By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Marriages between women have been reported from over 30 ethnic groups across the continent, though some Africans warn against imposing a Western, sexual interpretation on what they argue is a series of social rather than sexual constructs. Today, in the north of Africa, it is unusual for women to live on their own. In most of the rest of the continent, women have greater freedom, but only in South Africa is it not unknown for two women to set up a household together. (Even there, it is usually only after they have had children and separated from their partners.)
While Westerners insist that all desire be defined as homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, African cultures allow for a variety of emotional bonds, as long as the traditions of family life are maintained. Thus, many African men see no contradiction between marriage to a woman and sex or love with men while many studies show that women in Africa, as elsewhere, are often dissatisfied with the roles they must play. "In the West you have a particular line you have to follow until you come out as a happy homosexual," says Graeme Hendricks of the Triangle Project in Cape Town, South Africa. "Are we saying that any community where same-sex behavior is happening is underdeveloped because it doesn't identify as homosexual?"
Increasingly, however, there is a movement toward gay identification, expressed by the formation of gay organizations in the south of the continent. South Africa has the greatest visibility, with 74 voluntary organizations forming the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality. To the outside world, however, GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) is perhaps the best known. Following public pronouncements by the country's president, Robert Mugabe, many of its members have been physically attacked and blackmailed with the threat of prosecution under the sodomy laws. Yet Chesterfield Samba, who has worked for GALZ since 1992, is optimistic. "Mugabe will never be here for the rest of his life," he notes. In August 1998, LEGATRA (Lesbians, Gays and Transgendered Persons Association) was formed in neighboring Zambia. Chairperson Charles Phiri claims that Zambian society is tolerant of gay men and violence is almost unknown, yet he admits that his name is a pseudonym, and he is reluctant to identify the tribes in which same-sex relations were recognized before colonialism, for fear of causing an uproar. Furthermore, the organization has been denied legal registration on the grounds that it supports criminal activities. In a country where the concept of a gay bar does not exist, LEGATRA, like GALZ, has the informal agenda of inventing such places, going as a group to one bar or another until they find one that welcomes them.
Despite the title of his organization, Phiri denies any Western influence. "We are not white," he says. "We are indigenous Zambians, fighting without funds and without support for our rights." Certainly the American input is minimal. Asked if he has heard about Stonewall, Phiri, a college lecturer, says the story of the riot is new to him.
Back in Harare, Chesterfield Samba says his compatriots "don't know about Stonewall. They don't even know what the word gaymeans.'' No doubt, that will change. More and more African men will become "gay," with their sisters taking a longer, more difficult path to achieve acceptance as lesbians. Much will be gainedand much tradition lost.