Colonial legacy of queer and trans discrimination in Africa

A sign shows a magnificent rainbow-hued lion in the June 2022 Cape Town, South Africa, LGBTQ+ pride parade. PHOTO: Lois Gobe
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According to the International Lesbian and Gay Association, homosexuality is outlawed in 34 African nations. That is nearly half the countries in the world with such a ban. As of 2022, only eight African states have legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s a stark reality. Some Ugandan conservative politicians proselytize that queerness is un-African — imposed on the continent by a “decadent West.” But these politicians have it backward.

Homosexuality is not foreign to Africa. What is alien are laws that criminalize it, and attitudes that stigmatize those who are same-sex attracted or who do not conform to a rigid gender binary.

Imported bigotry. Legalized homophobia was brought to the African continent by the earliest European invaders and reinforced time and again by imperialism.

According to, “most anti-homosexual legislation in Africa was put in place by Puritan colonial regimes … Insisting that [these laws] remain is aligning ourselves with the oppressive cultural attitudes that led to and entrenched colonialism in Africa.”

The people of Africa had laws imposed on them by the British and other conquerors that criminalized same-sex practices for both women and men. Portuguese missionaries wrote about the “unnatural damnation” of male-to-male sex in the Congo and called for Christian cleansing.

Things are not much better today. Right-wing fundamentalist Christian churches, missionaries predominantly from the United States, have aggressively invaded many counties, wielding enormous influence.

One example of their power was shown in Uganda. In 2014 a bill that was virulently anti-queer was brought to Parliament. Colloquially known as the “kill the gays bill,” it originally called for the death penalty for guilty parties. That was amended to life in prison. It was passed by politicians heavily influenced by U.S. evangelicals. Thankfully, the Ugandan Constitutional Court struck down the law but the rabid anti-gay discrimination it unleashed lives on.

The real story. Sylvia Tamale, a prominent Ugandan feminist, says that the myth that homosexuality was brought in from the West is “sad” and “tired.” She adds “historical facts demand that this fable be debunked once and for all.” Tamale is the author of numerous books that are rich with evidence of pre-conqueror societies embracing gender and sexual diversity.

Even the early Europeans recorded examples of sexuality among same-sex people and of non-binary gender. Battell, an English traveler in the 1590s, wrote that indigenous males of Angola “have men in women’s apparel who they keep amongst their wives.” Colonizers recorded observing trans people in many places, including Ethiopia and Madagascar.

There is a mountain of evidence that supports the existence of gender fluidity and an LGBTQ+ past in pre-settler Africa. Many languages have terms that pre-date colonialism describing same-sex relationships. For example, the Shangaan of southern Africa use the term inkotshane, meaning male wife. And the ancient cave paintings created by the San people of Zimbabwe depict gay male eroticism.

The advent of sexism and homophobia. Most of human history took place in Africa, where for thousands of generations societies were communal and matriarchal and women were respected leaders. Human beings lived with fluid notions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality amongst the diverse cultures of the continent.

Historically, the emergence of surplus products led to the development of private property and male-dominated societies. In some parts of Africa, the erosion of women’s status was gradual. But colonization forced an abrupt and all-encompassing change. Europeans imposed the capitalist system of private property, destroying all matriarchal societies and instituting patriarchy. Colonial laws, religion, customs, and culture enforced male-dominated societies and introduced LGBTQ+ bigotry.

The organization of early communal societies tells us that there is nothing inevitable about homophobia, transphobia, or sexism. These oppressions are a product of the rise of private property and the imposition of heterosexual inheritance norms. They have a materialist explanation, as does racism, which was invented much later than sexism. It arose in the expansionary period of early capitalism to justify slavery.

This understanding of history is at the heart of the socialist feminist theory embraced by Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party. Without the economic system that fuels oppression, there would be no material basis for sexism, racism, LGBTQ+ bigotry, and transphobia.

Contemporary South African visual artist, Zanele Muholi, created a stunning exhibit titled Hail the Dark Lioness. It merges political, personal, and historical concepts to address sexual politics, cultural violence, and the often-suffocating prism of gendered identity. Muholi, who uses they/them pronouns, says their “mission is to re-write a Black queer trans visual history of South Africa for the world to know of our resistance and existence at the height of hate crimes in South Africa and beyond.”

Working people must know their true history. In these days of rising reaction — and revolution — it is a needed step toward throwing off the remnants of colonialism and combating homophobia and sexism.

This article is based on a talk Thorne gave called “LGBTIQA+ Oppression and Resistance Across Africa.” Send comments to:

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