This African Female King Defied the Gender Binary in the 17th Century
Western understandings of queer identity may dominate the current conversation around LGBTQ+ folks and our history, but a wider, global look at sexuality reveals a much richer and more interesting story. In fact, what we consider “normative” today may very well have seemed bizarre to our ancestors. One of the many dangers in evaluating the world through an ethnocentric lens is the inevitable loss of the full picture — which contributes to a loss of our shared identity. With that said, we thought it’d be fun to introduce a little queer history from around the world, starting with the brilliant and tactical “female king” Nzingha Mbande.
Queen Nzingha Mbande — also known as a Female King — ruled the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba (north of modern day Angola). Born in 1582, she rose to power after the death of her father and brother, during the height of Portuguese colonial pressure in 1624. She proceeded to lead a four-decade military resistance against the Portuguese, answering only to “King” and wearing both men’s and women’s clothing.
Accounts of the female king’s sexual identity differ. Some interpretations point toward a heterosexual marriage while others point to female wives, and others still indicate that she had a harem of men whom she dressed as women.
Nzingha Mbande’s “ability to perform a queer identity can be partly attributed to her royal status and power,” says one essay. “However, this doesn’t delegitimize the reality of relationships between ordinary women based on love and desire during her time. African lesbian sexualities have largely been shaped by silence, secrecy, and repression.”
Same-sex relations between women have prevailed through both ancient and modern times. In fact, these relationships can be seen in over 40 contemporary African cultures. In various regions on the continent, there are instances “where women use their status to attain wives, thereby challenging gender norms.”
It is clear that status and power have a legitimate impact on the existence of these queer relationships; however, “assumptions that status alone allows for female-husband practices delegitimizes the potential reality of relationships between women based on love and desire.”
Queen Nzingha Mbande’s queerness pushed and defied gender binaries, whether it was based on status or not. As we expand our understanding of what “queerness” is, and the various forms the queer experience can take, we can better forge a bond across our community.