Homosexuality un-African? The claim is an historical embarrassment

Published: October 2, 2012

As a gay African, with a background in analytic philosophy, the most annoying opposition to my sexual orientation is the claim that my lifestyle is un-African. It is annoying because historic and anthropological claims about the origins of behaviour seldom offer principled reasons why a lifestyle should never be allowed.

Colonialists are often accused of bringing homosexuality to Africa. Yet they never get attributed with a likelier anthropological truth: introducing penal codes to the continent that outlaw gay sex. An irony that bypasses homophobic leaders such as Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is that anti-sodomy laws on their countries’ statute books were first designed and implemented by the former colonial powers now accused of exporting homosexuality. Should former colonial masters not rather be accused of teaching Africa how to codify homophobia?

There is no anthropological evidence that homosexuality first occurred in Africa after colonisation began. The linguistic markers that draw attention to same-sex attraction – "faggot", "gay", "homosexual", etc – may be inventions of the English language. And homophobic taxonomies distinguishing sexual identities that are "normal" from those that are "abnormal" may have first flowed from psychological studies in the west. But basic same-sex attraction, without linguistic markers or psychological theories, occurs in all societies where human beings find themselves. It would be rather strange for fundamental human experiences to be so highly relative that homosexuality was time- or place-bound.

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