Homosexuality And African Discontents. Part 1

by Adebowale Oriku  

Do not begin to get riled up with the title above. It does not intend to say only Africans are unsatisfied with the fact of homosexuality. The majority of Africans who think homosexuality is taboo share this intolerant attitude with the majority of Muslims, Christian fundamentalists, religious bigots of every stamp,

 and moral stuffed-shirts. Africa is populated with sanctimonious straight-sex votaries, heterosexual angels and saints, self-righteous prudes, a lot of us see ourselves as the true descendants of god-chosen Lot, eternally fleeing our imaginary Sodom.

Apropos, the title could just as well have been borrowed directly from Sigmund Freud, the propounder of psychoanalysis. I read Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents long ago, and it must have helped, among much else, to rid my mind of such easy dichotomies as homosexuality-bad/heterosexuality-good.

As a teenager, a humorous poster entitled What’s on Man’s Mind adorned the wall of my room. The picture showed the physiognomy of a man, bespectacled, with the features etched by the figure of a reclining nude girl, her jack-knifed leg forming the nose, and more significantly her bushy pubis composed the man’s eyebrow. The prima-facie assumption is simple: Men are invariably full of lust, lust after women. Freud may or may not have drawn the cartoonish picture himself.

While this is a crude and dippy interpretation of Freud’s theory, it touches a crucial aspect of it, especially his proposition in Civilisation and its Discontents. The book is about the conflict between the individual and the society, the individual’s pursuit and zest for instinctual freedom, the driven desire for sexual gratification for instance, and society’s diametrical demand for conformity.  

Sigmund Freud may not be as ‘cool’ as he used to be in university social science departments, but he is still considered, together with Karl Marx and Charles Darwin, the culminant voice of the European Enlightenment, the advent of whose ideas changed the world as it was known. Marx with his historical materialism. Darwin with his theory of evolution. And Freud with his dissection of human sexual instincts. Instincts – because Freud believes most of human actions, sexual or otherwise, spring from an unconscious black hole, often ungovernable and strong.

Freud treats ‘what is on a man’s mind’ with more maturity than the sketch suggests. He truly concludes, with nuances here and there, that ‘sex’ underpins everything – and not just heterosexual sex, but pansexuality: heterosexuality, homosexuality, ambisexuality and hundreds of sexual subtexts that cram our everyday lives, either consciously or unconsciously. Freud’s treatment of the subject of homosexuality is sympathetic. He had coined the term ‘invert’ for someone attracted to a person of the same sex. However, today, the word is becoming less used because it’s somewhat a misnomer. The term sits better with transvestites who’d gone the whole hog of sex change, but then few sexual psychologists would use it even for them today.

Well, before I borrowed Freudian title for this essay, someone else had written Homosexuality and its Discontents in the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies. But something about this essay by George E Haggerty is that while he writes about homosexual relationships in ancient Rome and Greece, Arab Spain, imperial China, pre-Meiji Japan, and medieval France, he does not have a lot to say about such practices in black Africa – an omission which has more to do with relegation rather than historical or moral indemnity.

Wole Soyinka was the lecturer during the 2004 BBC Reith Lectures. During the question-and-answer session, a young African man had asked a rather off-course question. Why do African writers not take on the subject of homosexuality in their works? I wondered what Soyinka had to do with this. For one thing, he was hardly homosexual, actually he was believed to have said years ago that his appetite for women bordered on the unwholesome.

Beyond being merely libidinous, a Nobel Laureate in literature should be as smart as reasonably possible, and not just book-smart, possibly street-smart too. Soyinka was not wrong-footed by the question. He told the young man that he couldn’t say why African writers were not writing about homosexuality, and adlibbed about gays being everywhere, even in Africa, and that he’d heard about the existence of a couple of gay nightclubs in Lagos. (And I think it’s worth saying that even in the West gay fiction is not quite maintream.)

Since then – or even before then – some gay fiction has been published in Nigeria, something that had been a given in a country like South Africa for some time, which of course may have to do with the country history. Although I have not read Jude Dibia’s In the Shadows, I have read Ikhide R Ikheloa’s fine review of the book on NVS. Besides Dibia’s book there should be other works that I don’t know about, or works-in-progress treating the ticklish subject of homosexuality.

Counterfactually, I have tried to think up gay tales too – for the sheer challenge of it. Here is a crochet: There is the young man who travels from Nigeria to Spain through the Sahara desert, and before he reaches Tangier in Morocco he transmutes into a homosexual.  

But since satire and bleak humour is more to my taste than such linear fiction, I’d composed a skit of a German gay man travelling through the thirty-odd countries of Africa south of Sahara and not finding a single African gay man, the continent having rid itself – ‘cleansed’ itself – of homosexuals.

Oh no, not by the nemesis, AIDS, but by diktat. All gay folks in Africa have been rounded up, sussed out, smoked out, kraaled to a man, and brought to Nigeria, being the country that has the largest clandestine gay population, and then all of them are driven in big buses to Murtala Mohammed Airport en-route to Europe, where many countries are willing to play host to them, grant them asylum.

This is a story of Africa as a utopia of anti-uranism. (Only uranism – male homosexuality. Because lesbianism – otherwise called tribadism – does not really get any mention when people talk about homosexuality or lack of it among Africans.) It is a story that seeks to turn the sort of ‘male’ love that Plato rhapsodizes over in his Symposium on its head.

Plato – along with most of his contemporaries – was the archetypal gay philosopher/intellectual, a long line which did not end with the French thinker, Michel Foucault, but reached a cusp with him. Foucault died of AIDS in 1984, having lived a dissipated gay life in the latter years of his life (a life only different in content and form, but not in character and style, from that which fiercely heterosexual Fela lived, who, like Foucault, also died of AIDS.) 

The moral of gay-free Africa is simple. Africa is hypocritical and in denial about the existence of gay people in its population. There, as we all know, is bound to be a significant number, although closeted for the most part. Well let me repeat the truism that every society has its homosexual humanity, even Africa, even the supposedly squeaky-clean Saudi Arabia.

Homosexuals, like heterosexuals, are a fact of life, and I think it’s about time we did away with the moral self-absorption mainly insinuated into us by religion and a false sense of ethical integrity. I’d rather we accept homosexuals as members of our society, cut out the tripe of a country and people naturally hung-up about homosexuality. Nigeria is purportedly a secular society. We are not Saudi Arabia or Iran, so I don’t see why we should appeal to mouldy religionism or subjective moralizing in making a decision to accept homosexuals or not. 

And isn’t it a travesty of propriety that our morally impoverished so-called lawmakers are legislating against homosexuality? It is of course a sad fact that Abuja Houses of Representatives and Senate are one huge corruption-ridden Tammany Hall, a hall of infamy and sickening sinecure. I am also ready to stick my neck out to affirm that, morally speaking, the majority of the members are damaged goods, even far more than the nameless folks for whom money and time may be object.

Are all the men and women in the Federal legislature innocent of adultery, of any number of fleshly excesses, of terrible ‘sins’ of concupiscence? How many of them are just as weak a vessel as any straight or gay man or woman? And how many of them are even gays under the rose? How many of them are repressed, self-deceitful ambisexuals?  

And which is worse: a man having a relationship with a fellow man or an elderly president of a country spewing sermonettes about how damnable homosexual acts are while sleeping with adolescent girls young enough to be his grandchildren and even purportedly playing senex amans – ‘amorous old man’ – to his daughter-in-law in an extreme form of family soap opera?