Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities

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Exploding African Sexual Myths (Re-Post)

Feb 1, 2002 (Updated Feb 7, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:An excellent study of homosexuality on the African continent.

Cons:none for me

The Bottom Line: Another re-post for Black History Month.


This review was originally written for a Black History Month book write-off organized by Frazzeledspice in 2001. Selections included works of adult and juvenile fiction, poetry, drama, biography, and non-fiction. I have left the original list of participants at the end of my review of Boy Wives & Female Husbands by Stephen O. Murray, an anthropologist and prolific Epinions writer.


Note (2/7/04) Mr. Murray recently e-mailed me that the word "American" in the title is incorrect. Good luck to him in getting it corrected in the Epinions database. I have removed the word where I could. The rest is up to Epinions.

This first work on the subject presents a well-researched study by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe. These two men have sought to present materials that will change the assumptions that same-sex practices never existed in continental Africa. They have offered points of view from anthropology and history, along with wide-ranging evidence from ethnic, cultural and literary resources, including the writings of Europeans who documented but didn’t understand the sexual practices they found.

The book investigates topics like woman-woman marriages, male homosexuality in contemporary West Africa, alternative gender identities among the Swahili, and the portrayal of homosexuality in modern African literature. These studies explode the long-held myths of African sexuality. Black History claims that the original languages of Africa did not have words for gay or lesbian, much less bisexual, and with that assumption many people have concluded that homosexuality did not even exist in this “cradle of civilization.” President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has wrongly insinuated that white Europeans are responsible for foisting these sexual practices on the indigenous populations.

A black gay subculture has been identifiable in Cape Town since at least 1950. Sodomy was a punishable offense under the apartheid regime laws, but sex between women was not criminalized. By the 1980s men and women who pursued same-sex activities became more visible in South Africa and an organization named African Gay Association (AGA) was formed in Cape Town. In the 1990s an interracial gay liberation movement was mobilized and 800 people participated in Africa’s first Gay Pride Parade in Johannesburg. Thirty percent of the marchers were black.

Until 1994 Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe (GALZ) lived relatively undisturbed lives until they placed an ad in the Daily Gazette for counseling services. The ad set off the nation’s first public debate about homosexuality. Shortly after that, In 1995, they applied for a small space at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. The theme was human rights and justice. GALZ planned to display their literature on legal and constitutional rights for lesbigay peoples.

The government of President Robert Mugabe sent a letter to the trustees of the Book Fair demanding that GALZ withdraw, which the leaders refused to do. Mugabe opened the Book Fair with a denunciation of homosexuality, saying, “I don’t believe they should have any rights at all.” You may remember that being reported in the gay and international press. All aspects of this action, including developments in Nambia and Botswana are included.

Murray says, “It would appear that Mugabe’s antigay campaign has had the opposite effect to the one he intended. . . . lesbians and gay men have become more vocal and visible offering living proof to counter claims about the un-Africanness of homosexuality.”

South Africa is now a world leader in the recognition of gay and lesbian humanity. They have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, and that’s only as it should be. This book is dedicated to GALZ and African peoples everywhere whose lives and struggles are testimony to the vital presence of same-sex love on the African continent. Murray continues saying, “It also reveals the denials of African homosexualities for what they are--prejudice and willful ignorance.

Murray has included his interview with a 25-year old Kikuyu male from Kenya, titled A Feeling Within Me. Dr. Murray writes that the young man comes from “a people about whom particularly absolute claims concerning the lack of homosexuality have been made.” Contrary to that statement, the subject said he was about eleven when he started watching men. He would go to the toilet with a brother or someone he was interested in and he would look at their groins.

He attended a government-run school at the age of 14. Beds were shared to keep warm on cold nights during the rainy season. Sexual things began to happen with an older boy who slept in the bunk above him. As time passed, the young man became more active and eventually worked his way through anyone at school who was interested. He says he did not know he was gay, but he knew there was something, “There was a feeling within me.”

He learned the word gay when he went to school in London. There he frequented cottages (public restrooms) and picked up married men; they would go to a hotel to have sex. He says that although he still has sex with men, he now practices safer sex because of AIDS. He has had a fiancée for seven years and they like to have sex together; the girl wants children, but this African man is going to wait a little longer for marriage.

The general South African term for homosexuals is moffie, derived from hermaphrodite. Moffies are “men who dress like women or dress in high style.” These were men who were really women in spirit; they were cross-dressers. “They spoke and acted like women, flirted openly with men and kept men.” One of the moffies reportedly had a relationship with a married man who had children that lasted for ten years.

In West Africa there are “intense and secret "friendship clubs" for men who love other men.” These secret clubs are hard to find and when the men feel they are on “safe ground” they can be as campy and affected, as they want. They refer to trousers or pants as “skirts,” shorts are “hot pants,” and briefcases are “handbags.” They can switch codes in an instant when needed. That’s not much different from some of the “dish” I hear in the gay bars here in the states. Almost everyone changes their behavior while making an effort to fit into traditional roles when in the straight community.

In male-male sexual relationships among the Shona there have also been particularly vehement claims about the absence of homosexuality. In a chapter called Good God Almighty, What’s This: Homosexual ‘Crime’ in Early colonial Zimbabwe, Marc Epprecht writes that everyone from missionaries to native commissioners and psychologists have described queer behavior among these African men decades ago.

In other areas we learn that many males refuse to use condoms because they believe that if they used them (even with another male) they wouldn’t be able to have a baby, they would be “throwing their sperm away.” They are still under the impression that they might be able to have a child with their male partner. Thus are myths, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases--spread!

In a chapter called “Woman-Woman Marriage in Africa,” Murray and Joseph M. Carrier site an example that has been documented in more than 30 African populations where one woman pays the “brideprice” to acquire a husband’s rights to another woman. In another chapter, Judith Gay offers a detailed account of institutionalized friendships called “mummy-baby” relationships among women in Lesotho in South Africa. A “mummy” might have more than one “baby,” but a “baby” only has one “mummy.” Some Tswana women form homosexual relationships while their husbands are away working in the mines. At the mines their husbands form mine marriages with other men

A female writer who held a position in a Performing Arts program at a South African university and earlier in Lesotho, came to the conclusion that she needed to take another look at how female sexualities expressed themselves. She goes into some detail as to what does and what does not constitute sex between two women. They may not call it sex, but they sure do get it on. Her conclusion was that “love between women is as native to Southern Africa as the soil itself, but that homophobia like President Robert Mugabe’s Christianity is a western import.”

In an interview with a lesbian subject, the subject said, “in the old days celebrations of friendship were very beautiful--men friends and women friends. Now this custom is gone. People don’t love like they did long ago.” (Amazingly, she is referring to the 1950’s!) “Today the young girls only want men friends; they don’t know how to choose women friends. Maybe these girls just want money. Women never have money so these young girls who want money more than love get AIDS from these men at the same time they get the money.” (Palgrave: Global Publishing at St. Martin’s Press, ISBN: 0-312-23829-0).

Ed Grover - 2001

Participating in this write-off are: brendamb, caines, frazzledspice, ed_grover, hadassahchana, jgibson2, jnbmoore, jsgoddess, lunadisarm, nsgraham, pippadaisy, Sloucho, Stephen_Murray, vemartin. Please check out their profile pages and discover some excellent writing by these epinions members.



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