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Gays in Francophone Africa (Part 2)

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

Homosexuality does exist in Francophone Africa, but what the authors are trying to convey is that it is a different type of homosexuality. Where in the West, for example, New York, London, or Paris, one will find various Gay Pride Parades, where gay is an identification and a way of life, as oppose to a sexual activity where even though men may engage in same-sex sexual activities, they never define themselves by it. For example, Spear notes in his essay, a Moroccan name Rachid O. who gave an explicit account of one of his sexual escapades, “ils me faisaient des propositions mais chacun son tour, jamais en group, ils discutaient avec moi, aucun ne m’ai jamais fait comprendre que c’était du chantage. Je n’ai jamais senti que c’était méchant ou agressif. Ils voulaient juste coucher avec moi...9’’ What’s interesting to note here, is not that Rachid had several same-sex encounters with his friends, but how it didn’t classify him as gay. Surely, in a Western context, any boy/man who engages in multiple same-sex encounters would be given the label, even if said boy(s) didn’t want the label.

It is examples like Rachid’s, where Spear and Amory warn of imposing Western values on non-Western contexts. Amory gives a solid statement regarding this idea when she analyzes the works of Eveyln Blackwood “She draws our attention to both the material and ideological constraints that are differentially imposed on men and women in any given cultural context, and the divergent meanings of sexual practices and behaviors that result. Blackwood joins with other scholars in calling for an integrated analysis of ‘sex-gender systems, one that pays attention to local nuances in meaning, and the interconnections between sex, gender, and other categories of social identity10” But if given the chance, how would they define homosexuality and what label would they ascribe to themselves?

Unfortunately, that question is more complicated than it may appear. Although there is a calling for anthropologists to steer away from using Westernized terminology such as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual,’ the Francophone African community has nevertheless adopted them for their own purposes. There are indeed ‘gay’ people in Francophone Africa who identify with the Western idea of Gay Pride, of wanting a monogamous same-sex relationship equal to their heterosexual counterpart. Amory sums up this conversion of ideas by stating that “…(what) we are witnessing, then, are two related but distinct developments in African Studies(and around the world): one branch of research documents and theorizes diverse African histories of sexuality and gender, while another articulates emerging postcolonial liberation movements organized around lesbian and gay identities and rights.11” Here she articulates perfectly the growing duel ideology regarding ‘homosexuality’ and Africa. There are those who have adopted the Western context of gay and identify with it, and then there is the scholarly approach to try to regain some sort of ‘universal gay history’ which proves that homosexuals as a group have existed throughout history, in every culture and society, and therefore deserve their rightful place in today’s society.

Though there are indeed the same-sex relationships which most Westerners think of when thinking about gays in Francophone Africa, there is a whole other level of same-sex relationships which exist throughout the continent, where Western terminology doesn’t apply. In some African languages, there are ‘third gender’ roles. That’s to say, roles that seem, counter-intuitive to a given gender and fall in a nebulous area for Western thinkers. Two such roles are the Swahili third gender role mashoga, who are male transvestites who play drums and are musicians12 or the Hausa who have “the men who talk like women.13” Both these roles, from a Western point of view, may be classified as being ‘effeminate’ or ‘gay’ but the same terminology cannot be used, because the sexuality is in a very different context from the traditional dichotic nature of gender roles Western culture.
In a more Francophone context, in Sudanic West Africa, a group of African’s known as the Mossi, now located in Burkina Faso had a non-Western approach to homosexuality. Sonorés or pages, were the most beautiful of boys between the ages of seven and fifteen. They were dressed as women and given feminine roles including sexual roles with the chiefs of the tribe. These Sonorés were highly respected members of the tribe, and those deemed to be the most trustworthy were entrusted with state secrets. Though favored by the chiefs and other leaders, they were still forced to undergo strict examination once a year to determine if they had ever been sexually active with a woman. Once the boy reached a decent age of maturity (perhaps seventeen to twenty) he was given a wife. The son of the Sonorés was given to the Chief to follow in his father’s footsteps; a daughter was given in marriage by the chief.14

Again, a Western thinker should take caution to not place a Euro-American view of the Sonorés. From a Western point of view, they would indeed be classified anywhere from ‘gay’ to ‘bisexual.’ However, the Occidental thinker should also remember that the Sonorés didn’t have a choice, and also that it was a valued post to have amongst the tribe and state, not a shameful or sinful position. Although the Sonorés were subservient to the Chief both sexually, and socially, they were not defined nor did they identify themselves by their sexual activities, rather they were identified by their responsibilities and privileges that they had to perform in the tribe.

Similarly, this lack of identification by sexual activity can be seen in the middle twentieth century. In the overview of the West African chapter in their compilation book Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, the editors Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe recount a statement told to them by Gerben Potman and Huub Ruijgrok regarding same-sex marriage in relationships in the Senegal area: “Each of the friends delivered a speech and rings were exchanged. The married couples, however, did not have the means to live together in the same house. Only a few rich urban men have the opportunity to live together. They also noted that there are men who ‘will never consider or identify themselves as homosexuals, even if they have sex with other men regularly’ and others who ‘clearly prefer homosexual contacts’ but ‘will never label themselves publicly as homosexual because of the consequences. They therefore hide both their identity and activities.’15 ” Thomas Spear adds to this anonymity regarding homosexuality by quoting from Arno Schmitt, “in the societies of Muslim north Africa and Southwest Asia male-male sexuality plays an important role. But in theses societies there are no ‘homosexuals’-there is no word for ‘homosexuality’-the concept is completely unfamiliar…it is, in fact, rather odd to apply the term ‘homosexuality’ (with attendant notions of homo-positive gays or even ‘queers’ of the West) to a North African context. 16

With all of these statements, the multi-faceted identities and labels of homosexuality are present. In the first statement, there is open acceptance of their own homosexuality by being willing to marry a member of the same sex; however, the means of life afterwards were impossible. Then within the same geographic area, during the same time frame of the mid twentieth century, there are clearly men who prefer same-sex sexual activity but will never identify themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual.’ However, what should be noted is the ambiguity of where the men not defining themselves as gay. The question remains: do they refuse to identify as being ‘gay’ because of they are ‘hiding’ or because they are trying to avoid Western nomenclature? The answer unfortunately, lies within the minds of these, and like-minded men.

There are still examples today of same-sex relations in Francophone Africa that don’t fit within the confines of Western terminology. However, like Amory explained in her essay, there is still a growing emergence of African thought that define with the West and their use of homosexual, gay and lesbian, who want above all else, equality. Unfortunately, more so than even the gays in the West, their battle is harder to fight, not because of the inherent ‘sin’ of homosexuality, but also because of the world wide belief, that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Africa.

Many throughout Africa, including leaders of Zimbabwe and other Muslim leaders of Francophone Africa, feel that homosexuality is a ‘Western perversion’ which the colonialists brought with them, along with the other ‘advances’ in civilization. This perversion is even more damaging to some in the black and African community because to most African blacks (including black Americans) there is no ‘gay Africa.’ Ironically, like Burton many Africans and blacks feel that the continent of Africa, with the exception of Northern Africa (which was of course tainted by foreigners) is immune to the ‘taint’ of homosexuality. Spear notes in his article that “this colleague, a professor in a department of Africology, tells me he can broach the ‘tabou subject’ of homosexuality only because he is tenured…his students {say}surtout les jeunes mâles, se sentient mal(es) à l’aise he says, and often drop his course. ‘Homosexuality doesn’t exist in the black world, period,’ his students say, ‘and anyway, we kill those kinds of people. 17 ’”

Unfortunately, it isn’t clear what his students mean by ‘black world.’ Is that Africa? Or is that black North America? The reader isn’t clear, and the only way to find out, is to actually ask the class, which of course is quite impossible. However, what is easy to conclude is that the class, as well as those with the same mentality, suffer from a severe case of contradiction; if homosexuality doesn’t exist in the black world, which all scholarly and anthropological evidence says indeed does (see references), then ‘those kinds of people’ can’t be killed because they don’t exist.

Though a wake-up call to those who feel that there is no homosexuality in the ‘black world,’ the rest of the scholarly world is aware of the existence of same-sex relationships within the ‘black world.’ However, what is wrongly debated is the ‘cause’ of it; whether it is indeed an import of Western or foreign influences, or something that has existed throughout its culture since creation. There are indeed several African writers and poets who feel that “homophilia is exclusively a deviation introduced by colonialists or their descendants, by outsiders of all kinds: Arabs, French, English, metis, and so on. It is difficult for them to conceive that homophilia might be the act of a black African. 18 ” Unfortunately, it is because of this lack of acceptance regarding Africa’s own involvement in homophilia that is to say, willing acts of Africans and blacks in general towards same-sex relationships, that leads to the homophobia which exists throughout much of Francophone Africa. Pincheon expresses this sentiment best by saying, “This denial, promulgated by scholars…has contributed to lingering ideas that same-sex sexual activity, and now a homosexual identification, were not present on the continent, a denial which, coupled with antigay attitudes, continues to threaten the humanity of lesbian and gay men of African descent. 19

To say that being gay20 is difficult in Francophone Africa is the understatement of the century. They not only have to deal with denial from their peers and countrymen that homosexuality ‘doesn’t exist,’ but they also have to deal with the very real danger of outward violence and punishment by law, which in some countries can mean death. In an editorial posted by an anonymous writer on, a young man named Hassan from Morocco says that “ici, au Maroc, nous risquons la prison. Dans le royaume, l’homosexualité est un délit passible de prison. Jusqu’à trios ans!...D’autant qu’ici, au Maroc, il n’ya pas d’association de défense des droits des gays. Sauf les associations de prévention contre le sida.’’ He explains in his article how he is indeed a self identifying gay man, who has been using the internet in order to do his coming out process and meet other gays in his area. He also explains of how forty three gay men were arrested in party house in Tetouan21 . Here is just a small example of the homophobia and dangers that exist for gays in Francophone Africa. Thankfully, he has been lucky to have been able to use the Internet. Though it is quite sad, that the only place Hassan is able to find any sort of help or counseling, is at an AIDS counseling center, other than that, there are no protections or safety zones for him to seek help at.

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

9Spear, Thomas C p. 198

10Amory, Deborah, p. 8

11Amory, Deborah. P. 8

12Further information can be found at

13Amory, Deborah. P. 8

14Murray, Stephen O, Roscoe, will. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities. St. Martin’s Press, New York. 1998. pp. 91-92

15Murray, Steven O, Roscoe, Will. Pp. 107-108

16Spear, Thomas. P. 197

17Spear, Thomas C. p. 197

18Pincheon-Stanford, Bill p 46

19Pincheon-Stafford, Bill p. 51

20Unless otherwise noted, from here on out, words gay, homosexual and lesbian shall have a western context, for the discussion has shifted to the current status of self-identifying homosexuals in Francophone Africa

21Hassan, posted by Muriel Signouret. Ici, au Maroc, nous risquons la prison