fellow consenting adults. And whether these are by choice, is irrelevant for what rights they should have.

Because with the false arguments discarded, what else is left to justify the unequal treatment? Nothing whatsoever.

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