Six LGBTQ+ figures from African history

In honor of Pride month, we revisit the past which shows that many Africans were unapologetic about their sexuality and gender non-conformity.

Image credit Sheila Sund via Flickr CC.

As Pride month comes to a close, it offers us an opportunity to reflect on the history of sexuality in Africa. Despite the propaganda spouted by some conservative political, religious, and other forces on the continent, a close look at African history reveals that it is not gender queerness that is “un-African” but rather the laws that criminalize it. Historically, many Africans were unapologetic about their sexuality and gender non-conformity, though their personal stories remain difficult to uncover. LGBTQ+ scholarship in Africa finds that several anthropologists actively ignored or hid these realities. The multitude of accounts have been passed down through oral tradition leaving them open to misinterpretation and misconstruction, while a standard of heteronormativity remains largely unquestioned. Nevertheless, recognition and representation have a way of personifying and enabling us to better understand our identities, especially for the many undocumented queer people who are today subverting gender roles in Africa. It is important to document LGBTQ+ stories and history to reverse the erasure primarily caused by colonialism and fundamentalism.

Historically, several African cultures believed that gender was not dependent upon sexual anatomy, but was instead more energetic. The Dogon of Mali reportedly traditionally worshiped ancestral “teachers” who were described as intersex and mystical. Androgynous deities like Esu Elegba, the Yoruba god/ess of the crossroads, or Mawu Lisa, the Dahomey creator god/ess, can be viewed through a contemporary lens as possible patrons for LGBTQ+, despite being historically demonized. Many ancient matriarchal structures in Africa practiced female husbandry, where women attained wives and assumed economic responsibility over the children. In recent history, Black Dandyism (i.e “La Sapologie” in DR Congo) continues to challenge gender performativity and binaries.

Colonial powers once denigrated Africans as having primitive, bestial sexuality as proof of their inferiority. Ironically, many of these Western states now condemn the sodomy laws they installed during colonial rule. Arguably, it was not homosexuality, but rather homophobia, that was imported to Africa from the West. While contemporary labels were not affixed the same way in precolonial Africa, non-heteronormativity (self-identifying and not), is encompassed here under the umbrella of LGBTQ+ for the purpose of language. It is important to note that nuanced understandings of queer African identity may not have been constructed in the same way had they been adequately documented. This further highlights the role of language in a complicated history of othering, and why contemporary critical discourse must continue to engage, uncover, and more accurately inform our futures.

Here are 6 LGBTQ+ figures in African history that you should know

Queen Nzingha Mbande (Angola) (1600s)

Queen (or Female King) Nzingha Mbande (1583–1663) ruled the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in the north of modern day Angola. She assumed power after the death of her father and brother, during a period of rapid growth in the slave trade. Nzingha led a four-decade military resistance against Portuguese dominion and is revered for her intelligence, military tactics, and diplomatic brilliance.

Nzingha’s dubious sexual identity finds different accounts pointing to a heterosexual marriage, to female wives, and to a harem of men who dressed as women. She certainly transgressed gender binaries, answering only to “King,” leading troops into battle, and wearing both men’s and women’s clothing. Her female husbandry illustrates the “queering” of gender roles in Africa, traditionally less closely identified with biological sex. Nzingha’s ability to perform a queer identity can be partly attributed to her royal status and power. However, this doesn’t delegitimize the reality of relationships between ordinary women based on love and desire during her time. African lesbian sexualities have largely been shaped by silence, secrecy, and repression.

King Mwanga II (Uganda) (1800s)

King Mwanga II (1868–1903) became the 31st Kabaka of Buganda (Uganda) at age 16. He was openly gay (or bisexual), a grave offense under the British Empire who tried to convert him from his “hedonistic and satanic” ways. Mwanga antagonized the British who he saw as intruders, fighting to free his country of their influence during his reign. His controversial story is associated with Martyrs’ Day in Uganda which is often co-opted into a political anti-LGBTQ agenda, as Mwanga is said to have killed several of his male companions (martyrs) leading to his exile in 1899. Mwanga’s pre-colonial story is proof that homosexuality was not an “import from the West” as is often claimed.

Area Scatter (Nigeria) (1970s)

Area Scatter was an Igbo gender non-conforming folkloric musician from southeast Nigeria. In the 1970s, he disappeared into the wilderness, reemerging seven months and seven days later, spiritually reborn and beautifully adorned as a woman. She claimed to be endowed by the gods with musical gifts, and her new name “Area Scatter” meant “one who comes to disorganize a place, to shock, and to reclaim.” Very little is known about “the curious case of Area Scatter” aside from a rare video clip of her performing to royalty. She led a band called Ugwu Anya Egbulam famously playing her thumb piano. She was admired, praised on the streets, and widely respected at the time. Area Scatter’s story shows how gender came to acquire a Eurocentric understanding and performativity in many African contexts, where queer identity and fluidity was not always subject to ridicule, threats, and attacks.

Simon Nkoli (South Africa) (1970-90s)

Simon Nkoli (1957–1998) was one of Africa’s most prominent anti-apartheid, gay rights and AIDS activists. In 1983, he formed the Saturday Group, the first public, black LGBTQ+ group in Africa, established in response to implicit racism by the predominantly white Gay Association of South Africa (GASA). Nkoli was arrested in 1984 and faced the death penalty on charges of treason for his anti-apartheid activism. He came out to his colleagues in the United Democratic Front in prison, a courageous act that broke the silence around homosexuality in the liberation movement. He was acquitted and released in 1988, and soon founded GLOW which organized the first Pride parade in South Africa in 1990. Nkoli received several human rights awards globally and was one of the first gay activists to meet with President Mandela in 1994, campaigning for the protection from discrimination in the 1994 Constitution and for the repeal of the sodomy law. In 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to provide constitutional protection to LGBTQ+. Among the earliest publicly HIV-positive African gay men, Nkoli is widely referenced and heralded; there’s even a “Simon Nkoli Day” in San Francisco.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria) (1980s)

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955-1989) was a Nigerian photographer whose portraits and compositions explored the tensions between sexuality, race, spirituality, and culture. His works exalted queer black desire, and examined the relationship between erotic fantasy, ancestral ritual, and diasporic “otherness.” This was informed by his complex experience of dislocation and rejection from the age of 12, after his family sought political asylum in England to escape the Nigerian Civil War. The black male body, often his own body, was the focal point of photographic inquiry into sexual difference, and conflicts between his homosexuality and his Yoruba upbringing. He fused motifs from European and African subcultures, inspired by what Yoruba priests call “the technique of ecstasy.” Fani-Kayode once described his approach to photography as “… the tool by which I feel most confident in expressing myself. It is photography therefore—Black, African, homosexual photography—which I must use not just as an instrument, but as a weapon if I am to resist attacks on my integrity and, indeed, my existence on my own terms.”

Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya) (2000s)

Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–2019) was a Kenyan author and journalist. Among others, he was included in TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2014. Wainaina refused to accept the othering of Africans and adamantly advocated for feminist principles. In a 2014 tweet and essay titled “I am a Homosexual, Mum,” he came out to a highly homophobic society in response to a wave of anti-gay laws passed across Africa. Wainaina’s most acclaimed works include his memoir and his award-winning satirical essay “How To Write About Africa.” He co-founded Kwani?, a literary magazine and collective of writers who foster the work of many young Kenyan writers.

Further Reading