GLBT Literature: Review

Boy-Wives and Female Husbands - Studies in African HomosexualitiesBoy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities

Edited by Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe

Palgrave Macmillan, 2001 / 358 pages / ISBN 0-312-23829-0 / $32.95 paperback

In Brief: Groundbreaking collection of anthropological, historical, and sociopolitical studies focused on same-sex relationships in Africa, including woman–woman marriages, alternative gender identities, GLBTs in modern African societies and literature, and much more.

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Africa map keyed to groups and places discussed in bookBoy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities, edited and with overview essays by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe, is a landmark in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) / Queer Studies, for its groundbreaking exploration of same-sex life in Africa, both past and present.

I pored over this book with unflagging interest. It seemed to open not one new world but many, reflecting the "multiple Africas" which the authors discuss. The diversity of African cultures was breathtaking. Focusing on same-sex experience was not only intrinsically fascinating, it provided an evocative entry to understanding the entire continent from the defining perspective of human intimacy.

Through the essays in this book, we explore woman–woman marriages in their many forms, transgendered spiritual leaders who for centuries guided their tribes, female warrior "kings," alternative gender identities among the Swahili, the regulation of sexuality in colonial Zimbabwe, the evolution of male homosexuality in modern West Africa, and much more, reflecting the astonishingly diversity of African GLBT experience. Below I have included the complete table of contents.

This book provides both scholarly insights and intimate human details about the wildly contradictory nature of GLBT experience in sub-Saharan Africa, ranging from the increasingly brutal persecutions, and sometimes murder, of "sodomites" in Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe to the triumph of equality in South Africa, the first country to protect sexual orientation in its Constitution. This book is dedicated to the intrepid group "GALZ [Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe] and African people everywhere whose lives and struggles are testimony to the vital presence of same-sex love on the African continent."

However, Murray and Roscoe are social scientists first and foremost. They provide thoroughly researched and balanced information on African sexuality, as they place same-sex experience in a much broader cultural and historical context. There is, of necessity, some speculation: for instance, that the great Zulu chief Shaka, who formed a vast empire during his rule (1816–1828), may have been homosexual, since he had no wives, fathered no children, and preferred the company of an elite regiment of warrior bachelors. Even when looking at such historical possibilities, I never felt that facts were being twisted for an agenda. On the contrary, this book revealed the enormous diversity of African GLBT experience, with complexities intact.

Besides its historical and anthropological interest, this book directly addresses a key issue in contemporary Africa, namely, the existence of same-sex oriented people in historic African cultures. This has become a central debate not only among Africans but the many members of that continent's diaspora, including African-Americans. Antigay leaders, in both politics and religion, claim that there were no indigenous same-sex relationships, which they believe were "alien" and "evil" practices foisted upon Africans by colonialists. They even assert that the original languages of Africa contained no words for gay or lesbian, therefore concluding that they did not exist. The authors counter these myths with facts:

The contributions to this volume unequivocally refute claims that African societies lacked homosexual patterns and had no words for those who desire their own sex. Evidence of same-sex patterns has been reported or reviewed here for some fifty African societies, all of which had words – many words, with many meanings – for them. These societies are found within every region of the continent, and they represent every language family, social and kinship organization, and subsistence pattern. There is substantial evidence that same-sex practices and patterns were "traditional" and "indigenous." While contact between Africans and non-Africans has sometimes influenced both groups’ sexual patterns, there is no evidence that one group ever "introduced" homosexuality where it had not existed before. Since anthropologists and other observers have rarely inquired systematically into the presence of homosexuality in Africa (or elsewhere), absence of evidence can never be assumed to be evidence of absence. Considering that this collection represents the first serious study of the subject, undoubtedly future research will identify many other groups with distinct patterns of homosexuality....

Yes, more research will be welcome, but that in no way diminishes the importance of this groundbreaking, and endlessly fascinating, first study.

The real-world implications of this "debate" could hardly be more important, in the face of Africa's catastrophic AIDS crisis. Gay-hating cultures refuse to recognize GLBT sexuality, and as a result they will not even consider it in any AIDS-prevention strategy. As with Zimbabwe's benighted AIDS program, the fear is that if one were merely to mention homosexuality, it would 'take hold' of a person and instantly convert them: hence silence, hence mass deaths. How different conditions might be, not just for GLBT Zimbabweans but for all members of the society, if instead of such hateful myths the country's once gay-inclusive history were recognized.

Murray and Roscoe organize the book geographically, according to four broad regions of sub-Saharan Africa, and include concise background information on the peoples, climate, economy, and history. Part I encompasses the Sudan, Horn of Africa, and East Africa; Part II covers West Africa, including coastal areas and the interior sudanic region; Part III includes Central Africa, from the equatorial tropical rain forests to the Congo basin and east to present-day Tanzania; Part IV focuses on southern Africa, from Mozambique and Zambia to South Africa and Namibia.

One of the book's most useful features is that each of the regional sections begins with a lucid survey of historical and anthropological reports of same-sex patterns. Murray and Roscoe provide revealing commentaries on both the articles in this book as well as a wide range of documents, not included, from both ethnographic and literary sources, some dating back several centuries. The volume concludes with a review of the literature on woman–woman marriages throughout Africa, a general intrepretive essay on "Diversity and Identity: The Challenge of African Homosexualities," and an appendix analyzing the correlations between same-sex patterns and other features of African societies.

Even with its methodological rigor, I found Boy-Wives and Female Husbands compulsively readable. I liked Murray and Roscoe's crisp and compelling style; only if you burrow deep into the statistical analyses in the appendices do you come across phrases, which may send a shudder through former Literature majors, such as "single trichotomized dependent variable" (yes, they do 'translate' all technical jargon). There was an excellent balance, in the overview sections, between broad but well-argued integrative comments and a focus on representative individuals or groups. My only quibble with the book is that I wish I could have contained photographs depicting at least some of the different peoples discused, although I understand the sometimes insurmountable problems, in terms of native customs, in allowing pictures to be taken. And the many individual portraits as written gave the book immediacy and, at times, enormous emotional power.

Another of the book's strengths is that its fifteen individual texts could hardly be more diverse, from Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi's Ganga-Ya-Chibanda (1687), which Murray and Roscoe interpet through a "strategy of double reading" (in an attempt to separate historical data from cultural biases), to a wide range of contemporary anthropologists. The authors' introduction, overviews, and conclusion succeed in tying the book together, providing a consistent methodological, and philosophical, frame of reference, and – perhaps most importantly – opening up the implications of the often tightly-focused ethnographic studies. In other words, the whole of this book is of even greater interest, and resonance, than its constituent parts.

I give this revelatory study my highest recommendation.

Complete Table of Contents


I. Horn of Africa, Sudan, and East Africa

II. West Africa

III. Central Africa

IV. Southern Africa

V. Conclusions


Reviewed March 12, 2006


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