“The queer in us: Diversity of African sexuality”
Tshepo Ricki Kgositau
There are subjects, topics and issues that often warrant a queer eye from different people’s perspectives. It becomes a lived reality when you are deemed queer yourself.
Queer bodies, sexual identities and expressions have become topics of the year since the monumental judgement of 11 June 2019 decriminalising consensual adult same sex sexual activity. I had the honour of being among the throng of people who filled up two courtrooms that were specially unpartitioned to accommodate the numbers that came on time for the 8.30am judgement. It is an energy I know all too well. Afterall, I had been there before on the 4 August and 12 December 2017 as I sought to hold my government to account for the infringement of my constitutionally enshrined human rights as a woman with a transgender identity.
My court case, and that of ND* whose judgement preceded mine seeking legal gender recognition and gender marker change, mounted more weight on the vision to live in a Botswana that saw us as equal citizens deserving of full human dignity and equality. Justice Nthomiwa’s ruling on the ND case unequivocally articulated that transgender persons in Botswana ought to be treated equally before the law, deserved equal dignity as all other Batswana, deserved to have their right to privacy safeguarded and that we have the right to self-determination without the interference of the state on what is innately an identity we can carry and express about ourselves. This came after the LeGaBiBo ruling of 2015 by Justice Rannowane putting forth the right of LeGaBiBo as an association of queer Batswana to be registered as an official NGO in the country.
It was disappointing to see government challenge this ruling at the Court of Appeal, which it lost in 2016 when Rannowane’s judgement was upheld, granting the Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LeGaBiBo) the protected and equal opportunity to finally attain registration. It was before the conclusion of the LeGaBiBo registration case that in 2010, the then Employment Act was amended in a move that saw HIV status and Sexual Orientation scribed in as protected grounds against discrimination in the workplace. Fast forward to 2019 and we have joined the league of extraordinary states that recognise the indivisible, inalienable and universal right of every human being to choose a sexual intimate partner(s) without restrictions of law, religion or culture. Let me put a disclaimer here already that this column does not only aim to speak to topical legislative and policy matters but is also going to borrow the reader a queer lens through which to look at society and life, all articulated through the eye of a proudly queer person; hence the title of “Queer I.”
It is more fitting and in keeping with all things queer to commence this column by bracing a bit over the immediate reactions that this recent move by our courts that has shaken the values, norms and beliefs of so many in the country has led us into. The loudest of dissenting voices are making utterances about the decay of the moral fibre of Batswana, Biblical renditions from Leviticus on why consensual adult same sex sexual activity is a derogation of all that is holy and Godly, with some calling same sex orientation an unAfrican occurrence. I will in a follow-up article engage much more deeply to challenge our thinking through what is growingly known as queer theology to understand the diversity of human beings who have been created by whatever deity you believe created humankind. I must share a second disclaimer that I identify as a liberal Christian who holds an intersectional religious doctrine through which I interrogate not just religious texts but even the context within which the lives narrated existed and questioning their applicability in addressing issues that we face today. However, permit me the limited space on this introductory article of Queer I to delve into this “Queerness/Diversity/Homosexuality is UnAfrican” stance.
To determine that a certain consensual sexual orientation is unAfrican is to claim that African sexuality can be packaged neatly into a pretty little box which does not have anything else besides a man and a woman taking it missionary style just to make little bundles of joy. This also fails to take into account the contextual nuances and differences of various African cultures around sex, sexual pleasure and sex roles, the relativism of the label African and the breath of African history in a decolonial, colonial and precolonial understanding. An interrogation of African languages exposes that in Yoruba, a Nigerian tribe, there exists the word “adofuro,” which simply translates into men who are sexually attracted to men. Still in Nigeria, the Hausa use the vernacular “yan daudu” to describe effeminate men who can even be wives to other men (we can only deduce that there are men who are in fact attracted to yan daudus).
This also exists within the Langi of Northern Uganda and is described in an indigenous language as “mudoko dako” to denote male assigned persons who express effeminately as women. Research shows us that the pre-colonial Buganda Kingdom had a famous King Mwanga II who is said to have been openly attracted to other men and was not socially sanctioned till the white missionaries arrived on the continent. Of course, we cannot but speak of Queen Motjatji (Rain Queen) of the BaLobedu in South Africa’s Limpopo Province who by traditional custom is to have female maidens as consorts or ‘brides,’ a heritage that is still preserved to the present day but is not described as lesbianism.
One of the many sources of depiction of homosexuality within African societies is the book Boy-Wives and Female Husbands edited by Murray and Roscoe, which brings to the fore evidence of rock paintings by Khoi and San clans depicting male-on-male sexual action. Further digging into this tells us of an unlabelled consensual same sex action between men from Khoi and San tribes when away from their homes for weeks and months on hunting trips but would go to their wives and women upon return.
This begs the question of whether sexual fluidity or diversity is unAfrican per se or if the language used to describe these activities is what is unAfrican? A call to action is for us to interrogate our own history, herstory, itstory and theirstory with a decolonised lens that seeks to establish who we truly are, and not who we are told we are through the lens of inherited constitutions and borrowed religious constructs. What then is our vernacular to describe what we call LGBTI persons in today’s language, given the rich evidence of our existence before English, French and Portuguese became the (unAfrican) language for it on our continent? Put on a queer eye in seeking these answers.
About the Author: Tshepo Ricki Kgositau is a seasoned human rights advocate, researcher, trans personality, feminist, sexual and reproductive health rights specialist, pan-Africanist, fashion designer, social entrepreneur, gender diversity and equity specialist, LGBTIQAP++ activist and queer theology scholar. Ricki is a Motswana living and based in Cape Town working as the Executive Director of an iNGO called Accountability International, which has other offices in Brussels, Belgium and Stockholm, Sweden working to hold various leaders accountable. Ricki is a mix of multiple intersecting identities that all influence her political perspectives and style of writing.
Mrs. Kgositau-Kanza was a key litigant in a landmark case before the High Court seeking legal gender recognition that was concluded in 2017. Ricki is a Mandela-Washington Fellow of 2016 who did her residency at the University of California – Berkley with the Goldman School of Public Policy. She has won a list of accolades in recognition of her body of work, some of the recent being the Feather Awards for Role Model of the Year and African Feather of the Year (both in 2017) and included on the #Awesome50 List of African LGBTIQA+ Activists & Allies in 2018.