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date: 03 December 2022

Queer African Studiesfree

Queer African Studiesfree

  • Godfried AsanteGodfried AsanteSchool of Communication, San Diego State University

Summary

The main goals of the rapidly growing interdisciplinary field of queer African studies (QAS) are to (a) resist the continual (post)colonial perpetuation of “African culture” as a homogenous entity devoid of diverse nonnormative genders and sexualities, (b) seek to decenter universal Western epistemological framing of queerness, and (c) reveal the intersectional ways that queer African subjectivities are experienced. Drawing primarily from African/Africanist scholarship and queer theory/studies, QAS seeks to create more fluidities between a network of activists and university-based professors to produce contextually relevant and grounded studies that center African experiences in conversations on gender and sexuality. In particular, scholarship in QAS places Africans’ lived experiences as the starting point to theorize queerness. As an interdisciplinary field of study with scholars from history, anthropology, political science, sociology, legal studies, and African studies, QAS has emerged as an essential theoretical intervention in African studies, queer of color critique, and postcolonial studies. In this way, it opens up spaces to interrogate the theoretical and material concerns of queer theory and African studies beyond its westernized origins and focus. For same-gender-loving, queer, nonbinary, and trans Africans, for whom queer theory’s historical beginnings seem to have written them out of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer Intersex+ Euro American history, their emergent contributions to the now institutionally anchored discipline of queer theory, and queer studies in communication, provide a necessary corrective and decolonial endeavor to decentralize the Euro American lens in which queerness tends to be theorized and explored. In this regard, while “queering” Africa is a necessary project for some scholars, “Africanizing” queer studies equally provide the epistemological shifts needed to dislodge the West as the source and referent for queer theorizing. The field of communication studies is diverse in its formations and production of knowledge. However, the different subfields all cohere around the commitment to theorizing the symbolic and material systems of communication that enable individuals to make sense of their lives and their positionalities in both local and transnational contexts. QAS can invariably contribute to the various subfields of communication studies by providing an alternative epistemological framework for analyzing language and meaning, especially as they pertain to gender and sexuality.

Subjects

  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)

Introduction

Queer African studies (QAS) has emerged as a growing interdisciplinary field of studies that draws on scholarship from legal studies, postcolonial studies, African studies, cultural studies, development studies, health, communication studies, sociology, history, anthropology, and queer theory. On the one hand, queer African scholarship seeks to disrupt the colonial reification of “African culture” currently being used to debase and criminalize the lives of queer, trans, nonbinary, same-gender-loving Africans. On the other hand, scholars who center their work in QAS have resisted the contemporary refrain that sutures “homophobia” to “Africa” without attending to the needed cultural meanings, historical context, neocolonial reifications, transnational geopolitical relations, and local sociocultural complexities that are creating the anti-Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender hysteria and anti-queer animus in parts of Africa. Notably, queer African scholars reveal the ongoing (re)negotiations of the erotic, desire, care, and love by harnessing the theoretical foundations of queerness embedded in customary laws, and cultural traditions within the postcolonial national context that is as dynamic and shifting as its precolonial precedent. Given this broad overview, this article will detail the emergent theoretical concerns in QAS and how it can be taken up within queer communication studies. The article begins by discussing the tensions surrounding the use of “queer”––a Western-based concept in Africa and how queer African scholars have reconciled its use in the African context. An outline is then presented of the sociohistorical contexts that produced what is now known as QAS in the discipline of African studies, followed by an exploration of the theoretical intersections between African studies and queer studies by outlining where they intersect and where tensions still exist. Finally, a discussion thematically organizes how QAS can reinvigorate and work toward what is concurrently a move toward de-Westernization in queer communication studies.

Defining “Queer” in Queer African Studies?

Queer often connotes an idea that can be used to challenge and destabilize rigid sex/gender categories. Queering is often referenced as an umbrella term to describe the active process of making normative and taken-for-granted social relations look strange. In doing so, queering is a trenchant process of exposing underlying power relations and, importantly, offers possibilities of resistance (Eguchi & Asante, 2016; Jagose, 1996; Yep, 2013). However, deliberations about the meaning and utility of the term in the African context also exist. For one, scholars such as Nyanzi (2014) have critiqued the uncritical deployment of the term in African contexts as a neo-imperial project. Additionally, Matebeni (2014) notes that the term can occlude diversities within groups of people or within Africans themselves (also see a forum in Chevrette & Eguchi, 2020). Regardless of the possibility of cooptation, some scholars have largely embraced the critical impulse embedded in the idea of “queer” and “queering” while regionalizing its analytical and theoretical tools (among several others, see Adjepong, 2021; Camminga, 2020; Livermon, 2020; Nyeck and Epprecht, 2013; Tamale, 2011). Matebeni et al. (2018) note that “African non-heterosexual sexualities and gender diversities are, in our view neither static nor uniform; rather they are dynamic, multifarious, and resilient” (p. 1). As such, it is important to note that other non-heterosexual or nonbinaried identities coexist alongside globalized terms such as queer at a local country-specific level. Examples include Sassoi in Ghana (Otu, 2019), Hungochani in Zimbabwe (Epprecht, 2013), Yan Daudo in northern Nigeria (Gaudio, 2011), Magai on the East African Coast (Amory, 1998), and Khuntha in North Africa (Almarri, 2018). The experiential realities of these terms sometimes conflict with the normative constructions of queerness, particularly in Western academic milieus. Similarly, such local terms are themselves not immutable but are equally contestable as bodies cross borders, and economic and familial conditions change. In this vein, queer African scholarship has provided varying definitions of queerness in the African context. Central to their definitions are questions on the political utility of queerness, as a tool to critique heteronormativity, its intersections to geopolitical imbalances, and neocolonial economic realities. Here, the larger contention is whether queer studies and its theoretical commitments, sutured to the identity polities of the United States, may limit the radical imagination of freedom and liberation on the African continent (Macharia, 2016; Matebeni, 2014).

In one of her ardent critiques of how the emerging scholarship called “queer African studies (QAS)” have attended to the idea of “queering Africa,” Nyanzi (2014) unsettles normative ideas of the queer subject in Africa. Mainly, how can queer African scholars identify whom to study when examining the material existence and identity performance of nonnormative embodiment in a continent with diverse and complex social systems and cultural practices? Nyanzi warns against evaluating queerness through a Western frame of reference where the subject is identified by their sexual object choice. It is important to note that the critique of what is queerness in QAS is much less about the policing of the definitional boundaries of “queerness” in Africa. There are concerns about how the uncritical application of queer theory as it is done in the United States may occlude the conditions and possibilities that give rise to being queer in current African contexts. Her critique reveals how queer studies, with its beginnings in U.S. academic circles, may overlook cultural nuances that may not always be about same-sex desire. In her essay “Queering Queer Africa,” Nyanzi (2014) poses a question to her queer colleagues who are unable to read her as queer: “if queer is indeed an open invitation to all of us opposed to essentialized patriarchal, heterosexist, heteronormative binary configurations of sexual orientations and gender identities, why do I repel queers . . . is it my Africanness or queerness that is lacking?” (p. 61). Nyanzi, a feminist, heterosexual-identified cis woman, is one of the fiercest critics of anti-LGBT laws in Uganda. However, her depiction of queerness seems elusive to some queer Ugandans. In fact, she has been charged by some queer Ugandans as occupying “queer African spaces.” Her question is an invitation to queer scholars in general to reconceptualize their definition of queerness on the African continent. The contentions around definitional boundaries, embodiment, and limitations of the potentiality of U.S.-based queer studies in QAS is connected to ongoing criticisms of queer studies to fully capture the intersectional material realities of people of color in the United States and Europe (Haritaworn et al., 2008; Johnson, 2001; Puar, 2007). Even though the genesis of queer of color critique is the United States and Europe, its analytical tools have been harnessed to explicate the limitations of queer studies and queer of color itself on the African continent.

Traditional queer studies seek to destabilize heteronormativity by acutely occupying the site of anti-normativity as the site for critiquing normativity. However, some queer African scholars have consistently shown that such reductive binaries (normativity and anti-normativity) pose analytical limitation in exploring how queer Africans negotiate their identities (Asante, 2019; Hoad, 2007). Notably, some key communal identities, traditional customs, and religious institutions that can be overlooked as an “oppressive cultural heterosexual institution” can be reworked and may appear as an integral aspect of queer African subjectivities. A key example of an area that can be an integral aspect of queer African subjectivities is religion. Given that much of the resistance to queerness has emanated from religious institutions, queer is seen as frequently antagonistic to religion and spirituality. Van Klinken (2019) writes that “while religious studies has overlooked queer theory’s potential insights to challenge religion’s control over ‘public morality’ and ‘purity of the nation,’ queer theory has also neglected to engage with religion” (p. 12). The resulting impasse is that queer studies fails to “grasp the potential of religious traditions to not only reinforce but subvert heteronormativity” (p. 14). In this vein, a question that Van Klinken’s work unravels is whether Christian religious beliefs and practices can serve even as a source of queer creativity and its implication for theorizing queer African subjectivity. In a continent where several people identify with a religious institution, queer worldmaking is not always outside of, but is enacted in relation to traditional customs, religious beliefs, and globalized LGBTQI+ identities. Thus, African sexual subjects remake themselves in ways that hold onto certain African customs, religions, and traditions but also find ways that undermine its totalizing heterosexist power structure (e.g., see Mbasalaki, 2019).

Defining Queerness

Overall, queer has largely been defined as a political framework and not as a form of identity in queer African scholarship. Ekine and Abbas, in their geminal anthology Queer African Reader, take a careful approach to their definition of queerness in Africa by emphasizing its political utility rather than as a form of gender identity or sexual behavior. They emphasize that attention to how Africanness and queerness intersect could be productive to the political work of queer African studies. They wrote:

We define “queer” here and in the title to denote a political frame rather than a gender identity or sexual behavior. We use queer to underscore a perspective that embraces gender and sexual plurality and seeks to transform, overhaul, and revolutionize African order rather than seek to assimilate into oppressive hetero-patriarchal-capitalist framework. Queer is our dissidence stance, but we use it here knowing the limitations of the terminology in relation to our African neocolonial realities.

In her introduction to the Handbook on Queer African Studies, S. N. Nyeck (2019) similarly utilizes “queer” as a political frame rather than as a gender or sexual identity. She notes that queer in Africa is a “non-exhaustive umbrella for non-heteronormative sexualities and gender identities” (p. 3). Here, adopting queerness as a political frame and a dissidence stance means that the politics of sexuality is hardly taken up alone; it appears always in tandem with a dynamic sociopolitical and postcolonial material reality.

The scholarly conversations in the nascent field of queer African studies about defining queerness as a political dissident has implications in the ways queer African communicative practices are researched and archived. It is important to note that the point of this debate is not to assert a unique kind of “queerness” as distinctly “African” or “Western.” Instead, Matebeni et al. (2018) assert that the knowledge of being queer in Africa “mediates southern and northern queer scholarship, directing attention towards African-centered understandings accessible to a wider audience” (p. 7). The emphasis on African-centered framings and enactments of queerness is crucial because, as Asante (2019) contends, nonnormativity could appear in unlikely modalities in different regions of the African continent. Reflecting on his experience while presenting at an academic conference on how Black figures encounter each other to revamp oppressive gendered systems, Keguro Macharia (2015) writes,

When I examine, say, how wearing trousers was an important moment in Gikuyu colonial modernity when gender and sexuality shifted in radical ways, or how shifting practices of labor and punishment in pre- and postemancipation Jamaica remade notions of gender and sexuality, I see yawns lining up in mainstream queer studies. Where are the “queers”? Sometimes, the question is, where are the white people we care about and at other times, “where are the Europeans and U.S. inhabitants we can care about?” (p. 186)

In summary, Macharia suggests that how queerness is defined in the African context is a shifting and unstable endeavor. Ultimately, though there are disagreements on what constitutes queerness on the African continent, QAS scholarship is united around its potentiality to challenge (hetero)normative institutions and structures that sustain oppressive and essentialized gendered and sexual identities.

Historical Beginnings and Political Contexts of Queer African Studies

While queer African studies (QAS) is relatively a recent area of inquiry in communication studies, it began as a subfield of study in African studies in the 1990s (see Amory, 1997). Parallel to the absorption of queer theory in numerous university departments in the United States, queer scholars in African studies also began to resist the studied avoidance of research on “homosexuality.” Mirroring the ongoing debasement of same-sex sexuality on the African continent by political leaders such as the former president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and the former president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, Amory (1997) notes that some scholars in African studies were also reproducing the insidious accusation that “homosexuality” is a Western import and an immoral residue of European colonization of Africa (Amory 1997; Currier & Migraine-George, 2016). This charge meant that Western scholars did most of the research on gender and sexuality in Africa, some of whom wanted to prove a distinct “African sexuality” often represented in pathological ways (e.g., Caldwell et al., 1989).

Since colonization, European colonialists have been preoccupied with the morality of African sexuality, especially with regards to behaviors they deemed as sinful and uncivilized, such as clitoridectomy, polygyny, and woman-to-woman marriages, among others. In fact, much of what has been written about precolonial African sexualities can be found in the colonial archive (Hoad, 2007; Macharia, 2015; Tamale, 2011). Drawing on postcolonial scholars such as Edward Said and V. Y. Mudimbe, Desiree Lewis (2011) explains how the linguistic, visual, scholarly, and popular interpretation of African bodies relied on a false notion of perceived sexual depravity to serve as a “polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world” (Mbembe, 2001, p. 2). In another example, McClintock (1995) examined the connections between imperial sexuality and colonial conquest and settlement. She showed how eroticism was central to the narratives of the sexual superiority of European colonialists. Murray and Roscoe (1998) make a similar argument that the overemphasis on Africans’ “primitive” stature formed the bases for European colonialists to “highlight that which distinguishes Western cultures by describing that which is not Western” (p. xi). Thus, the promulgation of myths about “African sexualities” has partially contributed to the belief that same-sex desires were imported to the continent through colonialism.

One such myth is the belief that because Africans epitomized primitiveness and, thus, closeness to nature, they could not exhibit homoerotic desires. In this regard, Dlamini (2006) explained, “since primitive man was perceived to be close to nature, ruled by instincts, and culturally unsophisticated, he had to be heterosexual; his sexual energies and outlets devoted exclusively to their ‘natural’ purpose” (p. 132). The myth of primitive Africans and their inherent heterosexuality can be traced to anthropologist Edward Gibbon’s work in sub-Saharan Africa. Gibbons is quoted by Murray and Roscoe (1998) to have written: “I believe and hope the negros, in their own country, were exempt from this moral pestilence [i.e.. homosexual vice].” The pervasiveness of the narrative that same-sex desires are absent on the African continent prompted other influential anthropologists who witnessed same-sex sexual intimacies and activities to exclude such findings in their ethnographic reports. Murray and Roscoe (1998) wrote that anthropologists such as Richard Burton (1893), and Evans Pritchard & Gillies (1937), evaded recording their observations about same-sex sexual activities. The consequences of such intended absences have concretized the now-proselytized mantra that homosexuality is not innate to Africans but a Western import. The effect of false narratives and myths about the absence of same-sex sexuality through European colonialists’ reports has been exacerbated by the proliferation of Pentecostalist Charismatic Churches across sub-Saharan Africa (Kaoma, 2012), some of whom have connections to the Catholic Church and U.S. Conservative Evangelical Churches, losing a cultural war in the United States.

Kaoma (2012) wrote that Christian conservatives have found a growing acceptance of their ideologies in African countries due to their declining popularity in the United States. With an emphasis on abstinence-only education, faithfulness within heterosexual marriage, and anti-abortion, groups such as Family Watch International have lobbied African governments and traditional African churches to adopt U.S. conservative right ideologies as “African culture.” With already a Christianity saturated with identified demons and the prosperity gospel, which claims that simple faith in Jesus Christ will bring financial wealth and well-being, Kaoma (2012) explains that Africa provides a receptive home for U.S. Christian right movements that may be a minority in the United States. Similarly, the embrace of reproduction as a virtue and childlessness as a tragedy in some African communities provide an opening for the U.S. Christian right’s promotion of “family values.” The claim to a particular “African family values” reproduces essentialized gendered binaries that leave no room for the expression of nonnormative genders and sexualities.

The influx of international funding from the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS (UNAIDS) and U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), among others, to expand resources toward HIV infections in many parts of Africa has opened the door for the emergence of sexual and reproductive health rights discourse. Marc Epprecht (2012) stated that the “strategic embrace of health discourses is one ‘cloaking’ mechanisms to slip sexual minority rights onto the local agenda”. This shows that there is some progress toward the attainment of sexual rights for LGBT people across West Africa through the strategic use of HIV/AIDS relief funds. However, Sylvia Tamale (2011) argues that the proliferation of policies focusing on HIV/AIDS, in connections with the World Health Organization, civil societies, bilateral partners, pharmaceutical corporations, and Western medical and health professionals have largely been advanced using quantitative biomedical tools which “ignores the qualitative socio-economic aspects of the epidemic” (p. 17). The consequence is that research that centers on queer pleasure, desire, and sexual agency is deprioritized. As such, sex is approached only as a problem to be fixed, which ultimately reinforces the colonial-era myths and stereotypes of a specific “African sexuality” that is deviant, insatiable, morally corrupt, and dangerous.

In an often-critiqued example of the essentialist approach to representing “African sexuality,” demographers Caldwell et al. (1989) developed a theory about African sexuality (a problematic framework) to understand the social context of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. In their influential text, Caldwell et al. claimed that one could explain the apparent differences of African AIDS by paying attention to the specifics of a particular “African sexuality” as a distinct and coherent system (Caldwell et al., 1989). The authors created seven recognizable traits that distinguished African sexuality from so-called Eurasian sexuality. African sexuality thereby: (a) does not occupy a central position in African moralities; (b) allows for general “sexual permissiveness”; (c) accords low value to female chastity because of the reproduction focus of African lineage ideologies; (d) is based on a dual sex system that separates a female sphere from a male sphere; (e) produces loose and emotionally weak conjugal bonds; (f) does not recognize female pleasure; and (g) is characterized by a high occurrence of transactional sex. Caldwell’s conceptual framework and assertions have been subjected to rigorous critique, setting up a barrage of criticism in contemporary sexuality scholarship (Ahlberg, 1994; Le blanc et al., 1991; Tamale, 2011). In her trenchant critique of Caldwell’s “African sexuality” thesis, Beth Maina Ahlberg (1994) counterargued that Caldwell et al.’s conceptualization of African sexuality “ignores and suppresses patterns of change that would undermine their thesis of permissive African sexuality” (p. 25). For instance, Ahlberg notes that by assuming that African sexuality has

no religious moral value and that the forces of change (including European colonization and urbanization) had no impact or that early anthropologists reached wrong conclusions about change, Caldwell et al. have few options but to see change only in terms of expanded permissiveness. (p. 25, my emphasis)

Exploring how knowledge about sexuality has been developed across the African region, Undie and Benaya (2006) write that Caldwell et al.’s conceptualization of African sexuality made clear the limitations of addressing research on African sexuality through colonial lens and methodologies even if the motive is prudent.

From a focus on sexuality as a moral question to the study of sexuality as a problem and the production of African sexuality as exclusively heterosexual, these historical trends form part of the historical and political context that drives QAS research. For centuries, gender and sexuality in parts of Africa have been resignified as sites of perversion, morality, incivility, and irrationality. These views continue to influence contemporary knowledge about gender and sexuality in Africa. It is within these historical developments that QAS has emerged as a necessary interdisciplinary field of study within African studies. Nonetheless, since QAS is largely composed of scholars based in the United States and Europe, scholarly disagreements have emerged on how the interdisciplinary endeavor between queer studies and African studies could be deployed productively. The productive tensions between African studies and queer studies are necessary to explore, as they re-ignite discussions about the need for decolonization.

Bridging Two Worldviews: Queer Studies, African Studies, and Their Implications for Queer Communication Studies

Unequivocally, both queer studies and African studies have political goals that align more than they diverge, even though they tend to be represented as two seemingly incommensurable sites of study. Still, it would be naïve to not acknowledge the divergent historiographies of the fields of African studies and queer studies. More importantly, the theoretical goals of African studies and queer studies can be aligned with each other while maintaining a productive tension between the two areas of study. In a long-overdue essay that charts the intersectional theoretical possibilities between African studies and queer studies despite their divergent historical beginnings and political interests, Currier and Migraine-George (2016) note that African studies scholars have decidedly avoided developing theoretical insights into queer theory. Simultaneously, they claim that some queer studies scholars have primarily overlooked gender and sexual plurality in different African societies. Epprecht (2008) notes that queer studies scholars who invariably include Africa “cherry-pick obscure references” to bolster arguments (particularly in the Global North) that queerness is indeed everywhere. Currier and Migraine-George conclude that the lack of engagement between African studies and queer theory is a missed opportunity for both to enrich each other’s disciplinary circumference. An examination of the intersections between queer studies and African studies shows that they can used together to leverage a more robust critique of cisheteronormativity on the African continent and beyond. And aligning both can generate productive tensions that has implications for how queer communication studies is theorized.

Queer studies and African studies can complement each other and, as such, can build on each other’s theoretical limitations if utilized sufficiently. While queer studies has produced several insights into the working of heteronormativity, it has been critiqued as unable to adequately capture the material realities of people who are non-Western, white, able-bodied queer subjects. In response to such critiques, several adjustments to queer theory have been made (e.g., Quare studies, Kaur Studies, Crip studies, etc.). Transnational queer scholars have also argued that the breadth of queer studies has been uncritically used preemptively to define and explore sexual politics in non-Western contexts without first grounding it in the cultural and material context of that location (Moussawi, 2020). This critique is particularly relevant in the African context. As Neville Hoad reminds us, Africanness is an “intimate structure” that cannot be excised from the continent’s histories of colonialism and current postcolonial and geopolitical formations. Additionally, the continent has a wealth of knowledge that is typically unacknowledged or overlooked because of its demarcation as “customary” or “cultural,” and, thus, theoretically unusable even though several studies suggest that queer Africans adapt traditional and cultural norms for alternative purposes. In a recently published special issue in GLQ titled: Time of Out Joint: The Queer and the Customary in Africa, Fiereck et al. (2020) drew attention to the African queer customary as a possible space of political pragmaticism. Here, the customary is not the same as the hegemonic realm of customary law. Customary practices and discourses are used in ways that produce unexpected outcomes, or they re-articulate the terms of their use. This is what Xavier Livermon (2015) referred to as “usable traditions.” Exploring same-sex marriages in South Africa, Yarbrough (2018) asserted that the transaction between civil and customary law, embedded in same-sex marriage ideals, opens the possibilities to reform personhood, intimacy, and social relation. For instance, Mbasalaki (2019, 2020) essay shows how Black lesbians who wish to engage in traditional marriage ceremonies engage in a kind of cultural labor that enables the reproduction of spaces of belonging in their communities, “therefore contributing, not only to the township but also to African cultural capital, thus underwriting the very culture that often rejects and expels them” (p.38). Thus, as Fiereck et al. (2020) note, “there is an archive of the customary that may provide intellectual and affective resources to reimagine African sexual sovereignty.” (p. 2). As has been shown, some queer, gender-nonconforming, same-gender-loving Africans may use indigenous traditions and customs to redefine and refashion themselves. As such, an examination of their embodied experiences demand that the scholar understand the cultural nuances of traditions and customs and how they intersect with gender and sexuality.

Integrating queer studies and African studies has some implications for global queer communication studies. For one, it enriches the theoretical debates around intersectionality so central to queer and trans of color criticism. Although queer of color theorists have revealed limitations of using singular frameworks for understanding social phenomena, Arondekar (2005) notes that these fields of studies remain sutured to their U.S. academic origins despite their efforts to criticize the epidemic violence involved in the “provincial conflation of race and sex.” As such, Black queer studies and queer of color critique remain oriented to a particular geopolitical horizon of queer critique that produces other illegibilities of bodies outside of the United States. Such illegibilities have implications on how intersectionality is theorized within queer communication studies. In particular, Currier and Migraine-George (2016) assert that the interdisciplinary theorization of intersectionality largely produced by queer of color scholars in the United States remains embedded in cultural norms, that have sometimes “resolidified the Other––that is ‘ethnic’ and ‘queer’–– identities as necessarily ‘intersectional’ in contrast to white, heterosexual identities assumed to be central and homogenous” (p. 285). Currier and Migraine-George also point out that the deployment of intersectional analysis tends to centralize the United States as the “primary matrix,” which, in turn, privileges a “gridlike model” that fails to capture the shifting dynamics of identity formation over a period of time. The consequences of such dichotomizing are that queerness in African contexts tend to be “read” through U.S.-based queer identity politics of race, gender, class, and nationality that may or may not resonate with queer African subjects. In summary, drawing from the works of African/ist scholars may intervene in such oversight and hold queer communication studies accountable to its political commitments beyond the United States (Huang, 2021; Lee, 2014).

Incorporating Queer African Studies in Queer Communication Studies

Some scholars have productively and provocatively taken up gender and sexuality studies in Africa in communication studies by focusing on various themes. The various scholarship can be divided into subthemes: (a) colonial, postcolonial, and neoliberal entanglements of anti-LGBT violence in Africa; (b) discursive negotiations of identity; (c) coalition building and political activism; and (d) media presentation and queer African diasporic connections on social media.

Colonial, Postcolonial, and Neoliberal Entanglements of Anti-LGBT Violence in Africa

Several scholars outside of communication studies have argued against the simplification of episodes of anti-queer violence in parts of Africa, noting that the recent emergence of “homosexuality” as a public debate has encouraged a stereotypical view of Africa as an excessively homophobic space in relation to a tolerant and moral West (Ndashe, 2013). One such important critique is presented by Awondo et al. (2012), who contend that there are several and different trajectories in the formation of views on “homosexuality” across the African continent. Comparing the multiple ways that homosexuality became politicized in Senegal, Cameroun, Uganda, and South Africa, they found out, for example, in Senegal and Cameroon, that the “homosexual” is represented as a rich and powerful “Big Man” who utilizes anal sex as a form of the subjection of his victims to be rich. Such views connect homosexuality to occultism, wealth, and power, thus producing a particular reaction to “homosexuality” in a region with vast fundamentalist religious influence. They conclude that more studies are needed to shed light on the “variations that are loosely labeled homophobia in Africa because the homosexual figure can take on such different contours” (p. 160).

In another essay, Awondo et al. (2012) maintains that the persistent African newspaper publications of anti-LGBT rhetoric from religious leaders and politicians should instead be read as the result of fierce rivalry between emerging news media companies in such countries as such anti-queer discourses do not always mirror the general public’s sentiments around nonnormative sexuality. In fact, sprouting progressive voices are hardly mentioned in such reports. Ndashe (2013) avers that while there have been progressive voices against homophobic attacks, such voices are drowned in the global search for homophobes in Africa. Also, several local activists and community-based organizations are speaking out against homophobic attacks. Activists such as Alice Nkom, a lawyer in Doula, Cameroon, are among the few lawyers who defend those accused of homosexual acts. She is the founder of the Defense of Homosexuals in Cameroon in Cameroon. In Uganda, Stella Nyanzi is a fierce critic of President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for more than 30 years and recently signed the infamous Uganda anti-homosexuality bill into law. Leila Slimani has denounced the humiliation of gay people in Morocco. Lastly, musicians such as Wanlov Kubolo Efya and C-Real have taken to social media to condemn homophobic attacks in Ghana. However, such progressive voices hardly make it into local and Western media narratives of homophobic violence, laws, and attacks, which reproduce homonationalist frames that establish Western Europe and the United States as exceptional and Africa as backward and uncivilized (Ndashe, 2013). These scholars resist the single story of Africa’s homophobia and call for more nuanced intersectional analysis of anti-LGBT violence by emphasizing queer studies, African studies, and postcolonial theory to highlight the historicity of the recent explosions of anti-queer violence in Africa (Thoreson, 2014).

In communication studies, Asante’s (2020) essay, “Anti-LGBT Violence and the Ambivalence (Colonial) Discourses of Ghanaian Pentecostalist Charismatic Church Leaders,” examined the rhetoric used by Ghanaian Pentecostalists Charismatic Church leaders to rationalize the continuation of criminalization of same-sex desires and non-heterosexual relations without being held accountable for how such discourses influence the normalization of anti-LGBT violence. Drawing from critical discourse analysis, (queer) postcolonial studies, and critical intercultural communication, Asante examined the relationship between institutionally produced discourses and the material conditions of anti-LGBT violence in Ghana. Largely centralizing the fabricated notion of the “African family” and heterosexuality as “natural,” some GPCC church leaders have argued that nonnormative sexuality is unnatural and, therefore, “unAfrican.” Furthermore, most of these pastors have contended that decriminalization of homosexuality will bring God’s wrath to the nation. The false claim that same-sex sexual relations are “unnatural” and thus “unAfrican” is also made by other Christian religious groups in other African countries, such as Pastor Martin Ssempe in Uganda and Bishop Joseph Akonga Essomba from Cameroon, exposing a concerted continental effort to delegitimize queer sexuality in Africa.

Asante’s critical discourses analysis of GPCC’s anti-LGBT rhetoric similarly revealed that while resistance to such rhetoric exists, they are hardly reported by private and public news organizations and thus create the view that most Ghanaians support anti-LGBT views (Tettey, 2016). GPCC’s rhetoric is pervasive and persuasive because it draws on anticolonial rhetoric to argue that they are protecting Africans from being colonized. In short, although Christianity is a colonial institution in Africa, GPCCs are currently portraying it as innately an “African institution,” protecting the interest of all Africans (except queers, lesbians, sex workers). Asante’s research questions the very notion of the “post” in postcolonial theory by asking scholars to “queer” the postcolonial by paying attention to the marginalized voices that are left out in the (re)production of “Africa” as homophobic or the unholy defense of Africa as exclusively heterosexual (Epprecht, 2008).

Discursive Negotiations of Identity

In his essay, “Queering/Quaring/Kuaring/Crippin’/Transing ‘Other Bodies’ in Intercultural Communication,” Gust Yep (2013) called attention to the potential misreading of Other bodies when researchers ignore the multiple contexts that produces particular meaning in other places. As an example, using Donham’s (1998) case study of Linda, a gender and sexual nonnormative Black man who lived in post-apartheid South Africa, Yep (2013) critiques Donham’s characterization of Linda as a gay man by noting that Linda was not always gay. In response, he opines that what Donham (1998) needed to do was examine “how the larger political, cultural and historical forces, attitudes and relationships between social and cultural groups, and interactions between individuals in various communities operated simultaneously in and through Linda’s body to produce an international and Westernized conception of gay identity” (p. 121). In short, the proliferation of LGBT identities across the world as they are defined and enacted in the West does not mirror how gender and sexuality are lived in non-Western contexts.

While LGBT identities have become a site for political activism in many parts of Africa, the “LGBT acronym” does not fully capture the nuances and multilevel interplay that produces specific sexual behaviors in many parts of Africa. In other words, the language that is used to describe same-sex sexual relations (especially in academic circles) developed in a specific history pertaining to scientific inquiry, social relations, and political struggles that did not exist in Africa (Epprecht, 2008). As such, while African women or men may engage in same-sex eroticism, simply calling them “lesbian” or “gay” is incomplete. For instance, Broqua (2013) revealed that while some Malian men may engage in same-sex sexual behaviors, they do not identify as “gay” or “homosexual.” In fact, some men who engage in same-sex sexuality may resist LGBT rights altogether while still engaging in same-sex erotics. Other men also believe that heterosexuality and homosexuality are not incompatible (Broqua, 2013). What is largely understood to be at play is the glocalization of discourses around sexuality––an interplay between local discourses around sexuality and global discourses of sexual identity. This interplay is captured by the essay, “‘Queerly Ambivalent’: Navigating Global and Local Normativities in Postcolonial Ghana.” In this essay, Asante (2019) highlights how some Sasso (a Ghanaian colloquial term for same-gender-loving people in Ghana) navigate both the local sexual politics that enforce silence around sexualities and the visibility politics of transnational LGBT organizations by being queerly ambivalent. Drawing from the works of Muñoz (1999) and Bhabha (2012), according to Asante (2019), “queerly ambivalent captures the tensed space between the desire for same-sex pleasure, the need to maintain familial relationships and the material context of anti-LGBT violence” (p. 166). Asante asserts that ambivalence offers the theoretical energy to describe how queer Africans deploy and resist the suffocating constraints of LGBT identities and the restrictive boundaries of Ghanaian sexual citizenship simultaneously. For instance, he uses an emergent sexual culture called “classy” to describe “queerly ambivalent” by showing how being “classy” inflects a class positioning that makes one’s sexual identity ambiguous and irrelevant in certain situations. As such, “classy” is an expression and performance of class positioning that intersects with existing social hierarchies around gender and sexuality. In this vein, “classy” also reproduces a gendered hierarchy that debases queer femininity. However, Asante explains that although certain performances of “classy” debase male effeminacy in order to maintain a sense of ambiguity around sexual identity, queer scholars should not assume it is similar to the debasement of queer femininity in the United States and Western Europe. He explicates, “In the context of anti-LGBT violence, transnational LGBT visibility politics and the cultural silences around sexuality in Ghana, effeminate queer men (read as gay) by other queer Ghanaian men disrupt ambivalent meanings, which some Sasso deploy to navigate their same-sex desires and familial relationships” (Asante, 2019, p. 171).

In another study, Goltz et al. (2016), identified and analyzed sites of discursive negotiations among sexual and gender minorities in Kenya. First, they examined cultural myths or master narratives about LGBTI identities in Kenya and how LGBT Kenyans navigate such myths. Secondly, they explored the tension between mainstream understandings of homosexuality as an imported influence and the arising resistant articulations of LGBT identities as innate or natural; therefore, they should be granted the right to privacy. This discursive site revealed the tensions between individual sexual identity and the need to engage in sexual identity politics. Lastly, the authors analyzed how a glocal queer frame constitutes gay and lesbian identities in contemporary Kenya. They stated:

In a globalized world, where films, texts, meanings images, and representations of Western gay and lesbian culture circulate broadly and regularly, the criticism of the Western import is both a homophobic tool of the Kenyan master narrative and a necessary site of resistance for queer persons in Kenya. (p. 114)

Both studies by Asante and Goltz et al. point out how identity negotiation strategies among LGBT, queer, same-gender-loving, and gender-nonbinary individuals used in many parts of Africa defy simplistic categorizations such as local–global, normative–transgressive, to how such identities deploy glocal and disidentificatory identity negotiation practices that do not neatly follow similar rubrics of identity politics used in the West. To resist the simplistic reading of queer identity negotiation strategies in parts of Africa, Goltz et al. (2016) advise scholars doing research in African contexts to exercise caution in using a normative lens that may be complicit in the recentralizing Western conceptualization of gender and sexual identity. They advise scholars trained in Western traditions and universities to engage in cultural humility because it “requires acknowledging how researchers and the research process itself can function to falsely universalize Western knowledge” (Goltz et al., 2016, p. 118). Asante (2019) equally states that scholars who engage in research in Africa should centralize African material lived experiences and how they re-articulate queer theory altogether, and not only how queer theory is taken up in Africa.

Coalition Building and Political Activism

While numerous studies have emerged in African feminist studies and queer African studies, there is a lack of theoretical and political fluidity. These charges were quite evident at a U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, where many African women’s activists flagrantly explicated that matters relating to the sexual were not of priority to African women (Jolly, 2000; Okech, 2013). Awino Okech (2013) writes that the lack of cross engagement is quite ironic since LGBTI organizing and feminist/women’s rights draw from the intellectual history that is collectively called feminist theory and politics. Queer African studies and African feminist theorizing in parts of Africa typically converge on their critique of what Jacqui Alexander terms

heteropatriarchal recolonization––the similar use of militarized masculinities as a foundation for liberation and postcolonial nation-building––however, Jackson notes that because feminists are usually concerned with the ways heteronormativity depends on gender division, they are far less interested in the everyday practices of heterosexual relations. (as cited in Okech, 2013, p. 2)

Even though these troubling precepts exist, some African feminists such as Amina Mama, Sylvia Tamale, and Stella Nyanzi, among many others across the continent, are finding creative ways to develop spaces of solidarity with the emerging queer African movement. Awino Okech (2013) advises that the fundamental theories that structure such spaces need to shift for such emergent spaces to be effective. She writes, “the solidarity offered toward the growing queer movement in Africa cannot be seen as one that is simply building bridges across movements but as one that destabilizes heteronormativity by dismantling how the family, the state, the economy reproduces normative heterosexuality” (p. 26).

In a special forum titled “Queer African and African Feminist Coalitional Possibilities,” published in 2020 in the journal Women’s Studies in Communication, Godfried Asante, Jenna Hanchey, Joelle Cruz, Gloria Pindi, and Consolata Mutua-Mambo explored the intricate and nuanced ways queer Africans and African feminists/womanists based in and outside continental Africa enact their alliances and (dis)connections across transnational borders. In doing so, they discussed the transformative possibilities that can emerge when queer Africans and African feminists/womanists provocatively and publicly show solidarity against heteropatriarchal structures that seek to regulate queer Africans, women, and gender-nonconforming folks across Africa. Drawing largely on African studies, queer theory, queer of color critique, and transnational feminism, these scholars examined what such coalitions could reveal about social justice and feminist alliances on the continent. Introducing the forum, Cruz (2020) lamented on the lack of scholarship about Africa in general in the field of communication, noting that such absences reproduce “Africa” as a theoretical vacuum even though American Western Feminist communication scholars can learn much about thriving through crises by closely paying attention to three key ideas in African feminist and queer perspectives—material conditions, holism, and situationality (Cruz, 2015).

Mutua-Mambo (2020) and Gloria Pindi’s (2020) essays critiqued the consequential and reactionary standpoint from many women political activists in Africa that African feminism and queer studies are a Western import. They argue that feminist sensibilities and political organizing around the need to provide better living and working conditions for all African women (irrespective of one’s sexual proclivity) are indeed not alien to African culture. As such, they both lament the lack of attention to sexuality and sex in African feminist theorizing. For Pindi, queer and feminist solidarity means having a conversation that ruptures the seams of heteronormativity by advancing an African feminist queer agenda that seeks to decolonize African consciousness through the stronghold of Christianity-imposed religious practices that have been weaponized to perpetrate hate crimes against sexual minorities in Africa (see Pindi & De la Garza, 2018).

Focusing on erotic belongings as a site of coalitional building, Asante (2020) examines how to reimagine African feminist and queer African solidarity by focusing on both queer Africans and African feminists’ shared material concerns. Expanding Cruz’s (2015) African feminists’ theoretical framework, Asante contends that sexuality should also be explored as a concern of the everyday, which is often overlooked by feminist scholars who emphasize the need to pay attention to the materiality/material conditions for African feminists (such as food, shelter, and water). Through what he terms “queer African eros,” Asante (2020) highlights the way that the needs of queer Africans and African feminists collide in fruitful, albeit creative ways when both explore the erotic as a site of both oppression and political resistance. The essays from the special issue gesture toward a kind of “Africanfuturism” where creative imaginations and disruptive possibilities intertwine that are often overlooked in U.S. feminist theorizing or diasporic theorizing of Afrofuturism (Hanchey, 2020).

Media Representation and Queer African Diasporic Connections on Social Media

While the production and circulations of queer African media texts are sparse in general, an analysis of queer African representations in communication studies is surprisingly quite few. On the one hand, several studies examine media representations of queer African subjects (e.g., Sloop, 2012; Winslow, 2012). However, studies that examine queer African subjects from an Africanist perspective are almost nonexistent in communication studies. One of the few studies in communication studies that takes an Africanist perspective to the study of media representations of queerness in Africa is Asante et al.’s (2019) essay “Depoliticized Pleasures and the Construction of (White) Queer Utopia in Netflix’s Sense8.” In this essay, the authors examine the representation of desire and pleasure as a site of racial transgression where the non-Western body can be desired and consumed outside of its geopolitical, sociohistorical, and material contexts. Drawing on Hooks’s (2015) influential essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” the authors advance an argument that the non-Western, nonwhite sensates, Kala, Capheus, and Sun’s bodies are visually consumed through a depoliticized gaze that perceives sexually desiring the Other as an outlet for recuperating the humanity of a global heteronormative (white) politic. Although being sensate is already a queer position, the queers of color in the TV series lack a thorough examination of the geopolitical productions of their identities. Of particular importance to this entry is the character Capheus, the Kenyan Sensate. The authors contend that although being a sensate is a queer position that is not constrained by any normative position, such as racial identity or cultural tradition, this transgressive position is, in fact, built on a particular kind of experience and geography. In other words, the sensates’ seemingly transgressive position seems to apply only when one is white, U.S. American. In the case of Capheus, Western viewers are not able to see him beyond the normative representation of Africa (mother dying of AIDS, warlords, poor, etc.), which African viewers are encouraged to leave behind through the borrowing of the bodies of other sensates. The issue that the authors take with such constructions of queerness is that African cultural identities are represented as oppressive identities rather than as avenues to critique other forms of oppression besides sexual identity.

Besides media representation, some scholars have focused on how queer Africans in the diaspora use social media as safe spaces to speak back to national discussions on LGBT issues (e.g., see Camminga, 2020). Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have opened the door for sexual subjects to find safe spaces to connect and seek reaffirmation of their identities (Cooper & Dzara, 2010). In this regard, many queer Africans have shifted to social media to seek safe spaces. Using one of such spaces as an example, Asante (2018) examined the (im)possibilities of creating a diasporic home in a queer African migrant virtual community on Facebook. Asante found out that while virtual communities offer the space for the imaginations of “home” for queer African subjects in the diaspora, these spaces are not without contentions and as such, virtual safe spaces should be understood as riddled with power relations even though it provides opportunities for the re-imagination of home.

Future Directions in Queer African Studies in Queer Studies in Communication Studies

As this article has shown, queer African studies (QAS) as a subfield of queer studies in communication is still in nascent growth as an area of research. In spite of this, more studies are needed to show how queer studies, African studies, and communication studies could intimately have productive conversations. Cruz (2020) incisively asserts that “to think that African contexts can teach us something is provocative on many levels” (p. 102). QAS can expand communication studies in various ways.

First, queer African perspectives on kinship and family can influence the way queer relationalities are theorized in communication studies. In his initial conceptualization of queer relationalities, Gust Yep (2017) explains

Queer relationality entails modes of recognition, systems of intelligibility, cultural expressions, affective articulations, encrypted sociality, embodied relations, forms of belonging, community formations, and collective histories of oppression that circulate outside of regimes of heteronormativity- but frequently in relation to it –characterized by potentiality and becoming as individuals inhabiting intersectional cultural nonnormativities negotiate and navigate social worlds. (p. 120)

QAS could expand the theorization for queer relationalities by centralizing queer African forms of sociality, embodied relations, and forms of belonging that circulate parallel to heteronormative institutions. For instance, how do sexual relationships among women in Ghana, commonly known as “Supi,” contribute to the ways we theorize relationships in interpersonal communication? (see Dankwa, 2009). Furthermore, it would be beneficial to explore the transactional role of money, gifts, and love, and how they influence the formations of intimate relationships across different parts of Africa (e.g., Spronk, 2019). Lastly, various forms of families exist in Africa, such as polygyny, the extended family system, and women-to-women marriages (for a critique of the nuclear family system in Africa, see Macharia, 2016). How can the social relations established in these kinds of family systems expand how we theorize family communication in the West?

Second, the study of sexual pleasure and desire can reinvigorate various conversations in health communication research besides the unholy emphasis on risk and diseases. Sylvia Tamale (2011) notes that the overemphasis on HIV/AIDS and health when studying LGBT Africans have narrowed what scholars know about desire and sexual pleasure, especially since same-sex sexual desire is criminalized in most African countries. African men, in particular, have received less attention. Spronk and Hendriks (2020) explain that instead of taking patriarchal ideologies and their obsession with male libido at face value, how African men experience pleasure and how they discursively construct sex and sexuality should be studied. In this way, how African men experience sexual pleasure can be rigorously analyzed in its complexities and ambiguities rather than assumed to be complicit or complacent with patriarchy.

Lastly, there are very limited studies on trans and gender-nonconforming Africans from communication scholars even though trans scholarship is gaining relative popularity in queer studies within communication studies. (see LeMaster, 2017; Yep et al., 2015). This is especially crucial because while there is a rejection of “homosexuality,” “gays,” and “lesbians,” trans people in certain parts of Africa have received relative acceptance. In a recent publication, Camminga (2020) explained that transgender is a term that is catching up in most parts of Africa. In this vein, queer communication scholars should examine how transness is being enacted, represented, coopted, and resisted on the African continent.

Conclusion

Mainly drawing from the field of African studies, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, queer African studies (QAS) is an interdisciplinary area of study that can expand and reinvigorate queer studies in communication. Researchers in communication studies should see the robust contributions that QAS can make to our field when fully incorporated into queer studies in communication. Integrating QAS works to decenter the assumed Western orientation of queer theorizing and encourages queer scholars to fully center the voices of queers from marginalized spaces instead of just selectively adopting same-sex sexual behaviors from queers in the Global South to bolster arguments in the Global North that queerness is everywhere. In other words, Africanizing queer studies in communication provides another layer of support to Yep’s (2013) call to attend to the “complex particularities of individuals’ lives and identities with their race, gender, sexuality, and national locations by understanding their history and personhood in concrete time and space” (p. 173). Africanizing is to attend to the historical, mythical creation of an entity called “African,” and the contemporary ways Africanness is being produced and resisted.

QAS not only holds the potential for thinking of communication as an emancipatory and decolonial process, but it is fundamentally premised on taking Africa as a starting point for theorizing queerness where communication may constitute and promote empowerment possibilities. QAS add to critical discussions on decentering heteronormativity, cisgenderism, and whiteness in communication studies already begun by queers of color. To continually decenter the whiteness and U.S. Western-centeredness of queer theorizing, queer communication research should continually have productive and critical engagements with queer African scholarship.

Further Reading

  • Amory, D. P. (1997). “Homosexuality” in Africa: Issues and debates. Issue: A Journal of Opinion, 25(1), 5–10.
  • Camminga, B. (2019). Transgender refugees and the imagined South Africa. Springer International.
  • Ekine, S., & Abbas, H. (Eds.). (2013). Queer African reader. Pambazuka Press.
  • Epprecht, M. (2008). Heterosexual Africa? The history of an idea from the age of exploration to the age of AIDS. Ohio University Press.
  • Fiereck, K., Hoad, N., & Mupotsa, D. S. (2020). A queering-to-come. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 26(3), 363–376.
  • Gaudio, R. P. (2011). Allah made us: Sexual outlaws in an Islamic African city (Vol. 5). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Hoad, N. W. (2007). African intimacies: Race, homosexuality, and globalization. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Macharia, K. (2016). On being area-studied: A litany of complaint. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 22(2), 183–190.
  • Matebeni, Z. (Ed.). (2014). Reclaiming Afrikan: Queer perspectives on sexual and gender identities. Modjaji Books.
  • McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. Routledge.
  • Nyeck, S. N. (Ed.). (2019). Routledge handbook of queer African studies. Routledge.
  • Nyeck, S. N., & Epprecht, M. (Eds.). (2013). Sexual diversity in Africa: Politics, theory, and citizenship. McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Spronk, R., & Hendriks, T. (Eds.). (2020). Readings in sexualities from Africa. Indiana University Press.
  • Tamale, S. (2011). African sexualities: A reader. Pambazuka Press.

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