AFRIQUEERNACITY: Reimagining how we Write and Portray African queer stories
Can queerness be indigenised? Is homosexuality un-African?
Afriqueernacity: An unapologetic celebration of queer excellence with everything that locates us as an indigenised African queer community.
As an insider in the African Queer community – being a young black queer South African myself. Defiantly existing in spaces with full consideration of all my intersectionalities, I have without reservation introduced myself as a human being, Researcher, Public Speaker, Model, Actor, Activist, Christian and Queer Black African. With time, I realised that each time I have affirmed myself as a queer researcher, a queer Christian, or queer African, that introduction often invoked passionate questions and debates. In all their multidisciplinary angles, these conversations all suggested that there were certain things I could not become as a queer individual. It simply translated as there not being space for one to be a black queer; academic, African and Christian.
South Africa has taken progressive strides in the actualisation of gender equality and inclusion by enshrining LGBTQI+ rights in the constitution; Simultaneously, this legal protection is elaborate and straightforward; on paper, the application in practice may differ. Despite the sharp contradiction between the normative and the descriptive.
Like the many other African states, any conversation and debate on matters relating to the LGBTQI+ community are controversial and tend to get heated. Because of this and other prevailing factors, the understanding, documentation and knowledge of African-indigenous same-sex identities remain underdeveloped and highly restricted. The knowledge of the LGBTQI+ community is only understood from a singular and inflexible lens that has made queerness synonymous only with homosexuality.
The disposition to the othering of homosexuality is can better be understood when interrogating the view of the concept as a non-African phenomenon. Attributing the concept of homosexuality to a legacy of European colonialism makes sense when one explores the role of colonialism and Christianity on the subject. According to which the ideologies that affirm the existence of homosexual practices as part of a pre-colonial Africa are not easy to welcome as Christianity condemned these acts and associated them with being “sinful and unchristian” (Kuloba, 2014). The role of religion and tradition in African societies can never be denied as best put by writer John Mbiti his book African Religions and Philosophy when he said that “Africans are notoriously religious, and each people has its religious system, with a set of beliefs and practises” (African Religions & Philosophy, 2013).
Many other scholars further affirm this notion that religion permeates all sectors of life on the Africa continent. In my personal opinion, I don’t think this is entirely the case; for a person to justify the repression of queer Africans with religion and culture only means that what is African is static and unchanging. This notion concludes that what is African is a monolith despite the diversity and complexity of the people and institutions covered by this very definition.
Representing Queer Stories in Film and Television
“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”― Chinua Achebe
Representation and visibility are essential; they shape understanding and shares stories across societies, helping us connect more and how this has been done to the most considerable extent is through storytelling. One of the reasons why storytelling is so important is its continued use and effectiveness in sharing vital information, helping us recall knowledge easily and ultimately the ability to inspire, influence and educate.
But what happens when there are flaws in the way stories are told?
Like on debates about identity and race, there is a compelling need to address misrepresentations of people and cultures, a topic that comes up each time when storytelling, writing and capturing of African stories.
Through research into how the misunderstanding of homosexuality impacts the lives of Africans within the queer community; I have firmly established that historically the exploration of homosexuality in the African context has, over multiple times, excluded a contextualised cultural and historical understanding of native African identities pre and post-colonial; these explorations have negated the existence of same-sex practices across African communities dating back to pre-colonialism times.
This was highlighted when Inxeba; The Wound, a controversial movie about an intersectional journey of three Xhosa men undergoing the traditional initiation process with a triangular sexual relationship, was released in 2017. In the story, preponderant constructs of Xhosa traditional masculinity are interrogated. The movie was effectively banned within weeks of release following complaints from the general public religious and cultural associations, measures that have been likened to the apartheid era blackouts (Liani Maasdorp, 2018).
The outrage response to the movie clearly indicates a shared view that representing the complex intersections between rites of passage, masculinities, queerness, and the same sex-relations among men is disrespectful to the traditions and cultures of the Xhosa people. In other words, it implies that queer Xhosa men cannot fully participate in their traditional and cultural activities.
This is a gap that has been heavily exploited by storytellers and filmmakers where instead of educating communities and bridging these gaps, queer stories have been commercialised and have shifted to focusing on White/Eurocentric queer experiences.
Furthermore, a common trend in the South African TV and entertainment industry is has been portraying queer stories through straight actors. My informed view takes objection to the fact that this trend establishes a picture that queer people can “step-out” of their queerness when it suits them.
This mentality is dangerous in the sense that it only creates tolerance and acceptance of the “idea” of queerness but not necessarily that of queer individuals.
In her excellent renowned TED talk titled “Danger of a single story”, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie highlights single stories’ impact and power. Through her experiences, she unearths how, despite not having been outside of Nigeria at her young age as a writer, her stories featured characters in blue eyes and yellow hair. She further ascertains that a “single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2009). The connection I am trying to establish here is that, as an actor myself, to effectively portray a character, especially one that is very different from me, I need to use the script, storyline and research to create their experiences and identity to convey their story. In this process, I cannot always fully be the character and offer authentic representation. Still, as a transgender actor, Zoey Luna puts it, “I think when a cis person or non-transgender actor goes in to play a trans role, they’re bringing more of a projection” (Compton et al., 2021).
Often than not in South Africa, the creation of queer characters is usually from a stereotypical point of view which further harms and distorts how these queer stories are interpreted in society. As a queer individual like many other queer South Africans who have watched stories that were created to depict our community’s experiences and have felt reduced to certain qualities about ourselves and simply unable to identify with the narratives.
Wouldn’t casting based on sexuality reduce actors to their sexuality?
No, I don’t think so. Putting more effort into ensuring authentic representation is a multidimensional process that can benefit from being more intentional at all stages of telling stories. I am not asking for actors to publicly come out and ascribe to a fixed label for a cast. Still, emphasising that to portray authentic stories, it’s best to have the people who have lived those experiences, particularly on a topic that is still controversial. For arguments highlighted by Anya Logue claiming that “to reduce actors to their sexualities, and to force these to correspond with the labels of the characters they are allowed to play, is to restrict them into boxes. It is to treat the labels as gospel like they’re the only thing that matters. Surely an actor who is still figuring out their sexuality shouldn’t be turned down for a role just because they haven’t picked a fixed label for themselves (Logue, 2021). This differs from the point I am raising and am not making sexuality the basis of determining which actor should be allowed to play a particular character, but highlighting an issue, I believe has adverse impacts on the mindsets of the community and finding the balance between telling authentic stories and using popular actors to tell original stories that they are not able to portray in an inclusive and representative manner. This same argument applies to the depiction of African stories by African American Actors and Hollywood stereotyping of Africa.
How can to write and tell queer stories:
1. Actively addressing stereotypes and over generalising about queer stories and characters.
When analysing the portrayal of queer characters, there are repetitive patterns stemming from common cheap stereotypes that need to be combated, including not limited to portraying all gay characters as flamboyant and effeminate, bisexual characters as promiscuous, or lesbians hating men.
2. Embracing the complexity of queer narratives
Continuously acknowledging and considering all the possible intersectionalities of queer-identifying people that bring together aspects like race, class, spiritual practises political views, environmental and animal rights issues.
3. Stop reducing queer characters to their sexuality and sexual habits
Broadening the horizon of how sexual orientations and attractions are portrayed is contrary to the predominant focus on lust and sexual relations. Look at other areas for inspiration without only making the character’s sexual orientation the only addition to the storyline.
4. The African queer community as monolithic
The queer community is not divorced from the realities of the African people across South Africa and African at large thus, queer stories can not only be told from the same status, class and setting. These storylines need to expand more and cover the rural settings, lower and upper-middle-class, for them to fully represent the experiences of the people they seek to represent. Not all queer stories are centred around fashion, bright lights, the gilts and glam.
Lastly, I would like to pose these three questions to further the dialogue:
- How can we move from telling queer African stories from an allegorical fantasies angle?
2. How can we shine the same spotlight and attention on African filmmakers who are portraying our stories in an imaginative, authentic and empowering light as we do with international film platforms?
3. Where else can we seek inspiration to adopt a more inspiring representation of queer African stories in real-life settings?
African Religions & Philosophy. (2013). Google Books. https://books.google.rw/books?hl=en&lr=&id=eTUpo9lH-fYC&oi=fnd&pg=PA1&dq=african+religions+and+philosophy&ots=Mhj4QnwpkX&sig=hy2XzGU_ylS_zqn_ieNj8FnsMzQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=african%20religions%20and%20philosophy&f=false
A quote by Chinua Achebe. (2021). Goodreads.com. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/1227714-until-the-lions-have-their-own-historians-the-history-of
Liani Maasdorp. (2018, March 6). South Africa’s Inxeba (The Wound) “ban” reminiscent of apartheid-era. Quartz; Quartz. https://qz.com/africa/1221680/south-africas-censorship-of-a-gay-love-story-looks-a-lot-like-apartheid-era-blackouts/
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. (2020). Transcript of “The danger of a single story.” Ted.com; TED Talks. https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en#t-14862
Compton, J., Sopelsa, B., & Gao, M. (2021, January 2). Should straight actors still play gay characters? “It’s complicated.” NBC News; NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/should-straight-actors-still-play-gay-characters-it-s-complicated-n1252603
Logue, A. (2021, January 26). Authenticity in Casting: Can Straight Actors Play Gay Characters? | Redbrick TV. Redbrick. https://www.redbrick.me/authenticity-in-casting-can-straight-actors-play-gay-characters/
Jesudason, D. (2021). Is Hollywood ready to stop stereotyping Africa? Bbc.com. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20210304-is-hollywood-ready-to-stop-stereotyping-africa
SABC News. (2018). CRL adds its voice to complaints about the “Inxeba” film [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSzMFDhQ32g
Inxeba | The Wound. (2017). Inxeba. http://www.inxeba.com/
Wabyanga, R. K. (2016). “Homosexuality is unafrican and unbiblical”: examining the ideological motivations to homophobia in Sub-Saharan Africa : the case study of Uganda. Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, 154, 6–27. https://ixtheo.de/Record/1647604826
https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/author/kersley. (2018, July 20). Beyond African religious homophobia: How Christianity is a source of African LGBT activism. Religion and Global Society. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionglobalsociety/2018/07/beyond-african-religious-homophobia-how-christianity-is-a-source-of-african-lgbt-activism/
Katlego Kolanyane-Kesupile. (2017). How I’m bringing queer pride to my rural village. Ted.com; TED Talks. https://www.ted.com/talks/katlego_kolanyane_kesupile_how_i_m_bringing_queer_pride_to_my_rural_village
Hi, Smanga; first of all, thank you for this piece because I think it is very insightful, and it cuts across almost everything that means to be African and queer. I think to answer your questions on how we can move from telling queer African stories from an allegorical fantasy angle and where else we can seek inspiration to adopt a more inspiring representation of queer African stories in real-life settings is by first recognizing that queerness is not exclusive to a specific group of people. While scrolling through social media, I have come across comments such as ‘I have never seen a poor gay man’ or ‘ How can you be queer and poor?’ this kind of thinking is very synonymous with most African communities. I think it is very harmful since it brings about the issue of class and invalidates anyone queer who might not fit into a particular social and economic class. I have seen the same in Kenyan media, where less privileged queer members of the society face the worst forms of homophobia and violence while the more economically advanced ones just get brushed off as just doing ‘rich kids stuff,’ which is also a form of erasure and misrepresentation. I believe that queer stories should be told so that they represent everyone regardless of economic status or how glam one looks. For example, in movies, music, or even literature, the focus should highlight the experiences of Queer African people living ordinary lives in the village or the urban settlements. We can do this by elevating the voice of queer African people leading regular lives in real-life settings by providing a platform for them to share their stories and experiences. For example, I have seen a couple of gay men in Kenya use TikTok as a platform to share their everyday experiences, their struggles and even educate other people while leading everyday lives in a lower-middle-class setting. Filmmakers and storytellers can get inspiration from such representation because I believe it is an excellent example that being queer is not divorced from the realities of being African, like you said.
Thank you for such a marvellous read Smanga, I like how you linked queer misrepresentation to the film industry; to the extent of suggesting casting by sexuality. This is a great idea, I would like to believe that it would work similarly to how the movie industry changed the misrepresented perception of women in a state of climax, from one that served the male ego to one that was more realistic in recent years.
Also, I do believe that people often use “African culture” to shame and shun queerness, with the notion that it came off colonial ships or is unnatural “ke botlhodi”.