Let the Americans keep their sodomy, bestiality, stupid and foolish ways to themselves, out of Zimbabwe. – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Frantz Fanon, one of the earliest and most influential postcolonial theorists, saw homosexuality as a sign of psychological distress, exclusive to Western peoples (that is people of western/Caucasian racial stock) and directly related to their “negrophobia.” On the other hand, Fanon imagines that all “Negroes” (and, by reasonable extension, all peoples of non-Western races) are free from this disorder of homosexuality. When confronted with the evidence of homosexuality in non-Western cultures, Fanon rationalizes thus: Regarding drag queens in Martinique, he claims that they lead “normal sex lives” and “can take a punch like any he-man.” Fanon excuses even male prostitution among colonial peoples; it becomes simply “a means to a livelihood, as pimping is for others.”
Is homosexuality a postcolonial issue? Since it has been argued that colonization erased many native ways of thinking, some critics have suggested that postcolonial peoples have constructed mythologized depictions of their cultures before colonization. These myths tend to paint native societies as the absolute negation of everything that Western culture brought. Thus, they brand many things deemed inappropriate or immoral by the popular culture of postcolonial nations as characteristic of Western, non-native values (see Myths of a Native, Orientalism, Essentialism).
Mugabe indicts homosexuality as the product of morally degenerate colonial cultures and finds that such behaviors were not initially present in cultures indigenous to Zimbabwe. Using this reasoning, a number of postcolonial peoples foster homophobia, since the elimination of homosexuality might be seen as a purging of the ills of colonial influence. Thus, attempts to re-establish native language and customs become inextricably entangled with problematic efforts to promote imaginary aspects of a prelapsarian native culture. To complicate issues further, homophobia within some postcolonial nations also come from the hybrid incorporation of sexual and gender norms from the West as well as indigenous ones into the cultural discourse. Religious communities in particular can play a significant role in the demarkation of certain sexual practices as “moral” or “immoral.” Finally, it is important to note the persistent marginalization of alternative sexualities occurs within the Western context as well. Legislation that does not offer full rights to the LGBT community persists in several Western nations (see Chicana Feminism).
That said, sexuality and sexual acts cannot be defined consistently across national, cultural and ethnic boundaries. What the above discussions interrogate as “homosexuality” is not consistently defined as such across the globe. Scholarship has increasingly begun to interrogate not only the homophobic attitudes of political individuals and institutions– as expressed by Mugabe’s example– but also the hegemonic definitions of sexuality provided largely by the Western academy and activist community. John C. Hawley points out,
Within traditional gay and lesbian discourse the problem presents itself in at least three ways: first, as a generally unconscious universalizing of Western sexualities […] secondly, as an implied invitation to “come out” and embrace a “common” [remarkably Western] gay brotherhood and lesbian sisterhood that cuts across any nice cultural distinctions; and thirdly, as a preoccupation with “texts produced in the West and, generally, by those well-positioned in the bourgeois class” (Cover 31 as cited by Hawley 7).
Therefore questions arise regarding narratives of “coming out,” claiming of identity, the boundaries between gender and sexual expression, and also the colonial influence which contributed to a squelching and narrowing of sanctioned forms of sexuality in formerly colonized nations.
Below is a series of case studies which explore legislation passed in several postcolonial nations related to sexuality as well as a series of non-Western cultural practices that participate in the skirting or problematizing of definitions of “homosexuality” in the postcolonial context.
Zimbabwe: The aforementioned President Mugabe prohibited in the mid-nineties the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) from participating in the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, reportedly calling them “worse than dogs or pigs.” He then argued that, because of their “unnatural perversion,” homosexuals were not entitled to basic human rights. Mugabe’s remarks were surprisingly popular among his people, some of which has been attributed to the fact that a majority of GALZ leaders are white.
Malaysia: Some reports indicate that vigilante groups have participated in the arrests of thousands for “un-Islamic activities,” including homosexuality. A quote from the director of the Islamic Pusat Center: “We certainly don’t want our country turning into another replica of Western countries, with all the moral deterioration like adultery and homosexuality being accepted by the community.”
Tanzania: In Tanzania, restrictions on homosexual activity are actually increasing; they have passed law which extends the prison sentences for homosexual conduct, increasing them from 20 to 25 years.
After listing these case studies, it should be noted that although the decisions in these cases reflect the sentiments of the ruling powers, these are not necessarily shared by the often disenfranchised general populace. Also, each of these reports came from predominantly Western news services, so they must be closely examined for Western biases that may depict postcolonial nations as being less advanced and inhumane. Finally, let us not lose sight of the homophobia that is still rampant in all countries, even the most “developed” nations.
Alternative Sexualities Redefined and Reconsidered
1.Herdt, Gilbert and Robert J. Stoller’s piece “Kalutwo: Portrait of a Misfit” in Intimate Communications: Erotics and the Study of Culture. Published by Columbia University Press in 1991.
This anthropology piece investigates and interviews Kalutwo, a member of the “Sambia,” who is marked as an outsider as a result of his sexual practices. It explores the three sexual phases of males in the “Sambia” community explaining that boys must perform oral sex on older member of the community in order to progress toward manhood. This is consider the first phase of their sexual maturity. Then as they enter adolescence they must receive fellatio from younger community members. Once these two sexual phases have occurred, males then participate in solely heterosexual sex acts. Kalutwo is known in his community for refusing to undergo the second sexual phase in his development. This isolates him from the community. What this piece offers at a remove is not only an investigation of what is sanctioned as “normal” heterosexual behavior in other cultural communities but also a very explicit reading of that cultural practice through Western eyes. The piece shows the cultural dissonance in terms like “pediophilia” and also how different cultures define what is unacceptable behavior. In reading the piece, it requires us to consider notions of “cultural relativism” and “cultural absolutism”. Depending on these boundaries some may find the work of Herdt and Stoller suggestive or flat out offensive.
2. Mati culture in Suriname
Another such case of culturally specific notions of the queer is the mati culture—the practice of erotic female relationships— in Suriname. The word mati has an unknown origin, although two explanations are generally provided. Some argue that its origin is derived from the Dutch word, “maatje” or “mate”, as in “shipmate” and is said to imply a companionship that began during the Middle Passage. Others argue that it comes from the Hausa “mata” or “mace” which means “woman” or “wife” (Wekker 372). Not surprisingly, this erotic female companionship is thought to have begun with the importation of slaves to Suriname. Many scholars have argued that this expression of sexuality is a powerful act of reclaiming the black body from enslavement—either historically from slave masters or in a contemporary context as a counterpoint to Western queer identities. In so doing, mati-ism does important work, contributing to a multiplicity of queer identities in the Caribbean.
Women who have a mati – mi mati meaning “my girl”— may have both female and male lovers over the course of their lifetime; the identity does not dictate a fixed preference for one gender or a fixed preference progression from one gender to another (Wekker 372). Women who engage in these kinds of relationships may also be involved in multiple relationships simultaneously (371). Mati-ism is often associated with Caribbean feminism and becomes the means for both empowering women and also embracing the potential for men to participate in a non-Patriarchal social system. It slips between the boundaries of what Western thought might call “lesbian” or “bisexual” practices by being flexible in its inclusion of multiple kind of relationships—homosexual and heterosexual—while also being highly focused on these forms of strong female relationships.
3. Male Sexuality in the Caribbean
Myriam J. A. Chancy examines “queer identities” in the Dominican Republic and Cuba arguing,
Homosexuality, both male and female, was perceived as a threat only when it caused an interrogation of the heterosexual imperative. Males could engage in gay sexual activity as long as they were the “active” participants; then, as now, in many parts of Latin America, the passive participant would be considered homosexual. This meant that homosexual acts were not the problem—homosexual identity, however, was another matter (56).
The category of “homosexual” in this context diverges from the paradigm represented in the West where the position that an individual takes during a sexual encounter makes no difference to the identity claimed. As Chancy makes clear, it is the identity claimed by an individual that makes the difference, not always the participation in an act. Thus, here there is a disjunct between behavior and identity which may not entirely make sense from a Western perspective. An investigation of position and also the claiming of identity foregrounds the flexibility of sexual expression in certain avenues of an individual’s existence while loosening narratives of “coming out” as essential or possible.
The question of homophobia in the postcolonial context is complicated by the multiplicity of ethnic, cultural and national contexts that have been folded into the term “postcolonial.” When considering these contexts, it is important to investigate the specificities of each location, author, situation and historical trajectory. Neither Mugabe nor Fanon are the endpoint for a discussion of non-Western sexuality. Rather, they are just the beginning of a discussion that has gathered much attention from the academic community in recent years.
Selected Literary Works to Consult
- Dhalla, Ghalib Shiraz. Ode to Lata. New York: Really Great Books, 2002.
- Mootoo, Shani. Cereus Blooms at Night. New York: Grove Press, 2009.
- Popoola, Olumide. this is not about sadness. Münster: Unrast Verlag, 2010.
- Satyal, Rakesh. Blue Boy. London: Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2009.
- Salkey, Andrew. Escape to an Autumn Pavement. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press Ltd., 1965.
- Selvadurai, Shyam, Funny Boy. Harcourt: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997.
- Ahmed, Sara. Lecture. Dissident Citizenship: Queer Postcolonial Belonging. Friends’ Meeting House, Brighton, Sussex, United Kingdom. 10-11 June 2010.
- Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
- Alexander, Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham: Duke University Press, 2005.
- Chasin, Alexandra. Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market. New York: Plagrave Macmillian, 2001.
- Chancy, Myriam J.A. “Subversive Sexualities Revolutionizing Gendered Identities.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. 29.1 (2008): 51-74.
- Covers, Rob. “Queer with Class: Absence of Third World Sweatshop in Lesbian/Gay Discourse and a Rearticulation of Material Queer Theory.” ARIEL. 30.2 (1999): 29-48.
- de Lauretis, Teresa. “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities.” Differences 3.2 (1991): iii-xvii.
- Dirlik, Arif. The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.
- Hawley, John C. Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections. Ed. John C. Hawley. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. 1-18..
- Jagose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York: New York University Press, 1996.
- Lorde, Audre. “What is at Stake in Lesbian and Gay Publishing Today: The Bill Whitehead Memorial Ceremony—1990 (ABA-Las Vegas).” Callaloo. 14.1 (Winter 1991): 65-66.
- Tinsley, Omise’eke Natasha. “Black Atlantic, Queer Atlantic: Imaginings of the Middle Passage.” A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. 14.2-3 (2008): 191-215.
- Wekker, Gloria. “Mati-ism and Black Lesbianism: Two Idealtypical Expressions of Female Homosexuality in Black Communities of the Diaspora.” Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles. Ed. Thomas Glaves. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008. 368-381.
- Wisker, Gina. Post-Colonial and African American Women’s Writing: A Critical Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Links to Other Sites
Excerpt from Robert Mugabe’s Speech at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair
Author: Mica Hilson, Fall 1996
Last edited: October 2017