South Africa is the only African country in which same-sex rights are constitutionally protected. Even so, homosexuals continue to be subjected to treatment that is sometimes nothing less than brutal. Lesbians, for example, are still raped by men who want to teach them a lesson and convert them into real, heterosexual women.
Many people hold the view that homosexuality is unnatural, perverse, a sin, or an import from the depraved Western culture.
The idea that homosexuality is un-African is often put forward by political leaders such as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and the former presidents of Kenya and Namibia. Most African leaders seem to be ignorant of the historical evidence that traces same- sexuality back to pre-colonial times. Before the arrival of the missionaries, there were a range of same-sex practices and relations that were fully accepted and institutionalised across many African cultures.
It is very important to understand that the idea that homosexuality is immoral and satanic was put forward by colonial missionaries who judged these practices negatively as they did not fit in with their religious views.
In the recently published Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives: Female Same-Sex Practices in Africa, Saskia Wieringa reviews accounts spanning more than 20 years written by early missionaries, historians and anthropologists. After reading through the racism and sexism that most of these accounts by white men contained, she found that these records also detail a number of almost-forgotten practices, including women marriages and bond friendships. A woman marriage is a marriage in which a woman pays the bride price (lobola) and acquires the rights over the labour and the products of the womb of her wife. Women marriages have been recorded in at least 40 societies across Africa but were concentrated in southern Sudan, Kenya, Southern Africa, Nigeria and neighbouring Benin. Bond friendships were long-lasting partnerships between women, and were socially accepted. For example, the oumapanga described for Namibian Khoi Khoi, Nama and Ovaherero people was documented by Karsch-Haack in the early 1900s. For some of these women, genital contact might have been an important element of this relationship. However, the missionaries considered these friendships a vice and set about abolishing them.
But what also struck Wieringa about these accounts are the profound silences about these womens everyday experiences, their feelings and their expressions of affection for each other. It reflects a powerful social taboo around the possibility of sexual relations between two women.
Of course homosexuality as it is lived in present-day Western countries is far removed from the life of the Lovedu Rain Queen, Mujaji of South Africa, with her many wives, or the practice of having a female husband among the Nuer in Sudan, the Nandi in Kenya, the Igbo in Nigeria and the Fon in Dahomey (present-day Benin).
Here in South Africa, Nkunzi Nkabinde is proud to be a lesbian sangoma and sees herself as part of a long line of same-sex sangomas from the time of Shaka. Based in Johannesburg, Nkabinde says that female sangomas have an old tradition of marrying ancestral wives (unyankwabe), some of whom have intimate same-sex relationships that they keep secret. There is strong social pressure to keep silent about this, though. When Nkabinde came out as a lesbian sangoma, her trainer and older sangomas gave her a very hard time and told her not to talk about this publicly. The elders have always insisted that no one talk about these things, although everyone knew they were happening.
Educators play an important role in establishing the value systems that learners will internalise.
It is therefore important for them to be informed about these issues and to challenge the mindset of many who maintain that homosexuality is un-African and not part of African culture. This is especially important as we emerge from the apartheid era, when same sexuality was criminalised, seen as an illness and forced underground.
Many young South Africans identifying themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or intersexed, or who question the gender and sexuality norms they are presented with, do not have access to realistic, positive information on the range of choices they might make. Our youth do not feel sufficiently safe to disclose their same-sex orientation to their families, their teachers and peers. For those that have the courage to do so, the consequences are often disastrous. They are frequently disowned by their families, who withdraw financial and emotional support, or suffer abuse of various forms at school. We need to address the pressing issue of making schools safe places for learners with different sexual orientations where diversity is valued and respected. We need to create a society where all learners feel that is safe to disclose their sexual orientation.
Ruth Morgan is the director of the Gay and Lesbian Archives