Words: Zanta Nkumane
The notion of how African identity and queerness exist as two unrelated entities is baffling to say the least. I, of this here land, born, bred, educated and moulded in its steaming culture and bent by its rejection, find a sense of belonging in my queerness as much as I do being African because both share similar trajectories of being othered and I exist as a co-construction of both.
The tenets of love, inclusion and community are embedded across cultures on the continent. In this African philosophy of Ubuntu, the intrinsic message is active care and compassion for the other, as you have for yourself. Community, recognising a person’s humanity first and bonding on our similarities was believed to be the conduit to societal peace and harmony. I am in no way romanticizing pre-colonial Africa as a Utopia.
There was bloodshed, putrid patriarchy and other social woes but there was an untouched facet of how they existed that upheld a deep sense of community as strongholds of this cohesion. This is the foundation that many of our societies were assembled on, but with time external fractures have slithered deeper creating partitions that have resulted in othered communities, othering within themselves. Contemporary society has placed such importance on the self that the memory of community as our heritage feels paper thin to us now, but it is how we were different from the coloniser.
According to Human Rights Watch, Thirty-two African countries still uphold laws that criminalize same-sex relations. These laws are the legacy of sodomy laws that are the architecture of colonialism. It is disheartening to know that there are children of this soil, who cannot exist as their full selves due to an inherited prejudice impaled upon this continent by Christianity and pervasive respectable Western ideals. There are many records that show the existence of non-heterosexual relations and divergent gender norms on the continent in varying articulations before colonialism. From male dressing Nzinga ruling as a ‘king’ and not ‘queen’ while her court had young men dressed as women that were her “wives”, to Zulu refugee Nongoloza and izonkotshane (boy wives) in 1890s Johannesburg.
The demonization of queer existence survives to this day and results in the actual death of many queer people. Homophobia is not an African invention and the intentional erasure of extensive queer history serves to justify the discrimination. Queer people have toiled and endured constant derision because their queerness is considered un-African, which is where the othering begins. We fail ourselves by thinking of these oppressions as separate. If we focused on ‘solidarity in oppression’, those who consider queerness un-African would realise that the very African identity they seek to protect so fervidly from being tainted by queer people, is also an othered existence.
There is a shared trajectory of being othered and if we merely acknowledged this shared emotion of invalidation, we would be stronger for it as a continent.
Our true heritage, is love and I am aware how idealistic that sounds but I have not experienced anything as big as love that galvanises a community to bond meaningfully. As an African, I’ve seen it. As a queer person, I’ve seen it. Besides the shared ostracization, the most valid reason one cannot separate being African and being queer, is that neither would exist without community. Community is the backbone which has been integral to queer people weathering many forms of erosion as with being African. We see it in many ways, like Africans who gather together overseas or the concept of ‘houses’ in the queer community. All gathered under the name of community and sameness. This is why one can never separate the two because they’re living spaces of a collective home.
Even if all the theories and pedagogies function to invalidate my African identity because of my queerness, by virtue of being born here, I have a right to claim Africa as a part of me as much as the part of me that is queer.