Once upon a time, my Chinese best friend (a.k.a eccentric Chinese) and I were in my room googling for pictures of hot African guys. While agreeing who was hot and who wasn’t and complaining that a lot of the men were too muscular, we stumbled across this. I initially did not want to click on the link because silly me I did not want my friend to have a negative view of Africans but she insisted and together we watched the video. After watching it, my friend was so disgusted. She wondered aloud what they were thinking saying that homosexuality was unnatural when it ‘even happens in the animal kingdom’. I agreed with her saying that even if we put the animal kingdom aside, homosexuality exists in almost every culture and has been practiced throughout history.
And I think that is it for me. While others fight homophobia by citing nature and the animal kingdom, I attempt to understand it through history. It is even more mind-boggling to me that in some cultures homosexuality was not only practiced but encouraged historically while today such relations are a taboo. I do not exactly remember when I made it my mission to try to understand when and how exactly homophobia became accepted. I suppose this is just me trying to understand why some people view such relations as ‘unnatural’ and ‘immoral’ when it was basically accepted by these same people (okay their ancestors) a few 100 years ago. I know some people blame religion but I personally think it is more than that. I am someone who always takes to the books in attempt to understand everything and I really do not remember how I came across or came to discover the prevalence of gay love in history. Though pederasty was arguably the most common form in those days, I still find this almost 180degree change in opinions regarding society’s acceptance of gay love to be very interesting. I also find this view of masculinity as aged through time and cultures to be very interesting too. You see, in cultures in which it was normal and even expected for men to love each other, this was the prominent view of masculinity. But today, gay men are not seen as ‘man enough’ and they seem to be stereotyped as being more feminine as opposed to masculine. I shall delve into this more subsequently, as I have talked about pederasty in ancient Greece and Sparta specifically, I will go ahead with other cultures in this post.
I remember once watching a video on youtube, I cannot remember the exact details of the video but I remember the lady asking a question. She asked: which of the following will you rather let your children see; two men kissing or a man being violently decapitated. For me it was not an option at all, I choose love over violence any day for my as yet non-existent kids. What I found amazing was that people were actually experiencing difficultly in making a decision. Some asked for a third option and I just could not understand.
**The above was written last month before I had the opportunity to read certain books. The following was written today after I had ‘educated’ myself and found the answer. When I mentioned ‘other cultures’ above, I essentially meant African and Asian cultures as my interests these days are limited. Below is the African part.**
My initial intention was to write about homosexuality in different cultures throughout time so I got a nice book on homosexuality and religion. Of course I only read the parts focused on African traditional religion (ATR), Buddhism and Shintoism, while glimpsing through the chapters on Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. What I have found regarding homosexuality in ATRs is that there is actually not much to go on and that spirits or gods chose to possess either men or women. Basically a goddess could possess a man and because of that the man would start acting like a woman and when a god possesses a woman, she starts acting like a man. When this happened any bisexual tendencies with those possessed was okay, in other words, bisexuality was condoned in ATRs, this was basically normal.
In fact I have come to realise that in the past, while straight out homosexuality was sometimes discouraged or even forbidden, bisexuality was okay. In some traditions, it was normal for a man to be homosexual in his youth as this was seen as a physical and spiritual education for him. This was even supposed to be grooming the man for future heterosexual liaisons. You see in these societies, the sexes were usually segregated with the men in military barracks, army etc (just like Sparta!) so sexual relations between boys in the army were seen as a form of sexual education to be extended into heterosexual relations as the boys mature. In some ethnic groups, these homosexual relations developed during the boys’ rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and were supposed to cease as soon as the boys became adults.
As for adult women, they usually engaged in reciprocal relationships due to polygamy. They were usually the wives of chiefs and kings and lived in households with a large number of co-wives. In the case of women however, lesbian sexual relations were akin to witchcraft and could get a woman killed. (I wonder if I should name the tribes in which such activities were documented? I was surprised to discover that they stretch throughout Africa in places such as Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sudan and Southern Africa.) I noticed that these traditions are actually very similar in different cultures; for example with boys it was always in the military where they were expected to form relations with their superiors who would train them both militarily and sexually in preparation for marriage. This is basically pederasty. For women, it was usually adult women who were co-wives and lived in African harems. In both sexes, the rites of passage played a very important role as it was the time when a girl or boy became a woman or a man and they were taught about adulthood and all the things adults knew.
In some ethnic groups, when girls started their rites of passage, they were free to discuss womanhood and have frank discussion on sexuality that were usually prohibited between mothers and daughters. Side note: This is actually a good thing, it is a pity we no longer go through rites of passage these days most girls are at a disadvantage to certain types of men because they do not know better. In the olden days, women were embarrassed to talk to their daughters about sex but they knew that during the girls’ rites of passage, their daughters would learn. Today however, majority of African mothers still are embarrassed and do not want to talk to their daughters about sex and there is no where else suitable for them to learn. There are only a few African ethnic groups that still maintain and carry out rites of passage.
There is also a history of transvestites in Africa, this was heavily based on ATRs in which male adherents believed they could get closer to a god/dess by dressing as women (they believed cross-dressing would make it easier for a god/dess who possessed women to possess them dressed as women). This is also due to belief in a sort of spiritual power in straddling both genders or having no genders at all thus if a woman was to dress as a man in worship to a certain god, she becomes more powerful and vice versa. These men usually received a spiritual calling to assume an intermediate gender role and were thought of as powerful healers as they tap into both masculine and feminine divine energies. These transvestite men would dress like women, wear women’s hairstyles, do women’s work and marry men.
In most African societies, colonisation and missionary activities lead to the great decline in these homosexual relationships due to the lessening of their religious and social importance. Now I have given a ‘brief’ summary on gay love in African cultures, if anyone wishes to know which tribes did what, here is a comprehensive list; Fon of Benin and Nyakyusa of Tanzania for lesbian relationships. Nzema of coastal Ghana had friendship marriages between a man and a teenager, Basotho of Lesotho practiced female initiation. Otoro of Sudan and Khoisan in which men dressed as women, transvestite healers among the Ovimbundu of Angola, Tonga of Zambia, Zulu, Ambo and Lugbara of Angola. Hausa, Wolof and Lebou men assumed women’s roles in rituals which originated from pre-Islamic customs.
~~Take 2 in which I reveal the theory as to homophobia in recent times will be up when I find out which box I dumped that notebook into. I just hope that notebook is not in one of the boxes I sent to Nigeria this afternoon…~~