The idea that homosexuality can be imported from one country (or continent) to the next like a bag of exotic coffee beans, is a persistent fairy tale that won’t die. The myth has especially strong roots when it comes to the continent of Africa.
We’ve all heard the charge: Africa never had a “problem” with homosexuality—e.g., there were no African gays and lesbians—until those nasty French and English colonists, decked out in those imperialist safari hats, “planted” sodomy seeds on the continent. This persistent argument, coming, as it has, from the lips of otherwise intelligent (and perhaps well meaning) African race relations “experts” and politicians, has more to do with prejudicial views of homosexuality than with objective truth.
As long as people refuse to see homosexuality as a universal component of human nature, occurring everywhere from Antarctica to Australia to Bombay to Providence, Rhode Island, there will be crackpot researchers who view homosexuality as a kind of “imported” product.
“Heterosexual Africa? The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS,” by Marc Epprecht, explores how Africa’s singular identity as a heterosexual continent came about.
Mr. Epprecht’s 230-page explanation, however, is far from simple. Rather, it is a Kafkaesque labyrinth of the stories of researchers who either ignored evidences of African homosexuality, or were in fact blind to it or chose to gather the data and then suppress what they found because of the hostility in research circles to “the truth.” Field data suggesting widespread homosexual or lesbian activity was at one time thought to be in league with the forces of sexual perversion. Combine this fact with the “character” of the African continent itself—a huge world of tribal secrets (regarding homosexuality) that are not supposed to be revealed, especially to foreign researchers with note pads and pencils, and you have a real conundrum.
The idea of homosexuality as a carry-on piece of luggage, like a foreign virus ripe for implantation on new soil, is hardly a new one.
“Gibbon,” as Mr. Epprecht explains, “made the point in a passing footnote to his explanation of how ‘the primitive Romans were infected’ with homosexuality by the more civilized Etruscans and Greeks. Gibbon had never been to Africa, and knew virtually nothing about it…”
But you get the idea…..
The early explorers to Africa saw the continent through a Rousseauesque lens: Africans were seen as barbaric and sexually savage but only in a raw heterosexual sense. “The missionaries had their hands full challenging the array of what they regarded as heterosexual immoralities in African societies, including polygamy, child betrothals, marriage by cattle, female genital cutting….More secretive and presumably rare homosexual practices fell low on the list of priorities,” Mr. Epprecht writes.
In other words, adding the homosexual ingredient would have brought the stew to a nasty boil.
Mr. Epprecht tells of researchers like Ferdinand Karsch-Haack, who investigated hunter-gatherers in Angola and Namibia, and who came to the conclusion that homosexuality was innate to all humankind. “We should finally give up the fiction that Sodom and Gomorrah are only in Europe and that everywhere else holy customs reign….The most unnatural vices, which we regard as the most recent ways of stimulation of an over civilized culture are practiced there in the light of day, in the open, as common practice.”
Slivers of truth like this were all too often buried under avalanches of other “research” that hid the facts because of the fear of [homosexual] glorification.
On one level, the depth of sexual secrecy among Africans when it comes to homosexuality calls to mind contemporary African American manifestations of living life on the “down low.” This link certainly begs the question: Are there certain “cultural” propensities inherent in the African mind set when it comes to homosexuality? Might that be something along the lines of, it’s okay to “do” the deed but one must go mum when it comes time to talk about it?
What I gathered from Mr. Epprecht’s book is that discerning the truth about African homosexuality is really a researcher’s nightmare. On one hand, researchers reported uninhibited African sexuality in the heterosexual world— a total acceptance of “outrageous” heterosexual behaviors outside normative definitions of respectability, but then attitudes clam up—Salem witch burning-style-- when it comes to same sex behaviors.
But since nothing is simple in Africa, one cannot even take reports of heavy persecution at face value. “Universalist claims about extreme intolerance of sexual diversity or gender variance clearly flew in the face of considerable other work,” Mr. Epprecht writes.
Fortunately, the evidence for this positivism is significant.
Mr. Epprecht writes of mine marriages of males among migrant labor Africans, in southern Africa, French North and West Africa.
“In mine marriages men took younger men or boys as servants and ‘wives’ for the duration of their employment contracts….These temporary male-male marriages often served to strengthen traditional marriage with women back in the rural areas. Boy wives allowed the men to avoid costly and potentially unhealthy relationships with female prostitutes in town.”
When HIV/AIDS became well entrenched in Africa a couple decades before the disease surfaced in Europe and the United States, Africans knew that both men and women were equally affected, especially in Central Africa.
“The equal ratio between men and women in Central Africa thus suggested a very different and far more dangerous pattern than that in Europe and North America,” Mr. Epprecht writes.
While the HIV/AIDS crises brought the African lgbt population into the limelight, it also had a negative effect.
Mr. Epprecht: “Visibility in turn precipitated a flurry of demagogic attacks on gays and lesbians by African leaders. By so dramatically raising public debate and by so implausibly linking African lgbt to Western gay imperialist conspiracies, these attacks stimulated new research into same sex practices in Africa.”
This is not a book that one races through in a week, and one could hardly call it a page turner. In sober academic prose riddled with statistics and referential footnotes, the reader ploughs through sentences much the way a farmer tills difficult soil after a harsh winter.