Gender Expression and Sexual Identity in African Cultures Existed Outside the Binary Until Imperialism
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Before Western colonization and forced influence, there were LGBTQ African cultures across the continent that accepted different gender expressions and sexualities.
In fact, the first gay couple ever recorded in history dates back to ancient Egypt. King Mwanga II of Buganda (modern-day Uganda) was most likely queer. (That’s him in the above photo.) Traditional Igbo culture and language had a flexible gender system, destroyed by the arrival of British colonizers in the 1800s.
While there is no such thing as a homogenous African entity, and while sexuality and gender of course has differed throughout the rich and diverse cultures of Africa, the impact of colonization on these one-time LGBTQ African cultures is evident.
Today, same-sex relations are only legal in 22 African countries; and in some, these relations are punishable by death. Interestingly, “there is a direct correlation between countries which belong to the Commonwealth, and therefore have previously been under British rule, and countries that still have homophobic, biphobic and/or transphobic legislature in their constitutions,” says one scholar. We can trace this shift from openness, acceptance and even tradition (Egyptian deities presented as androgynous, the Dagaaba people of present day Ghana assigned gender not based on energy) to the socially constructed, Western-made concept of homophobia. Prior to imperialism, anti-LGBTQ laws simply did not exist in African countries.
In Zimbabwe, ancient cave paintings depict two men engaging in ritual sex with one another. In the pursuit of “spiritual rearmament,” ethnic groups in Nigeria, Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda — among other countries — engaged in same-sex acts. Traditional languages such as Wolof, Yoruba and Hausa all have their own words for queer identities, indicating what we already know: LGBTQ+ identity and culture is not a modern invention but a deeply ingrained and prevalent condition of humankind.
Chidera Ihejirika, writing about Igbo culture, sex, and gender, says:
Colonisation is a structure, an unhealed wound that remains open to this day, in the form of Western gender norms among multiple other manifestations. In examining this structure, we must not forget about the indigenous system, the values and the agency that came before. There are many lessons to be learned in the rich history of gender and sex in African society. Notably, the value of considering human beings for their true authentic selves and not the labels society ascribes to them.
Looking at gender expression and sexual identity across various LGBTQ African cultures not only proves just how rich queer history can be, but also that it’s possible to live in a world where heterosexuality is not blankly accepted as the norm.