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African Sexuality: A Brief Background

Epprecht’s (2004, 2006) historical accounts of dissident sexuality in Southern Africa aptly demonstrate how same-sex acts and relationships occurred in pre-modern South Africa.2 He also explains, however, that “homosexuality as an identity or lifestyle choice did not exist when the pressures to have sex for reproduction were so over-determined by material, political, spiritual and other cultural considerations” (Epprecht 2004: 224). Today, however, this has changed, and many African gays and lesbians do indeed construct distinct same-sex identities on the basis of a particular lifestyle. By that we do not mean to say that their same-sex sexuality per se is a choice or that all men who engage in same-sex relations exclusively claim a “gay” identity; most participants in this study indicated that they were “born gay" but there is a complex array of lifestyles available for Africans who engage in same-sex relations today, with conceptions of “gayness” ranging from one context to the next.

The gendered nature of sexuality and identity prevalent specifically among African gay men in South Africa has been described as quite heteronormative (McClean & Ngcobo 1995; Reddy & Louw 2002), in a sense that there is always either an “active” or a “passive” participant in sexual intercourse whose role is rather clear-cut and stable. This essentially means that much African same-sex activity accommodates heterosexual gender roles (i.e., same-sex partnerships and marriages where one man is the “man” and the other the “woman”). To this day, many African men who openly claim a gay identity are quite “feminine” and perform primarily a passive act during sex. This is not to say that African masculine men do not claim gay identities or that such men do not play “passive” sexual roles. Rather we argue that for many of the men who visibly claim “gay” identities, this normative positioning holds. This speaks as much to the discrimination that men who claim “gay” identities face as it does to the patriarchal conditions of the context. Men who outwardly claim gay identities are often assumed to want to be women, with derogatory labels such as sis-bhuti (sister-brother) used against them, particularly in rural, conservative South African contexts. For many African Nguni language speakers, this “effeminate” identity positioning is termed skesana. This specific sexual and gender identity construct and its linguistic representations are the focus of this chapter.

The heteronormativity at play in many “gay” African relationships is the vantage point for us. Without this continuous prevalence of heteronormativity in the post-apartheid state, the linguistic variety of isiNgqumo would probably not thrive in quite the way it does. It is the frequent femininity and effeminate associations with the speakers of the variety in combination with a lexicon that is deeply culturally rooted which allows the language to thrive and develop further on a daily basis.

 
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