In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section LGBTI Minorities and Queer Politics in Eastern and Southern Africa

  • Introduction
  • Overview
  • Compendia and Readers
  • Theorizing African Sexuality and Sexual Diversity
  • Biographies and Life Stories
  • Colonialism and Postcolonialism
  • Religion
  • Politicized Homophobia and Legislation
  • Activism
  • Homophobic Hate Crimes and Other Homophobic Abuse
  • Identities
  • Extended Family Life, Marriage, and Children
  • Education
  • Health
  • Literature, Visual, and Performing Arts
  • Films
  • Praxis

African Studies LGBTI Minorities and Queer Politics in Eastern and Southern Africa
Andrew Mickleburgh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0216


LGBTI embodies diverse life experiences of the groups included, with different levels of knowledge about and understanding of each group contributing to varying degrees of acceptance and inclusion. Notwithstanding these experiences, the anti-gay rhetoric of many African leaders, anti-homosexuality legislation in a number of African countries, and harassment of sexual minorities throughout Africa raise vital issues and important lessons, including ample reasons for optimism. Probing these issues provides important and wide-ranging perspectives on how political and social systems work, including processes, barriers, and opportunities for social change more generally. Numerous accounts of traditional “cultures of discretion” surrounding same-sex practices debunk the myth that homosexuality is a decadent un-African import designed to corrupt African societies. Even though, traditionally, “looking the other way” was widely accepted, it is inadequate in complex contemporary settings. Many scholars argue cogently that it is not homosexuality that is un-African, but homophobia and the rigid dichotomy between what is today regarded as heterosexuality and homosexuality. Some refer to “homophobias” to emphasize the multiple ways in which discrimination, anxiety, and hatred are directed toward sexual minorities. Heterosexuality encompassed a broad range of relationships that flourished in stark contradiction to widely stated claims about homogeneous African heterosexuality. The role of religion in fueling anti-homosexuality rhetoric is also more nuanced than generally portrayed, with numerous examples showing that religion can play positive roles in (re)building Africa as a continent accepting of sexual diversity. Same-sex issues intersect with many matters, including gender, race, and class, creating openings for exploring how, for instance, same-sex marriage advances understandings of changing gender relations, and the price paid by those who do not conform to patriarchal and heteronormative expectations. Access to services is a critical issue for people of all sexualities and gender identities in Eastern and Southern Africa. LGBTI people face many difficulties accessing these services, and the difficulties extend into their experiences, as well. Literature on activism includes descriptions of how sexual minorities have strategically managed visibility and invisibility to make LGBTI rights intelligible as African rather than foreign, and used other concerns and campaigns to advance their interests. However, enormous challenges remain. For example, South Africa became the first country to enshrine the rights of sexual minorities in its constitution. Yet vicious homophobic hate crimes and persistent heteronormative values and practices illustrate how same-sex-friendly legislation is necessary but not sufficient. Sexual minorities have been well represented in literature and the arts, often before anti-gay rhetoric appeared. This includes biographies illustrating the great diversity and fluidity of lives, including multiple forms of agency and strategic resistance, and the ways that sexuality and faith have sometimes been reconciled.


Epprecht 2013 provides a concise but comprehensive and very accessible outline of the field of study, including reasons for optimism shared by many writers. Kintu 2018 explores the context of contemporary events in Uganda, a country that attracted particular notoriety for its hostility toward sexual minorities, with wider relevance to other African countries. Biruk 2014 shows how homophobia in Malawi is not a simple social construction, but a lens on many important issues its people are negotiating. Awondo, et al. 2012 demonstrates the considerable internal debates and disagreements among Africans on the subject of homosexuality, and the very different trajectories that led to it becoming politicized, while Ireland 2013 tests, statistically, causal factors for homophobia identified by academics and activists. A 17th-century biography of the female Ethiopian saint Wälättä P̣eṭros (Belcher 2015), ostensibly written in 1672 by the monk Gälawdewos, thirty years after P̣eṭros’s death, is the earliest known written record by an African describing same-sex intimacies, which Belcher believes were queer, even if holy and celibate. Responding to Eurocentric views of African culture as encouraging promiscuity, Kenyatta 1938 was written by probably the first African intellectual to assert that homosexuality was un-African, while Ehrisman 2014 suggests that Africans sometimes participated in the growth of homophobic discourse before political independence was achieved. Debele 2022 (cited under Theorizing African Sexuality and Sexual Diversity), Currier 2012 (cited under Activism), Francis 2017 (cited under Education), and Serrano-Amaya 2018 (cited under Homophobic Hate Crimes and Other Homophobic Abuse) include valuable reflection on how the background of researchers might impact on the research process and output.

  • Awondo, Patrick, Peter Geschiere, and Graeme Reid. “Homophobic Africa? Toward a More Nuanced View.” African Studies Review 55.3 (2012): 145–168.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0002020600007241

    An adept distillation and analysis of the extant literature, challenging simplistic portrayals of a homophobic Africa and tolerant (or depraved) West, in order to create (or restore) more space for varied sexualities.

  • Belcher, Wendy, ed., and Michael Kleiner, trans. The Life and Struggles of Our Mother Wälättä Petros: A Seventeenth-Century African Biography of an Ethiopian Woman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

    Focuses on two women who loved each other deeply, with reference to nuns “being lustful” with each other, at a time when the powerful Ethiopian Orthodox Church had a more loving understanding and more merciful approach to same-sex desire than in later times.

  • Biruk, Crystal. “Aid for Gays: The Moral and the Material in ‘African Homophobia’ in Post-2009 Malawi.” Journal of Modern African Studies 52.3 (2014): 447–473.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022278X14000226

    By deconstructing and reconstructing a 2009 sodomy case, Biruk makes a valuable contribution to the body of literature investigating the material conditions of homophobia in Africa and across transnational contexts.

  • Ehrisman, Lindsay. “Decadent Imports, Vile Abominations: Transnational Discourses on Male-Male Sex and the Missionary Position in Buganda, 1875–1910.” Proceedings of the British Academy 194 (2014): 271–288.

    The importance of this article includes the Ganda case study challenging perceptions of Africans as detached nonparticipants in the development of homophobic discourse until after independence.

  • Epprecht, Marc. Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance. London: Zed Books, 2013.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781350222564

    Probably the best introduction for readers new to this field, written by a global authority on African LGBTI. Its importance includes discussion of the limitations of rights-based approaches, crafting a cogent argument for moving away from the language of rights to “erotic justice.”

  • Ireland, Patrick. “A Macro-Level Analysis of the Scope, Causes and Consequences of Homophobia in Africa.” African Studies Review 56.2 (2013): 47–66.

    DOI: 10.1017/asr.2013.41

    Notable for applying widely used statistical methods to fifty-three African countries. Concludes that a British colonial past, large Muslim population, and absence of freedom and openness explained at least one-third of the cross-national variation.

  • Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mt. Kenya. London: Secker and Warburg, 1938.

    Argues that homosexuality was introduced to Africa by foreigners, holding up Kikuyu “normal heterosexuality” with pride when set against that of confused and perverse Europeans.

  • Kintu, Deborah. The Uganda Morality Crusade: The Brutal Campaign against Homosexuality and Pornography under Yoweri Museveni. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.

    A meticulously researched study of state-sanctioned harassment of sexual minorities in Uganda and their struggle for human rights, against a backdrop of Machiavellian politics and religious fundamentalism.

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