Are Africans really besotted with LGBT films?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Seldom is this adage so true as attempts to liberalise African laws and opinions about LGBTQI+ issues.
This campaign takes many forms. One of the latest is a book, titled Queer Bodies in African Films, which was published at the end of 2022. In it, the author Gibson Ncube, a lecturer at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, celebrates the portrayal of LGBTQI+characters in African films, which has expanded radically in the last decade.
Speaking recently with The Conversation, an online publication, Ncube presented his book as an ode to the “rich diversity of experiences within African LGBTQ+ communities.” As he puts it, the book “debunks the myth that queerness is unAfrican and a western import and shows that queer individuals have always been part of African societies.”
With all due respect, I think the words about the diversity of African LGBTQi+ experiences are useless faff. And that last bit, about queer individuals having always been a part of African societies, is a stretch; though it’s often trotted out in attempts to normalise LGBTQI+ activities in Africa, where opposition tends to be staked on culture and tradition, it’s an easily-disproved fiction.
There is no evidence that LGBTQI+ activities have been part of the lived experience of most African societies until the last few decades. In fact, most African languages lack a native vocabulary to even depict this topic. The few times the matter does peek through the historical record, it is almost always tied to some foreign influence, like the homosexual turn of Buganda’s Kabaka Mwanga (who gave us the Uganda Martyrs) which was a result of contact with Arab traders.
This seems to be a function of traditional Africans’ thoughts, or lack thereof, about sexuality in general. Monographs from early colonial times show that early Western explorers were scandalised to find Africans strutting about naked, more anxious to adorn their heads with feathers than to conceal their private parts.
Traditional Africans’ conception of the naked body doesn’t seem to have been of it as a sexual object. In fact, most non-coital bodily expressions of sexual attraction, like kissing and hugging, are quite foreign to adult Africans; they are not depicted in early fiction from the continent, and are only now becoming mainstream here.
For this reason, most traditional African societies did not need to proscribe LGBTQI+activities. They had no experience with it, and therefore did not need to regulate it. The first anti- LGBTQI+ laws in Africa have a colonial provenance, principally because European colonialists were keen to regulate the sexuality of their own citizens, even in the far reaches of empire.
But these laws remained on the books largely because the African consciousness, now awakened to the idea of homosexuality, revolts against it. As I have pointed out previously, this isn’t always so much a thought-out reaction as a reflexive disgust at the idea of people of the same sex having carnal knowledge of each other. Very little of this has to do with religion, although Christianity and Islam do add moral reasoning to the discourse.
Of course, as Ncube’s book shows, widespread opposition has not stopped motivated African filmmakers from portraying these topics in their works. Over the last few years, several films of this kind have popped up across the continent, drawing the ire of censors and regulators.
The producers of Ife (2020), the first Nigerian film to depict a lesbian relationship, avoided a ban by not submitting it to their country’s censors. Rafiki (2018), a similar film from Kenya, got banned for “its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya contrary to the law;” although a court later lifted the ban temporarily, allowing the film to run in select Kenyan theatres for a week.
Inxeba (2017), a film about a romantic relationship between two Xhosa men, received so much opposition in South Africa that its cast went into hiding following threats of violence. Since same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa since 2006, this reaction shows quite clearly that the anti-LGBTQI+ sentiment in most of Africa isn’t primarily a function of the law.
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As a child of my generation, I do not see the wisdom of opposing or banning films of this kind anywhere in Africa. The bans have almost always been counterproductive, bringing the films into public attention and, by conferring on them contraband and notorious status, making them that much more attractive, especially to young people.
This is despite the fact that they tend to portray cheesy romantic stories of the kind that almost no real person can identify with. For instance, though it was widely lauded in Western film festivals, Rafiki, the Kenyan film, is quite bland, the victim of lacklustre storytelling and pathetically weak character development. As a work of art, it stinks. Its only real claim to fame was that it portrayed a lesbian relationship in Kenya, and little else.
Setting up such travesties as celebrations of LGBTQI+ identity in Africa doesn’t exactly do the LGBTQI+ community here any favours. The films tend to preach to the converted, while confirming the opposed in their opinions. Some, like Inxeba, are downright insulting to the traditions of portrayed African communities, precluding them from considerations as respectful additions to communal discourse.
It's no wonder, therefore, that public opinion across Africa remains largely stable in its discomfort with the idea of LGBTQI+ activities becoming mainstream here. It’s not that LGBTQI+ people themselves are hated, but rather that they are unable to have an honest conversation with the culture.
And as long as this remains true, they are unlikely to make any headway here.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
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