/ 10 October 2019

A very African queerness

Regardless of whether a country has anti-gay laws
Regardless of whether a country has anti-gay laws, violence and discrimination are still readily meted out all too quickly in communities across the continent. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)



There was a time when the conversation around homosexuality in Africa elicited immediate responses such as “unAfrican”, “deviant” or “an import of the white man”. There was a time when homosexuals were believed to be only effeminate men or tomboys, or suffering from a “condition” attributed to demonic possession, witchcraft or mental illness.

Some of those thoughts, unfortunately, still prevail but the space for such intolerance is shrinking. That’s the good news. The conversation around homosexuality, though still a taboo, now carries with it a small “t” and not the big “T”. Even the use of the terms “homosexual” or “gay” are slowly being sidelined in favour of the acronym LGBTQI or queer. But full acceptance for queer Africans remains elusive.

Regardless of whether a country has anti-gay laws, violence and discrimination are still readily meted out all too quickly in communities across the continent. Socioreligious stigmatisation and discrimination is still rife. But at least safety and security issues are discussed publicly alongside the bold moves to challenge outdated colonial laws and efforts to counter the wrath of the religious right.

Homophobia and intolerance are a lot more visible now than before, but so too is boldness and resilience among the activist communities across the continent. These activists are present in almost every African country, pushing for their rights, security and visibility. The volume is being turned down on the argument that homosexuality is “unAfrican”.

Love Falls On Us, the first book by foreign correspondent Robbie Corey-Boulet, adds to the body of knowledge that is dispelling this myth. Corey-Boulet provides an insightful and well-researched publication that takes you to the queer spaces — both past and present — in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia.

He joins the growing number of academics and writers who are adding to a narrative that acknowledges that same-gender relations existed in Africa before the arrival of the Bible and the gun. The publication shows the existence of a queerness that is very African, although it is unfortunate that there isn’t enough documented material in English from the Francophone, Lusophone or Maghreb regions that shed light what queerness looks like there.

Love Falls On Us brings with it both familiarity and newness. The familiarity comes from the tales of hate, rejection, desperation and the struggle for acceptance. The newness is seen in how Corey-Boulet unearths names of individuals and places that could easily have been lost in the shadow of better-known corners of Anglophone Africa. He has ensured that the names of those who have died for their sexuality are not forgotten.

It is fitting that the book begins in Cameroon, at the intersection of Francophone and Anglophone Africa and where even those identities remain the cause of intense contestation. Here the reader encounters queer lives, communities, activist movements, and the cultural and political context in which they exist. We see what it means to be queer in a society in flux; what it means to define yourself when your identity is bifurcated by so many sociopolitical constructions.

This style is replicated in the other two sections on Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia, two societies that have known intense identitarian violence, in which queerness must still survive — and even dare to thrive. Corey-Boulet through his research and the many interviews that he conducted, has managed to place this queer (mostly gay) African experience in a period before the emergence of the digital world.

The American historian Lonnie G Bunch III has said: “There is nothing more powerful than a people, and a nation steeped in its history. And there are few things as noble as honouring our ancestors by remembering.” Love Falls On Us is a volume that honours the African queer nation, from a West African and Francophone context. It illuminates realities before advocacy work existed, before homophobia was even a word, and before online dalliances.

The book offers glimpses into queer folks’ lives and the spaces that they occupied during the post- and pre-independence years. The book tells of a time when the continent was a lot more tolerant and gay-friendly; when there was space for freedom, tolerance and self-expression. Corey-Boulet notes that this has been lost in a melee of religious extremism, poor leadership and bad politics.

One of the endearing aspects of the book is the way in which the author weaves together personal stories of characters who offer insights into the lives of individuals and the challenges of coming out or being outed in Africa. However, the narratives of gay men dominate a large part of this book, and this highlights the need to explore how lesbian and trans organising occurred in similar spaces during the same period.

Corey-Boulet does mention how, in Côte d’Ivoire, drag shows existed way back in the 1970s and also touches on the emergence of the organising by the travestis (trans men) that happened in the 1990s. However, it is only in the section on Liberia the Corey-Boulet pursues lesbian and trans realities. Queerness is complex and multifaceted and it is important that writing about queerness reflects this reality.

Love Falls On Us is a book that articulates to the burgeoning movements across the continent that their queer movement has heritage. Even though serious activism didn’t come into being until the new millennium, there were spaces for socialisation; there was mobilising to fight the arrival of HIV; and there was also finding love — ultimately, a very brave love.

This is an important book for the queer community and activist movement on the continent. It is also a compelling read that adds to the library of books about Africa’s own and their struggle to find home on a continent that has not been particularly welcoming to its queer folk.

Kevin Mwachiro is a Kenyan writer, journalist, podcaster and activist. He edited the book, Invisible, Stories from Kenya’s Queer Community, and is a co-founder of East Africa’s first LGBTQ+ film festival, the Out Film Festival.