Op-Ed: Reclaiming queer history, a key step in decolonisation
- JODI WILLIAMS
- South Africa
- 13 Nov 2017 12:31 (South Africa)
Who determines our societal norms and standards? And why is it that our norms and standards are still dominated by those who benefit from the imperial mission? Why is it that select few possess the power to think and create knowledge and subsequently recreate history? These are all questions that remain central to the decolonisation project. Questions that we must urgently address to free our consciousness and reclaim our history. By JODI WILLIAMS.
Earlier this month, 13 people were arrested in Tanzania and accused of “promoting homosexuality”. Human rights lawyer, Sibongile Ndashe, the executive director of the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (Isla) was one of those arrested and denied bail. The arrests took place in Dar es Salaam when the Tanzanian police raided a legal consultation meeting. Similarly, 40 men were arrested on the “suspicion of being gay’’ in Nigeria earlier this year. Both these incidents, about three months apart, shed light on the incongruity around the criminalisation of queerness and the general plight of queer people across the continent. A context where being who you are and finding pride in that is a life or death conundrum negotiated daily; an inescapable reality for the LGBTQIA+ community across the continent.
According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), 33 African countries have laws that criminalise queerness. And in countries like Mauritania, being queer is punishable by death. One of the major attitudinal underpinning that deems queerness as “immoral’’ and, therefore, “criminal’’ is the idea that queerness is “unAfrican’’, “a foreign import’’ or a “white thing’’; a myth that we, as agents of change, work hard to dispel.
A common starting point is drawing attention to the historical occurrences and developments of the last five centuries which were instrumental in shaping the way we understand life, society, systems and human relations today.
Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi described the last five centuries as a period of social and cultural revolution, ushered in through the historical developments of slavery, colonisation and the development of white supremacist patriarchal heteronormative capitalism which fundamentally led to the establishment of the current world order. It is within these imposed historical processes that our understandings of gender and race were interrupted and replaced with, in my opinion, a more rigid understanding of what it means to be human, and more specifically, what it means to relate to each other. It is this process of colonisation that led to the erasure of our history, thus replacing it with one that centralises the white cisgender heterosexual man as the sole definition of what it means to be human.
It is this erasure that brings into question, who owns knowledge? Who determines our societal norms and standards? And why is it that our norms and standards are still dominated by those who benefit from the imperial mission? Why is it that a selected few possess the power to think and create knowledge and subsequently recreate history? These are all questions that remain central to the decolonial project. Questions that we must urgently address to free our consciousness and reclaim our history.
It is upon engagement with pre-colonial history that we will find that queer fluidity was a norm prior to the arrival of any settler boat. Human relations were a lot more fluid, divine, communal and spiritual than that of orthodox heteronormative relations that came to dominate human life throughout the Christianisation process (the religious justification for the dehumanisation of Africans).
Anthropologists and activists have begun to interrogate wide-ranging evidence that demonstrate that throughout Africa’s history, fluidity has been a ‘‘consistent and logical feature of African societies and belief systems.” Thus creating a body of historical knowledge that speaks to a vast array of queer identities and diverse understandings of gender across many African belief systems. It is with this in mind that our conversations around the decolonisation of space, knowledge and the realms of the spirit, that we must speak boldly to the decolonisation of binaries and heteronormative understandings of our history. It is this very rigid understanding of queerness that is detrimental to life and dignity of queers across the continent.
While South Africa is seen as a beacon of hope with regards to progress made in the protection of queers under the constitution, one has to note that that the LGBTQIA+ community still remains subject to structural violence, discrimination, sexual violence, and social and economic exclusion. Pervasive violence against the LGBTQIA+ community is one such thing that undermines South Africa’s so-called “progressive” constitution in that it fails to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
Every day we wake to news of sexual violence, brutal murders and the continued dehumanisation of fellow queers. We have inherited and continue to nurture a culture that normalises violence in such a way that we barely bat an eye when vulnerable members of society are subjected to structural, physical and sexual violence and continue to be stripped of their dignity. And the prevalence of hate crimes across the continent is telling of this violence inflicted upon queers. Studies suggest that around 86% of Black lesbian womxn in the Western Cape, alone, live in fear of sexual assault while 41% of Black queers know of people who have been murdered because of their queer identity. This is largely due to systemic failures compounded with conservative attitudes, decaying leadership and the disintegration of so-called “progressive institutions” that ought to protect us. These very institutions that mean little to queers who live in an eternal state of fear.
The reality and plight of the LGBTQIA+ community across the continent is one of great concern. With the rise of conservative values in the global system, it is imperative that our conversations around social change centralise the voices of the most marginalised members of society. A change that starts with the decolonisation and reclamation of our history, our knowledge systems and our collective voice. DM
This piece was previously published in IJR’s newsletter, volume 8 issue 5*
Jodi Williams is a Project Officer at The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
Photo: Members of the LGBT community attend the annual Gay Pride march in Johannesburg, South Africa, 28 October 2017. Photo: Kim Ludbrook/(EP-EFE).