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Gays in Franophone Africa (part 1)

James Doughty
Student, French & Political Science Department
Montclair State University
New Jersey
Spring 2009

Social change and the progress of minorities in any particular geographic location has never been an easy task. This is true in all stages of human history. This is not limited to race, gender, creed or sexual orientation. Each minority group, be they women, blacks or gays have had to deal with overcoming hurdle after hurdle in order to obtain the social need of equality that each group, including those not listed above, have fought for. With most minority groups in the Occident, that’s to say: women, blacks, gays, Jews, Pagans etc. a tremendous leap has been made in regards to their social status and their fight for equality.

Arguably homosexuals have made the largest gain in equality rights within the West during the past century, compared to other minorities; whether it is full marriage equality rights in England and Spain, or being openly acknowledged and having everyday recognition in the media, such as Will and Grace or La Cage aux Folles. Either case, regardless of the fallacies that the media may portray about gay lifestyles, it is a huge step for rights, because positive exposure in the media shows the world that indeed homosexuals exist, and are as much a part of the everyday community as heterosexuals.

The fight for equality and recognition is indeed magnificent in the West, but what about the rest of the world? There are approximately 191 countries that exist today, depending on who is asked regarding the status of Taiwan or Tibet. Surely then all of these countries have homosexuals in them, and some sort of gay culture. But yet homosexuality is constantly referred to as the ‘disease and immorality’ of the west. This is especially true in the African context, specifically in Francophone Africa1 .

But where does this inherent homophobia come from? Is it a natural belief, in that, it existed before colonial conquests, or is it something that colonialism brought with it along with all of the rests of its ‘modernizations?’ What is the status of homosexuals in Francophone Africa today? What are their lives like? More importantly, do the same terms such as ‘homosexual,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘lesbian,’ even exist and have the same meaning in Francophone Africa, or are they just simply another form of cultural imperialism? Also, if these terms are not appropriate for a non-Western context, then what are the actual situations and language regarding same-sex relationships? Also, what is the role of religion, specifically Islam in relations to ‘homosexuals2 ’ in Francophone Africa? Finally, is there anything for those who identify themselves as gay in a Western context to do in bringing about a bi-cultural symbiosis, that’s to say bring about a peace of the Western gay identity in a non-Western part of the world?

Before answering any of these questions, it is important to understand the development of thought regarding the universality of ‘homosexuality’ in a global context. It must be noted that several thinkers and anthropologists have tried addressing the ‘issue’ of ‘homosexuality’ in a global context for centuries; including Edward Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Sir Richard Francis Burton and his ‘esteemed’ Terminal Essay where he hypothesizes the Sotadic Zone3. This theory stated that there were actually geographic locations where pederasty, or the practice of an older man with a younger boy, was common and by extension, homosexuality was more prevalent in those areas where pederasty flourished. This zone, named after the Greek poet Sodates who was famous for his homoerotic poetry, consisted of all of North and South America, northern Africa, all of East Asia and the Philippines4.

Burton’s Sotadic zone has been constantly, especially throughout the twentieth century, rebuked as merely imperialistic and Western superiority. As a matter of fact, Bill Stanford Pincheon states in his essay “An Ethnography of Silences: race, (Homo)sexualities, and a Discourse of Africa” that “ …Richard Burton, who excluded Africa in his map of the so-called Stotadic Zone, areas (surely conjured by an imperialistic imagination) where homosexuality is practiced. ” Stanford’s summary of Burton’s Sotadic Zone is merely the reflect of an imperialistic view, showing that the ‘universality’ of same-sex practices occurred everywhere that the European wanted or imagined it to occur without facts or proof; in this circumstance everywhere but the fragile, ‘pure’ and untamed dark continent of Africa. A twenty first century scholar merely look at Burton’s own words to see the inheritant Eurocentric and racist points of view that the author believes in, “Roman civilization carried pederasty also to Northern Africa, where it took firm root, while the negro and negroid races to the South ignore the erotic perversion, except where imported by foreigners into such kingdoms as Bornu and Haussa…The Sotadic Zone covers the whole of Asia minor and Mesopotamia, now occupied by the “unspeakable Turk,” a race of born pederasts…The Vice, of course, prevails more in the cites and towns of Asiatic Turkey than in the villages; yet even theses are infected...5” Though credit is indeed owed to the ‘esteemed Captain,’ for his attempt at anthropological work regarding the ‘spread’ of ‘homosexuality,’ it should only be viewed as an the outdated point of view of a Eurocentric scholar; interesting for antiquity’s and posterity’s sake, but having no real academic value.
Though academically, and politically incorrect due to his unapologetic Eurocentrism and racism, Burton was correct in the vaguest of ways, regarding the universality of ‘homosexuality’ within a global context. Most twenty-first century scholars and anthropologists feel that same-sex relations have existed in one form or another throughout all continents, peoples, and cultures throughout history. What has changed globally however is the meaning and the types of relationships throughout the world. It is important to note here, the ongoing struggle that Western anthropologists are facing regarding the terms ‘homosexuality,’ ‘gay,’ and ‘lesbian,’ in a non-Western context; meaning that Western anthropologists are constantly trying to walk the line between giving an appropriate definition to same-sex practices in non-Western contexts, and remaining objective.

Several scholars, including Deborah P. Amory and Thomas C Spear, warn other scholars not to fall in the trap of ‘cultural imperialism.’ Amory states in her article “ “Homosexuality” in Africa: Issues and Debates” that “The institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia of professional organizations are also reflected in debates within lesbian and gay studies about research on and representations of same-sex sexualities. Cross-cultural lesbian and gay studies has been accused more than once of cultural imperialism. For example, anthropologists and others have been criticized for roaming the world in search of cross-cultural evidence of the universality of ‘homosexuality,’ in much the same way that Euro-American feminists have been criticized for collapsing all women into a single monolithic category…that ultimately serves the interests of western feminism.7” Amory expands her argument to include Western gay scholars because she feels that these scholars are trying to search for that ‘universal homosexuality’, which will justify their own existence throughout history, thereby proving to be an actual member of the historical timeline, and thus, a people with a voice. Most scholars, including Amory, have no real problem with a search for gay history; however, it’s the methods that continuously come into question.

By putting Western terminology such as ‘gay,’ ‘lesbian,’ or ‘homosexual’ in non-Western discourses the anthropologist or student, brings Western definitions and all of their cultural and historical meaning to situations that may not apply. The student will then come to generalize the personal and political contest these individuals live, and the student sadly loses the history which they are trying to study. “ ‘Foreign’ Sexualities in Francophone Contexts” author Thomas C. Spear notes in his essay that “When studying depictions of overtly homosexual acts…one must exercise caution not to apply our notions of homosexuality to a very different social context.8” But what are these authors trying to really say? Are they saying that ‘gay’ doesn’t exist in Francophone African context? Unfortunately the answer, is more complicated than a simple yes or no answer.

1 Francophone Africa the French speaking part of Africa, typically considered to be West Africa, it runs from modern day Senegal to parts of Chad and the Congo. For the purpose of this text, Francophone Africa will generally deal with the West Coast, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. A map of Colonial Africa, which is still relevant linguistically can be found at

2Quotes are used here to signify that there is a valid question to whether or not the same terminology can be used.

3Sotadic has been found to be spelled two ways: the way previous and Stotadic. For sake of this paper, the former will be used A fuller explanation of his theory can be found at

4A colored map and links to other information regarding Sodates can befound at

5Pincheon-Stanford, Bill. “An Ethnography of Silences: Race, (Homo)sexualites, and a Discourse of Africa” African Studies Review, Vol. 43, no. 3 (Dec., 2000) p. 43

6Murray, Stephen O. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Litterature. New York University Press, New York. 1997. p 212-214

7Amory, Deborah P. “ ‘Homosexuality’ in Africa: issues and Debates” Issue: A journal of Opinion, Vol. 25, No. 1, Commentaries in African Studies: Essays about African Social Change and the Meaning of our Professional Work. (1997) p 8.

8Spear, Thomas c. “’Foreign’ Sexualities in Francophone Contexts” Modern language Studies, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 , (Autumn, 1998), p. 198.