UnAfrican Africans: A Homosexual in Africa

08 July of 2014

By Thato Magano (@pothaeto)

As South Africans and African people, we need to educate ourselves on the history of the continent pre its colonisation to understand that what we call ‘unAfrican’ has been a long standing part of our sexual and cultural expression as African people. We need to be concerted in changing the language around the normative understanding of sexuality. 

Photos by the award-winning photographer Zanele Muholi

Nothing evokes my pride at being South African than the myriad of cultures we inhabit as a people, and this pride was captured eloquently by former president Thabo Mbeki in his ‘I am an African’ address to the National Assembly at the adoption of the Republic of South African Constitution Bill in 1996. However, as a homosexual African, I am continually told by patriarchal ideology that my South African-ness and, particularly, my African-ness is an invalid identity due to the ever continuing tussle by cultural doyens of African-ness in their belief that homosexuality is an unAfrican expression of sexuality.

Fortunately for me, I live in South Africa, a country that sought to prohibit unfair discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation as contained in Section 9 (3) of the Constitution and legalised gay marriage in 2006 already, making South Africa the only country in Africa to recognise same-sex unions and only one of five countries in the world to do so at the time. This progressive legislative environment has afforded the likes of photographer and activist, Zanele Muholi, Constitutional Court Justice, Edwin Cameron, and political commentator and author Eusebius McKaiser the opportunity to make strides in their respective professional lives and simultaneously ensure that they are highlighting the marginalisation of homosexual people in society. And in 2013, in an attempt to validate their experiences, gay couple Thoba Sithole and Cameron Modisane got married in a traditional African ceremony signalling the openness by homosexual Africans to embrace culture and tradition when adapted to recognise them.

However, even with all these protections offered by the constitution, on the ground, the concept of homosexuality is still taboo in South Africa and more so, the continent of Africa seems to be taking several steps backwards, with the likes of Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signing the anti-gay bill into effect as recently as February, as part of a long list of countries that still prosecute on the basis of sexuality. The reality is that many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Intersex (LGBTI) people are killed or raped in townships and cities across our country. These killings and the act of violence referred to as ‘corrective rape’ are results of deeply held homophobic notions about LGBTI people in our respective communities. These notions have been passed down through generations and have stunted how contemporary African culture views same-sex relationships and more importantly, the plurality of sexuality that is innate to its identity.


As South Africans and African people, we need to educate ourselves on the history of the continent pre its colonisation to understand that what we call ‘unAfrican’ has been a long standing part of our sexual and cultural expression as African people. We need to be concerted in changing the language around the normative understanding of sexuality. To deconstruct the language, we need to start with some old notions and newer practices that keep fuelling this perception of sexual plurality as unAfrican:

1)    Homophobia

In its classical sense, homophobia is described as a ‘fear or hatred for homosexuals and homosexuality’ however, modern dictionary versions have since adapted it to mean ‘an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people.’ This term is used across society, even by the LGBTI community, to describe what has become the ‘accepted’ norm in what should be an anomaly in society’s unwillingness to unlearn its heteronormative construction of sexuality. As a society, we need to challenge ourselves to move to a place where we are comfortable with the plurality of sexuality that exists within the broader spectrum of what it means to be a human being, a South African, and an African.

2)    European Lifestyle

Transition Magazine quotes Nigerian LGBTI activist Davis Mac-Iyalla on homosexuality being unAfrican, saying, “When, at age 14, I discovered my sexuality, it had nothing to do with the White Man.” There is a deeply held belief by patriarchal structures in our society and the continent that homosexuality is a learned lifestyle brought to Africa by its colonial masters. This could not be further from the truth we would find, if only we would be interested in the reality of our history as Africans and not only choose those parts that reflect us as a people who have been corrupted by European influences. In her article, ‘Homosexuality is not unAfrican’ , Sylvia Tamale examines how African history has always been replete with examples of both erotic and non-erotic same-sex representations long before colonialisation visited the continent with corroborating nuance to how these relationship were recognised.

Zanele Muholi

3)    Religion

If you have any religious inclinations, you would be hard pressed to not have been exposed to anti-gay sentiment at some point in your religious life. Religious teaching quotes verses in the book of Leviticus as the ultimate prescript on the ‘abomination’ and anti-gay ministries are finding a stronghold in society continually. However, Matthew Vines, author of ‘God and the Gay Christian’ has spent a number of years studying the six texts in the bible that concern themselves with same-sex relations and reveals a measured analysis of the extent to which these texts condemn the lustful nature of the acts of same-sex relations and not the acts themselves. If we took the time to interrogate religious literature in this manner, then perhaps the conversation on same-sex relations could move from one of moral superiority by those who have this limited interpretation.

4)    #nohomo

A more contemporary and perhaps the most insidious culprit, the #nohomo is the greatest ‘othering’ tool at all of our disposal and perhaps why a new generational outlook of equality is struggling to take hold. The permeation of social media in our everyday lives has made us blind to some of the harm it is causing and its greatest victory being the shunning of homosexuals it creates. The addition of this hashtag is a part of ‘microaggression’: subtle forms of discrimination legitimised which are revealing of deeper embedded and unconscious attitudes towards LGBTI people. It makes a statement that you are not ‘one of those’, so you must not be vilified for having been brave to take a selfie with a same gendered friend. Wouldn’t it be braver is we just took snaps with our same gendered friends and not feel the need to qualify them as anything than just that?


As a South African, and an African at that, I have taken it upon myself to do the re-education of self that is needed and to conscientise those around me in order for us not to be denied our identity as an inherent part of this continent’s expression. The biggest challenge then is how we drive this re-education in order to ensure that as African people, we recognise and embrace our pluralities without deflecting them as unwelcomed influences by other nations.


  • Homosexuality and the Law in Africa
  • 21 varieties of traditional African homosexuality
  • Homosexuality is not unAfrican
  • Men are also ‘corrective rape’ victims
  • The six scriptures about homosexuality
  • For support/information on LGBTI issues
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