As talk of decriminalizing homosexuality (to be more accurate, anal and oral sex between two men) sweeps through the Caribbean region and the resulting outrage ensues, I cannot help but ask myself, how come our people hate gays so much? Some would say, “We are islands that embrace Christian values and the bible says it is a sin.” However it is an oversimplified response. The most virulent homophobes are usually not Christian nor strict bible adherents. Dancehall artists famous for calling for violence against gays are certainly are no bible behaving saints. In fact most of us in general, do not abide by strict biblical law in everything, from eating pork to losing our temper to premarital sex to our Carnival revelry to gossip. They are just a drop in the bucket of biblical sins most of us are guilty of, yet we are very quick to quote scripture when it comes to homosexuals. Our “bible says so” explanation is more of a convenient excuse than anything else. In an effort to find out the root of our hatred and intolerance we need to dig deeper beneath the predictable reactions and religious arguments. We need to look at our history, our origins because our fear, shame and hate of gay people (men in particular) is far more universal a modern cultural phenomena among black people whether we are from the Caribbean, America or Africa. Therefore I must ask, what is our common experience? What is our common heritage?
An unbiased historical and anthropological look back will show us what our past feelings towards homosexuals were probably like when we were back in our indigenous tribes in West, Central and Southern Africa long before the arrival of the European colonialists. I know many Afrocentrics often deny that homosexuality was a feature of African cultures in ancient times. They love to spread the myth that homosexuality is primarily a modern phenomenon, a “white man’s disease”. Ironically, they have been unwittingly anglicanized to have this myopic view. Every great ancient civilization or culture has had homosexuals in it, whether tolerated or not. For two centuries at the height of the Han, China was ruled by ten openly bisexual emperors, whose names have been recorded in the official histories of the period by Sima Qian and Ban Gu. There is the legendary "nanshoku" loves recorded by writers and shunga painters who immortalized "shudo," the love between samurai warriors in feudal Japan. There is an abundance of homoerotic art from ancient Rome, Greece, Inca and Mayan civilisations. French colonists have recorded accounts of the “bedarches” among the Native Americans and “fa’ faine” of the South Pacific. During the Islamic Renaissance, famous Iranian and Arab poets such as Hafiz i-Shirazi and Abu Nuwas wrote pages of homoerotic poetry. Therefore homosexuality and bisexuality are ubiquitous, existing in all cultures, and at all times in history. How come these Afrocentrists want us to believe that our mother land was somehow the exception to the rule? Simple, they are being dishonest and it begs the question: “Other races and cultures have owned up to gays in their history, why is it a source of shame and fear for our descendants of ancient African civilisations to do the same?”
The answer is we were taught to feel that shame and fear by the same colonial influences we now speak against. So deep is the indoctrination we cannot even look at our own Motherland honestly. Dictator Robert Mugabe is such a prime example of such a person. He accuses the British of bringing the “disease of perversion” to his country of Zimbabwe and refuses all attempts to foster tolerance and equal rights as “colonial interference”. What Mugabe does not or chooses not to recognise is that that homosexuality existed in Zimbabwe long prior to European contact. We know this because the "San" people, a tribe indigenous to that country did rock paintings that date back many thousands of years which depict sexual acts between men. The Bantu-speaking peoples of the plateau country have also admitted to ethnographers that homosexuality has been traditionally present in their culture. In Nigeria, another place where advocacy for tolerance is dismissed as “European meddling”, the native Hausa people of northern Nigeria and the surrounding countries offer interesting examples of homosexuality among their people for thousands of years before British colonialism. They speak of, 'yan dauda, which is usually translated as "homosexual" or "transvestite" and 'dan dauda, which translates as a “homosexual wife." There are many stories among the Pangwe of Camaroon of men within their tribe who even when offered a large bride price, still prefer to court other men. The indigenous Igbo people of Nigeria allow “female husbands”, women who display more masculine tendencies are treated as men and allowed to hunt and to marry other women. On the Swahili coast and among many tribes in Lesotho romantic love or intimacy between women was allowed because the perception was that two women could not have sex and such interaction was non-threatening. That these behaviours existed prior to European contact is evidenced by the richness and number of these anthropological findings. Contrary to Mugabe's and other Afrocentrists' assertions, analysis of the old colonial court records shows intense prosecutions of homosexual behaviors among the indigenous peoples of the Shona, Ndebele, Xhosa, Basotho and Zulu by early colonialist courts.
It may seem weird to many that so many people, from the Native Americans to the peoples of the South Pacific to Africa were permissive of homosexuality. However, we must keep in mind that among non-Abrahamic/Judeo/Christian cultures, homosexuality was usually tolerated and even celebrated because they simply had a moral code influenced by different values. First peoples revere nature for life’s lessons and in nature they found abundant examples of sexual anomalies (which modern science has now begun to understand) like hermaphrodites, same-gender sexual behaviour among animals even species that could physically change gender. Therefore to many indigenous tribes around the world, a man who manifested feminine traits was not seen as unnatural or immoral. Gay people were often seen as “twin-spirits” possessing both male and female souls and thus gifted with invaluable talent and insight as spiritual guides, healers, artists and craftsmen. The indigenous peoples often demonstrated an acute awareness and acceptance it took colonial societies years to achieve. On the other side of the world, the European people had long converted from their shamanistic earth religions by a powerful Roman Catholic Church which since the 1200s began to rule with an iron fist. They had a rather different view, one they would end up forcing upon our ancestors.
The history of the church in Europe reveals that there was once tolerance of homosexuality throughout the middle ages. Believe it or not, (though the Church tried to sweep it under the carpet) it is now publicly known that many of its priests and abbots prior to the 1200s were openly gay. Some even left us literature celebrating their gay lovers, among them Marbod, Bishop of Rennes (d. 1123 C.E.) and Saint Aelred whose poetry lives on to this day. However after a dismal loss in the Crusades the church began an intense legalistic campaign that would climax with the Inquisition and last until the 17th Century. Of course, this led to all kinds of repression. The first to feel it were the Jews and Muslims of Europe, then came all women practicing midwifery and traditional healing, all racial minorities and of course homosexuals. In the face of growing Islamic threat from the Mediterranean and Middle East and pagan invaders from Eastern Europe, Mongol and China, there was a zealous thrust to replenish diminished European armies and increase the population and power of the Church’s domain. It was at the Lateran III Council of 1179 the Church took its first official position to outlaw all forms of non-procreative sex. In the 1200's the writings of Thomas Aquinas, reinforced the new thinking of the Catholic Church that semen was thought to be life itself and must never be wasted. Early illustrations of sperm in those times depicted them as tiny human souls. Sex was for pleasure was sinful, even between a husband and wife and should only be used for reproduction. Any men caught in the act of anal or oral copulation were burned, this traditional punishment led to the derogatory term of “faggot”, which means a piece of wood for burning. This was the Europe that came to colonise Africa. Can you picture the culture shock European colonialists felt when they came upon our people?
Writings of Belgian, Dutch, French, Spanish and British colonists to the new worlds in Asia, Africa, North and South America are filled with their horror over the polygamous, sexually-liberated, minimally dressed people who because of their reverence for the earth regarded sex in general as a perfectly natural, life-affirming even spiritual. They could not believe many of the tribes didn’t view homosexuality with the same severe condemnation they did. Among the earliest references to this are some of the records of the Inquisition in Brazil. From the Denunciations of Bahia, (1591-1593): "Francisco Manicongo, a cobbler's apprentice is known among the slaves as a sodomite for 'performing the duties of a female' and for 'refusing to wear the men's clothes which the master gave him.' These passives are called jimbandaa in the language of Angola and the Congo, which means passive sodomite. The accuser claimed to have seen Francisco Manicongo "wearing a loincloth such as passive sodomites wear in his land of the Congo and immediately punished him." It’s funny how today we may see Europeans as sexually liberal when thousands of years ago, they were the prudes. They were the homophobes. Of course they were being immensely hypocritical (just like we are now after being indoctrinated by them) because the fact remains that while they were punishing what they saw as sexual deviancy in our various tribal cultures, homosexuality was still rampant in their own ranks. Europe had a great double standard with richer classes and royalty being excused from prosecution for homosexual acts while the plebs felt the full wrath of the iron fisted church. Indeed, among noted homosexuals was King James, the royal for whom a version of the bible was named. Added to this their racism led to their presumption they were innately and culturally superior to our people. They forced our ancestors to wear their impractical style of clothing in the boiling tropical heat, to cover the naked human body which they felt was shameful. They forced us to practice their form of religion and its moral code and laws. Our culture was condemned by foreigners too close-minded to understand it. They embarked upon a well-financed campaign to indoctrinate our people to feel violently ashamed, fearful and hateful of their own traditions and of each-other.
Abused victims turn their fear of punishment and hatred of the punisher inward. As is often the case, the new convert becomes more of an extremist zealot than the one who converted him, especially when there is much at stake for him to gain if he proves his utter devotion and dire consequences if he does not. Therefore we began to fear and hate our own deities, earth and ancestral spirits. We began to fear and hate our skin colour and features. As for the minorities who love people of the same gender for whom many tribes had a special place in their traditions, we began to hate them too. To make matters worse, the morally hypocritical Europeans, used anal rape during the slave trade as a means of humiliation and emasculation especially on mentally and physically strong black men to break their spirit. Paedophilia was rampant in the new slave based colonies because a culture of repression, injustice, violence and hypocrisy always breeds dysfunctional predatory behaviours. Many young African boys were sexually abused by their white masters and especially picked because they had no recourse. In addition, the family unit was split, black men kept in isolation from their women, they were housed together in cramped barracks and this as well led to many non-consensual releases of sexual frustration and the resulting anger and shame about it. All the ill-feelings created by this common experience among our people have been handed down, distilled, supplemented with religious belief from generation to generation down to this day. So now even after emancipation, even after the fight for civil rights, most black men’s impressions of homosexuality are related to either violent events stemming from being incarcerated, degraded or emasculated in some way. The systematic destruction of the black man’s worth as a man for hundreds of years; the resulting desperation to prove his manhood as well as the fear of being “soft” in tough, racist, poverty-stricken societies all have led to a culture of accepted homophobia, a common thread among all Afro-ethnic communities worldwide. Ironically when we feel we are lashing out against “Babylon system” by bashing our gay brothers and sisters, we are really lashing out at a part of our own African heritage which they represent. Colonial racism and homophobia go hand in hand. White racists who believe black people are supposed to be subhuman slaves and the bible justifies it also persecute gay people as well. Who would have thought that dancehall artist Buju Banton and David Duke Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan have something in common?
Today Europe and America continues to apologize for its contribution to slavery and oppression that imprisoned people like Nelson Mandela. They have long since condemned their old laws used to imprison gay people like Oscar Wilde as discriminatory and inhumane. Even the Catholic Church has acknowledged the atrocities of the Inquisition, forced conversion and slavery (although they still cling to the legislation formed during that time with regard to non-procreative sex) were wrong, unjustified and have attempted to be more compassionate towards homosexuals. However, we who live in the Caribbean and places like Zimbabwe cling to colonial fear and intolerance, claiming it as our own even when the nations that forced it upon us have long reconciled them to be unjust. So deep is that colonial wound that even when we try to “return to Mother Africa” we refuse to relinquish the homophobia inculcated in us by Europe. It would be a different story if our intolerance was helping us in some way, but unfortunately it is doing the exact opposite. Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, speaking four days before the 30th anniversary of her husband's assassination, said, "I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice, but I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’” Speaking before nearly 600 people at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel, she called on the civil rights community to join in the struggle against homophobia and anti-gay bias. "Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood," King stated. "This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spreads all too easily to victimize the next minority group." ** We may be predisposed culturally to this form of hatred, but we do not have to let it run our lives. It’s time that we black people whether from the Caribbean, Americas or Africa emancipates ourselves from homophobia which is only another form of mental slavery.
References: Homosexuality and Civilization by Louis Crompton, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality- Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century by John Boswell, Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan by Gary P. Leupp, Changing Ones : Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America by Will Roscoe “Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands- Studies in African-American Homosexualities” by Will Roscoe and Stephen O Murray , ** Chicago Defender, April 1, 1998, front page.