The situation for gay / lesbian rights here in Africa has gotten lots of media attention lately, and I myself have written about meeting a Swazi lesbian activist who was later murdered. So I won't waste your time by talking about how bad it can get to be gay here (although it's worth noting that I've seen at least one interesting argument about how the places in Africa where homosexuality is most heavily punished are also the ones with the strongest national dialogue, and thus arguably some of the best ones to actually be gay). Besides, I've become somewhat numb to the situation's sheer awfulness since arriving last year. What catches my attention these days is unfamiliar cultural angles and arguments.
While reading the local paper, I recently came upon yet another gay-shaming article—but instead of railing about God's will, the article talked about cultural imperialism. Specifically, it argued that gays and lesbians are gay and lesbian only because of the West. Gays and lesbians, the theory goes, have been so influenced by the Sodom and Gomorrah that is the West that they've internalized our permissive, scandalous sexual mores. (Those of us who actually come from the West are, of course, a little confused by how our fractured native cultures—still fiercely arguing about homosexuality within themselves—might create such an influence.) An African proud of his or her Africanness, who rejects the colonial West, will therefore not only wear African traditional garb and participate in African traditional ceremonies but will also be straight. In that, you know, traditionally African way.
I got a front-line view of this attitude when I took a newspaper to the Post Office for photocopying. "Another article about lesbians!" snorted the postmaster—they're getting to know me around there. He took the papers from me and shuffled through my requested pages. "Is it true," he asked, "that President Obama supports lesbians?"
"Yes," I said.
He looked shocked; I wondered if he'd expected me to say no. "What?!" he cried, and took a moment to regain his composure. "Well, that's American culture," he said finally. "It's not African culture."
I took a deep breath and pressed my lips together. I'd be in big trouble with my employer if I kicked up a storm at the Post Office, but oh, man—in that moment, I really, really wanted to. "How much do I owe you?" I asked instead, and went home to lose myself in a nice sex-positive book.
Personally, what I find most intriguing about these assertions of cultural imperialism is how they compare to similar assertions in the West. I'm a kinkster and pro-BDSM activist, but I'm also a feminist, which can make for some serious anxiety. A lot of my coming-out process involved both a difficult internal struggle and my observations of arguments between kinksters and anti-BDSM feminists, who often make very similar allegations to these African speakers on "cultural imperialism."
The very articulate BDSM blogger Trinity (who, of late, has sadly decreased her involvement in the blogosphere) has spent lots of time analyzing and participating in those arguments. One of my favorite Trinity posts, titled "Why BDSM?", hosts a radical feminist commenter who writes:
If we lived in a healthy society, the idea of BDSM would not even come up in the first place. BDSM is here, as a manifestation of that unhealthiness, but to try to 'stop' the people who aren't being coerced into it would do more harm than the thing itself....
I am not saying tolerance of BDSM directly causes our sick society, but that it is a very strong symptom of a society were hierarchy, inequality and degradation are seen as the norm of human relations. Accepting BDSM is accepting this status quo. ... by challenging all inequality, including that in BDSM, we are putting forward the idea that other possibilities are available.
In other words: the Patriarchy made me kinky, and if I don't challenge kink then I'm supporting the Patriarchy. I would imagine that Africans pushing the cultural imperialism argument would say something similar: Western colonial influence made you gay, and if you don't challenge homosexuality then you're supporting Western colonial influence.
Well, "with us or against us" arguments are inherently flawed. And then there's the fact that, similarly to homosexuals, many of us kinksters consider our desires to be innate and largely unchangeable. So if our desires can't be changed, then what exactly is accomplished by shaming us through anti-oppressive theory-speak? (And make no mistake—for those of us who take the theory seriously, it really does feel shameful to find others telling us we're in opposition, even within the private sphere of sexuality.) I'm not remotely convinced that our sexuality arose solely because of an oppressive society—but even if it's true, then what am I, or African gay people, supposed to actually do in order to challenge the sick status quo? Give up on our desires and never have satisfying sex again?
I tend to think that the idea of sexual orientations or innateness is a red herring—not because I believe that innateness doesn't exist, but because it's not actually relevant to sexual morality. What should be important is only the question of whether all involved sexual partners are consenting adults, not whether their desires are innate. Alas, it's clear that across the world, people who are instinctively grossed out by alternative sexuality will always find ways to reframe the question into how our acts are just plain wrong and our consent is irrelevant—and that's as true of some feminists and cultural loyalists as it is of Bible-thumpers.