Gay Love in History, Take 1

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 just could not resist this pic though just so you know, I do not read yaoi manga yet.

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…~~


  1. Great topic. I found out (just today) that one of the top blogs being accessed in Kenya is a blog with explicit images of nude black men as well as gay men engaged in sexual intercouse. I found this claim to be astounding because I would have thought that Kenyans may be more interested in serious issues like schooling, politics, finance etc. For me this revelation highlights the fact that homosexuality is the elephant in the room. My own view on the basis of having gay/lesbian friends is that homosexuality is normal and there are people who simply are not attracted to the opposite sex. I have not researched this view, I simply believe my friends when they say it and some have very difficult lives. If they didn't believe it to be true, why would they choose to be persecuted?

  2. thanks Jc. wow we've pushed another topic under the carpet. imagine there are Africans saying that homosexuality is 'un-African'. nonsense! there are so many issues that need to be discussed in open.i really appreciate your views. it is just common sense. what annoys me is when ppl say that gays should control their urges and why should they, when heterosexuals are not told the same? as for me, at a point in my life everyone thought i was a lesbian…

  3. Aww eccentric, I had people guessing too a few years back because I had a really good female friend who I used to spend all my time with. She was a lesbian and I got used to her giving me suggestive compliments. It was all fun and games for us but one guy (Nigerian) out of 'concern' for me pulled me aside said that I was too pretty to be a lesbian.Yep just too pretty lol. I laughed and told him he was too ugly for me to consider as an option. He laughed but didn't bother me after that. If you are in anyway different from the norm, Nigerian culture dictates that you should confirm. Keep 'em guessing! It is funny to watch!

  4. lol i'm trying to understand why someone would pull you aside out of 'concern', 'concern' indeed. yep Nigerian culture is pretty much conformist. nowadays though there are some Nigerian men who will immediately start making sexually offensive comments regarding lesbians. they have absorbed the ridiculous idea that lesbians are their entertainment.

  5. I find the idea that being able to transcend gender makes you powerful REALLY interesting, but at the same time annoying. Because powerful women are often described as masculine, or as having qualities that are masculine or unusual in a woman. Really? So a man on his own can be powerful but a woman must be masculine to be powerful? i wish it went both ways.

  6. mellowyel, i think you are looking at it from a very modern perspective…those people who say that powerful women are masculine are most likely modern thinkers, historians etc. generally in a patriarchal society in which kings and rulers were men, a woman who wanted such power would usually adopt male dressing (usually to appease the people) so here she was transcending the masculine through dress but not through behaviour. as men who were kings dressed in a certain way so a woman who was king/queen would (and should) dress in that 'masculine' way too.anyone who says such a woman is masculine because of how she dressed is just misinformed. in the past ideas of masculinity and femininity were very different from how they are today. have you heard of Nzingha of Angola? she is known as a very capable military strategist, a true warrior woman.during religious rituals before going to battle, she would dress as a man and wear men's clothes. i feel that was part of the ritual and not her acting masculine. if we look at power and war as masculine traits then when a woman excels in either one, she is automatically masculine when this is really not the case. i hope i made sense…there is a difference in how people see things and how they really are.

  7. Oh, I saw the pic and was lured into this post. You don’t read yaoi manga yet?,aww, come over to the yaoi fangirl dark side quickly, we will wait for you. On another note, I must be the only Nigerian girl who likes reading yaoi manga/watching yaoi anime. Haven’t found anyone yet, to share my obsession with.

    On another note, it’s important to educate the young ones about the importance of being accepting of others. Our cultural norms, combined with often strict religious upbringings often lead to widespread homophobia among many of the Nigerians I know. I have to keep telling my little brothers, that it’s not okay to be cruel to others because they are or might be gay (and that no God does not condone homophobia or think that homosexuality is wrong regardless of a few passages here and there). Sigh, it’s a struggle- but we can try.

    Also, yaoi manga (well starting with shounen-ai- Gravitation) was really the main thing to turn my own attitude away from homophobia and towards support of all love. Anyway, just my plug for yaoi 🙂

    1. I think the reason I’m reluctant towards reading yaoi and shounen-ai is that I have this thing about female characters and I love reading manga with outstanding female characters. This is difficult to find in yaoi and shounen-ai which tend to focus more on male characters (after all the plots are about the main characters who are men).

      I don’t have a problem with anything ^^ I think it’s because of my preference for female characters that I read more yuri and shoujo-ai (I read those that are written by female mangaka only). I’ve watched a few shounen-ai anime but haven’t crossed into yaoi yet.

Comments are closed.