African Literature Today 36
Queer Theory in Film and Fiction
An article by John C. Hawley
African Literature Today guest editor, John C. Hawley, takes us through his research on queer theory in Africa and how ALT, the oldest journal devoted to African Literature, decided to focus their newest publication on this topic.
When I attended the African Literature Association’s annual meeting in June of 2015, held that year at the University of Bayreuth, I was excited to present a paper on queer theory and its possible application to recent African literature. I had just completed an exciting Fulbright Fellowship in the American Studies department at Humboldt University in Berlin, where I had taught a graduate course on “The Pink Picket Fence: Are Gays and Lesbians Still Queer?’, and had been invited to present a lecture in their DuBois Lecture series. For the DuBois lecture I had chosen the topic “From Tom of Finland to Vera Wang: Stonewalling Stonewall,” in which I had argued that capitalism in the west had gone a long way towards taming any countercultural challenge from a movement that, some decades before, seriously challenged sexual and gender norms in the US and throughout Europe. With gay marriage had come, so I had suggested, a domestication that turned The Castro and other formerly outré gay ghettos into anodyne neighborhoods of assimilated and happy same-sex couples and their children. This may have been all to the good, but was it queer?
For some years I had been trying to combine my interest in the LGBTQ impetus in the identity politics of the west with postcolonial theory, asking what ‘right’ Europeans and Americans had to suggest, or even demand, that their sexual politics and modes of expression should take similar root in the global south. After all, I noted, hadn’t French feminism been met with resistance in many parts of Africa and elsewhere, often because of its apparent colonizing impulse? So should anyone be surprised to learn that what the west designated as ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ seemed to some Africans to be geographically situated concepts and far from universal in their potential application.
Approaching the topic of multiple homosexualities from various directions, for example, writers (Maboula Soumahoro, Rokhaya Diallo, Hakan Seckinelgin, Kumari Jayawardena, Sylvia Tamale, among others) argue against the “one size fits all” understanding of binary gender roles and modes of sexual expression, and against what some consider procrustean EuroAmerican proscriptions for global human rights. While trying to remain sensitive to these nuances and cultural variations, though, one cannot simply ignore the accounts of serious and ongoing violence against those in Africa who choose to become more public about their non-normative sexual expression, especially if it resonates with western identity categories. Some in Africa who have in recent years suffered public shaming (and worse) for these violations of the social codes (though some victims explicitly also eschew the western terms for such activities) may well know that their fates would have been quite similar in Europe or the United States 40 years ago—or today, in some places. But whatever words are used to single out their countrymen-and-women, today’s African headlines are reminiscent of those familiar to Americans of a certain age.
South Africa was the first country in the southern hemisphere to legalize gay marriage (in 2006); it is still the only one in Africa to have done so. This outlier suggests what might be possible in the rest of the continent some distant day, but of its 54 nations, 33 African countries currently criminalize homosexual behavior. In Uganda, one can be imprisoned for life; in northern Nigeria, one can be put to death. Imprisonment, caning, flogging, are legal in many of the 33 states.
In such an environment, one cannot be surprised if citizens remain silent about their homosexuality; nor can one be surprised if that silence provides the various governments with cover to protest that homosexuality is not African, but is instead a colonial import. More surprising, though, is when such silence continues in the academy.
At the Bayreuth conference, with a great many concurrent panels spread over four very full days, there were perhaps only two panels focused specifically on this topic. I was on one of them, and the audience was very small, indeed. I had heard that a woman speaking on lesbian topics at the earlier panel had met with serious resistance from a more senior African scholar. In fact, until recently it has been a non-topic except perhaps for the Arabic north and South Africa. For the rest of the continent it has been taboo—dismissed as boring, perhaps disruptive, disgusting, or morally contaminative, like pornography.
That is changing, and somewhat suddenly. In December of 2014 Wendy Belcher at Princeton University, along with Taiwo Adetunji Osinubi at Western University in Ontario, secured funding for a small conference at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies on the topic of “Figuring the Queer in African Literature and Culture.” This resulted in a special issue of Research in African Literatures that offered some groundbreaking theoretical papers on the topic. Drawing on the work of Naminata Diabate, Neville Hoad, Lindsey B. Green-Simms, and others, I subsequently published a brief article in JALA, the journal of the African Literature Association, pointing to recent fiction and film on LGBTQ topics coming out of Africa and its the diaspora.
The time seemed right for ALT (African Literature Today) to address the topic. The oldest journal devoted to African Literature, founded in 1968 and ably edited by Ernest N. Emenyonou since 2003, it is produced once a year on a single broad topic (in 2017 it was Egypt; in 2014 it was Politics and Social Justice). That the editorial board of a journal with such a pedigree would decide to devote the year’s volume to this controversial (and perhaps, by many, unwelcome) topic suggested that something was stirring among academics who needed a more open forum for consideration of the ethical issues coming to a head in many social confrontations across the African continent.
How this might develop is uncertain. The forces that African politicians use to their advantage are powerful, and America’s leadership is rudely inviting a backlash from even the most neutral of Africa’s citizens, fully cognizant of how their countries have been described by recent tweets. But if the contributors to the ALT special volume, and their topics, are any indication, a growing number of Africans is stepping up to the plate on this complex set of issues, asking to be heard, to be seen—to be embraced as Africans and as authentic voices.
John C. Hawley is Professor in the Department of English, Santa Clara University
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