New NAI Book on Homophobia in Africa

Henriette Gunkel’s new book ”The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality in South Africa” (published jointly by Routledge and the Nordic Africa Institute) highlights a debate that has only just started: of homosexuality, lesbianism and homophobia in Africa in general and in post-apartheid South Africa specifically.

While South Africa nominally has a liberal attitude to homosexuality, the surrounding countries are very negative, with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in the lead, describing homosexuality (in 2000) as “an abomination, a rottenness of culture”. Recently Uganda further north has joined in with attempts to make some homosexual acts a capital offence. More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalizing homosexual acts, IRIN reported recently.

Gunkel’s book, partly based on interviews, explores how homophobia is mobilized as a distinctive marker in South Africa. Gunkel argues that the new post-apartheid homophobia is rooted in “whiteness”. Her conclusion is that sexuality and gender has been “Westernized” in Africa and South Africa, requiring a Western standard of homophobia, which is a result of colonialism.

Henriette Gunkel is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Fort Hare in South Africa.

Read and download the Introduction (25 pages) (pdf).
Read more about Henriette Gunkel’s book in DiVA.
Read more about NAI-publications.

Four questions to Henriette Gunkel, author of ”The Cultural Politics of Female Sexuality in South Africa”

1. Are African societies more conservative concerning homosexuality and lesbianism than Europe and North America?
It is not my intention to argue that African societies are more homophobic than societies in Europe/US. It was South Africa, after all, that was the first country in the world that explicitly incorporated gay rights into its constitution.

2. How does the colonial heritage shape attitudes to homosexuality and lesbianism in Africa?
Sexuality  – heteronormativity in particular  – has been central to colonial/apartheid politics. But sexual politics have not only shaped our understanding of race but also concepts of gender and citizenship/the nation – a reference, as I argue, that is at the centre of neo-colonial approaches to sexuality in post-apartheid South Africa.

 3. How does contemporary debate in South Africa handle homosexuality and lesbianism?
I focus, for example, on one particular discourse that reads homosexuality as un-African. This connection between nationalism, cultural imperialism and sexuality as implied in this discourse is transnational and not just African: in different historical periods homosexuality has been considered as un-American, un-Indian, un-Iraqi, etc.

4. What is the main conclusion of your book?
South African cultures have historically accommodated different forms of female (and male) same-sex intimacy – also because they have not been conceptualized as ‘sexual’ within society. Culturally specific forms of community structures and kinship are, however, increasingly constituted within discourses of citizenship rather than within the discourse of intimacy – and hence increasingly linked to a metropolitan sexual identity.

Gender relations
Henriette Gunkel
South Africa
Southern Africa
Women's rights
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