Pink socialism

Socialist solidarity in postcolonial Angola and Mozambique rendered queer people invisible. Revisiting this erasure helps us imagine liberation anew.

Photo by Tyler Hendy on Unsplash

In a recent novel, Call Me Cassandra, the Cuban writer and poet Marcial Gala explores the (im)possibilities of queer life in the transatlantic socialist world. The narrative follows the life and death of Raul, someone who, having been born in a male body, feels and thinks of themselves as a woman. And not just any woman, but the reincarnation of the Greek priestess Cassandra. Just like this tragic mythological figure, Raul, too, is burdened with the gift of foresight. Their destiny, they are well aware, is to die in Angola. 

As many other Cubans did from the 1970s until the early 1990s, when socialist solidarity defined Fidel Castro’s foreign policy towards Africa, Raul enlists to fight a war in a foreign land. At the time, nearly 500,000 Cubans crossed the Atlantic to support the Soviet-backed Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) against rival forces backed by the United States and apartheid South Africa, in an exemplary local iteration of the global Cold War. In the military, where they were called Marilyn Monroe by fellow soldiers, Raul faces discrimination, bullying, and sexual abuse, and eventually perishes in the line of fire under nefarious circumstances.

Call Me Cassandra navigates fiction, allegory, and history. Gods from the Greek and Afro-Cuban pantheon populate the narrative, giving it a mythic tone. But there is also a striking realism in the almost documentary depiction of everyday life in revolutionary Cuba or the harsh reality of the war in Angola. As Gala himself points out, the very political theme of gender and sexuality under socialism sits at the heart of the novel. “The army that went to Angola was very homophobic,” he says. Gays, lesbians, and gender-nonconforming people found no accommodation in revolutionary political culture. “How could a revolutionary youth at the time stand by someone with such ‘weaknesses’? That is how it was said in Cuba back then,” Gala explains. 

While Raul’s gender identity is never explicitly labeled as transgender, the novel opens interesting possibilities for thinking about sexual diversity and gender nonconformity in the socialist Global South, including Africa. This is important because most available resources on socialism’s gender and sexuality politics, in both academia and popular culture, tend to focus on the European experiences of East Germany or the Eastern Bloc

That queer people remain marginalized in the academic literature and public imagination of Africa’s socialist experiments is not surprising. After all, much of what has been published around this period has focused on the big issues of postcolonial nation-building, civil war, and geopolitics. Even though in the last few years we have been seeing the emergence of a broader research agenda, with a growing interest in the affective and cultural politics of the Cold War in Africa, sexuality and gender identity remain only marginal concerns, when not overlooked at all.

To me, as a queer researcher working primarily on Angola and Mozambique, the prevailing silence on the experiences of queer people under postcolonial state socialism is concerning. For one, it perpetuates a conservative and exclusionary narrative that places lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people out of history—a claim that is repeated elsewhere in the continent, too, where homosexuality is said to be essentially “un-African.” According to this view, same-sex desire and gender nonconformity have no roots in the African past, being relatively new phenomena dating to the 1990s. This should come as no surprise, considering that, at the time, processes of political change, economic transition, and globalization were reshaping social norms and shifting the boundaries of public morality, often fueling reactionary feelings and giving rise to a distinctive anti-LGBTI public discourse

In Angola, for instance, it is common to hear that “back in Agostinho Neto’s time, there were no gays” (in reference to the immediate post-independence period, from 1975 to 1979, when the freedom fighter Agostinho Neto served as the country’s first president). I first heard this saying from Augusto, a gay man who participated in an oral-history project I led from 2019 to 2022. Carried out with the support of the GALA Queer Archive, an organization for LGBTI culture and memory based in Johannesburg, the research was aimed at curating a queer archive documenting the lived experiences of LGBTI people in Luanda and Maputo. During this process, I was fortunate to count on the invaluable collaboration of local partners—namely, the Arquivo de Identidade Angolano (Angolan Identity Archive-AIA), a feminist collective led by lesbian, bisexual, and queer women in Luanda, and LAMBDA, the first LGBTI civil society organization established in Mozambique, back in 2006. In a way, we also wanted to capture the genesis of queer activism itself.

While most interlocutors were relatively young, being born in the 2000s, some were of an older generation. Born in the 1950s and 1960s, they had firsthand experiences of the late socialist period and its aftermath, especially in Mozambique. Like in Angola, here the postcolonial revolution was predicated on a socialist morality that celebrated particularly heteronormative forms of coupling, loving, and family building—e.g., those celebrated between man and women, binarily defined, in monogamous unions authorized by the state. Sexual and gender diversity found little room in public space or political culture. That is not to say, of course, that it did not exist, even if covertly, underground. 

In Mozambique, the revolutionary culture propagated by the ruling party, FRELIMO, was infused with a socialist morality that was immediately suspect of the “decadence” associated with colonial urban centers. This included the consumption of alcohol and recreational drugs, as well as the perceived practice of sexual promiscuity or licentiousness. As Mozambican researcher Benedito Machava has argued, after independence, state-led moral purification campaigns effectively produced a crackdown on the urban nightlife economy and deemed people associated with them as “reactionary” and “antisocial.” Sex workers, in particular, were famously arrested and sent to rural “re-education camps,” where they were forced into the revolutionary culture of the new society, a story powerfully captured in the Mozambican film Virgem Margarida. While homosexuals were never explicitly included in the party’s list of people in need of political re-education, oral histories suggest otherwise. For instance, António, a gay man born in Lourenço Marques (contemporary Maputo), told me of his friends who were caught in the party’s moralist wave. “FRELIMO did not like homosexuals,” he stated. “They arrested my friends, they took them there [to the camps]. They wanted them to leave this life.” 

Yet despite the overt heteronormative nature of the post-independence political context, other interlocutors suggested that state socialism could also unlock possibilities of queer love and freedom. This was, to a large degree, connected to the forms of transnational mobility enabled by socialist solidarity. Just as Angola received thousands of Cuban soldiers in this period, Mozambique attracted a diverse group of foreign aid workers arriving in the country to assist in postcolonial nation-building. Known as cooperantes (those who cooperate), they came from the socialist bloc or from Western leftist circles, and quickly became catalysts of a covert queer culture involving both foreign and Mozambican men. Having preferential access to resources at a time when scarcity was the norm, they organized private parties where queer joy and love could flourish. While many of these encounters could have been fleeting or merely sexual, some resulted in romantic and long-lasting attachments. Guto, for instance, told me that many of his friends from this period ended up leaving the country to live with their cooperantes partners. Abdul, another gay man from Maputo, told me he had a Soviet boyfriend. To this day, he still holds a memento of that relationship—a Russian doll set on his bookshelf. 

Transnational solidarity also enabled some queer Mozambicans to experience the larger socialist world. In the 1980s, bilateral cooperation programs facilitated the migration of thousands of Mozambican workers to East Germany, in numbers somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000. The majority of them were men, stationed in German towns to work in factories, part of apprenticeship programs in different trades. This was the case of Essa, a gay man from Maputo who lived in Sangerhausen, from 1986 to 1989, working in a rasp factory. Essa remembers his time in East Germany with both affection and distaste. He misses the many friends he made and the lovers he had, thinks with much fondness of his experiences, and seems to cherish the freedom he managed to achieve by running away to gay clubs in Berlin on the weekends and by refusing to follow factory discipline. He also resents being subjected to mistreatment on the factory floor—in the lived reality of surveillance, exploitation, and discrimination (indeed, he described Mozambicans in East Germany as “civilized former slaves”). His experience suggests that queer histories allow us to question the normative boundaries of the state socialist project, unearthing instances of queer agency and refusal.

The personal stories narrated in fictional works such as Call Me Cassandra or in oral-history interviews with people like António, Abdul, Guto, and Essa encourage us to recalibrate our historical lenses and pay attention to forms of historical experience and remembrance that do not fit neatly in the grand narratives of state socialism but follow more complicated, queer itineraries. In doing so, we contribute to a broader critical movement of inscribing LGBTI people into history, recognizing their political value and unique perspectives on the tense politics of gender and sexuality in the Global South. The personal experiences shared here go to show that circulations across the socialist world opened, to some queer men, the possibility of building friendships, pursuing romantic entanglements, and cultivating affective communities that ultimately afforded them a space to experience sexual freedom and liberation. To be sure, more memory work and academic research need to be done on how queer women and gender-nonconforming folk may have fit into or resisted these same historical processes. They may further aid us in thinking about postcoloniality, liberation, and revolution from a queer perspective, beyond the conventional and masculinist versions of the “liberation script,” as these are commonly grounded on narratives of armed struggle and political resistance organized around institutionalized sites (such as the liberation movement as the driving force of history). As many of the promises of independence and postcolonial revolution remain unfilled today, queering the past may help us to imagine liberation anew, as we strive to create emancipatory futures.

Further Reading