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Africa: Sub-Saharan, Pre-Independence  
 
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The myth of exclusive heterosexuality in indigenous black/sub-Saharan Africa was widely diffused by the 94th chapter of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1781). Referring to homosexual behavior, Gibbon wrote, "I believe and hope that the negroes in their own country were exempt from this moral pestilence." Gibbon's fond hope was based on neither travel to Africa nor on inquiry of any kind.

A century later, Sir Richard Burton, who unlike Gibbon did know something of Africa, reinforced the myth of African sexual exceptionalism by drawing the boundaries of his "sotadic Zone," where homosexuality was supposedly widely practiced and accepted, in such a way as to exclude sub-Saharan Africa.

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Especially where Western influences (notably Christian and Marxist) have been pervasive, there is now a belief that homosexuality is a decadent, bourgeois Western innovation forced upon colonial Africa by white men, or, alternately, by Islamic slave-traders. The belief of many Africans that homosexuality is exogenous to the history of their people is a belief with real social consequences--in particular, the stigmatization of those of their people who engage in homosexual behavior or who are grappling with glbtq identities. These beliefs are not, however, based on serious inquiry, historical or otherwise.

There are no analyses of the social structures of African societies written by indigenous people prior to alien contact. What is inscribed of "traditional" African cultures was written by some of the Northerners who disrupted African cultures, first travelers, then missionaries, colonial officials, and anthropologists. In many cases the observers inscribing "traditional" African culture did not understand that their presence as observers was itself a product of history and domination.

Nevertheless, the observing Europeans are the only source of data on homosexuality in Africa until the most recent few decades. Most of what can be learned about traditional African societies was inscribed in the last decade of the nineteenth century or later, when the continent had been colonized by European states. To keep down the costs of colonial government, European (and especially English) colonial regimes used "indirect rule," endeavoring to maintain customary laws, though attempting to ban some customary practices, particularly sexual ones.

The travel, colonial, and anthropological literature include reports of native conceptions and native practices of male homosexuality in many societies across every region of the continent. Documentation of female homosexuality is less abundant, but exists for many cultures. The contact and colonial era reports are critically reviewed in Murray and Roscoe's Boy-Wives and Female Husbands. Here, only a few examples of each of the main social organizations of homosexuality will be mentioned.

"Boy Wives": Age-differentiated Homosexuality

In the central African Zande culture, before European conquest, it was regarded "as very sensible for a man to sleep with boys when women are not available or are taboo." English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard was told that in addition to times when women were not available for sex, some Azande men had sex with boys "just because they like them."

The adult males paid the families of boy wives, just as they paid for female brides. The two slept together at night, "the husband satisfying his desires between the boy's thighs. When the boy grew up he joined the company and took a boy-wife in his turn. It was the duty of the husband to give his boy-wife a spear and a shield when he became a warrior. He then took a new boy-wife."

One commander, Ganga, told Evans-Pritchard that there were some men who, although they had female wives, still married boys. "When a war broke out, they took their boys with them. . . . If another man had relations with his boy, the husband could sue the interloper in court for adultery."

The South African Thonga provide another particularly well-documented instance of a boy-wife role. A number of southern and western African societies also had female husbands, though whether these husbands had sexual relations with their wives is unclear in what has been written. (It seems that anthropologists studying the phenomenon did not ask that question.)

Gender-differentiated Homosexual Relations

Gender-crossing homosexuality has been discussed as common in the (Nigerian) Hausa bori cult (and in Afro-Brazilian offshoots of west African spirit-possession religion).

Among the Maale of southern Ethiopia, some males crossed over to feminine roles. Called ashtime, these (biological) males dressed as women, performed female tasks, cared for their own houses, and apparently had sexual relations with men, according to Donald Donham. One gave Donham a clear statement of the "third gender" conception: "The Divinity created me wobo, crooked. If I had been a man, I could have taken a wife and begotten children. If I had been a woman, I could have married and borne children. But I am wobo; I can do neither."

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