Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe (eds), Boy-Wives and Female Husbands.
Studies on African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.
A review by Gert Hekma
par Gert Hekma
(published in Thamyris)
There are many myths on subsaharan sexualities. Men are well endowed, women
can express their sexuality more freely than elsewhere, and homosexuality
does not exist. The latter one has received political support from several
African leaders, most famously from Robert Mugabe according to whom
homosexuality is less than bestial, and a western import. Unfortunately, he
did not comment upon the arrest and conviction because of sodomy of his
predecessor, president Banana. In recent years Mugabe's ideas are belied by
the emergence of same-sex cultures and movements around the continent, also
in Zimbabwe. And it is not only the whites who are infected with this
"vice", but mainly black Africans.
There is no doubt and there has never been any doubt that same-sex
practices and desires were present on the African continent. From the
earliest reports, mention has been made of transgenders and boy-lovers. But
homosexualities were not equally distributed among the different cultures.
It could well be that homophobia is more of a western import than
homosexuality. To my surprise, I saw recently a documentary where a
Zimbabwean declared with pride "we are all homophobic", an expression I
have never heard from an occidental gay-basher.
Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe have tried to fill the gap by publishing a
book of essays on "African homosexualities". Murray is best known as a
compiler who has earlier edited books on homosexuality in Latin-America,
the Islam and in "Oceanic" societies (from Madagascar to Japan and into the
Pacific). He wrote himself American Gay (Chicago 1996, see my review in
Thamyris 4:2). Roscoe's specialization concerns the North-American
berdache. Both did not have prior knowledge of Africa, but they probably
considered their background as anthropologists of same-sex desires
sufficient qualification to start off with this project.
The best essay in the collection Boy-Wives and Female Husbands is by Marc
Epprecht on homosexual "crimes" in early colonial Zimbabwe. From the
beginning of European law-enforcement, black men have been convicted for
same-sex crimes, as well from plantations as from villages which counters
once more the idea that only those Africans in direct contact with
Europeans showed same-sex practices. The second best essay is by Rudolf P.
Gaudio on "Male lesbians and other queer notions in Hausa" which is a
summary of his dissertation on Hausa same-sexual linguistics.
Interesting are the older articles on Cameroon, Zanzibar, Angola and
other places from (pre)colonial times which are translated into English for
this collection. Haberlandt's essay on Zanzibar regrettably does not
include the pictures in the original text of a single and double dildo
women use. But otherwise this book brings ripe and unripe together. It
seems to become the trademark of Murray, an armchair anthropologist whose
main field of expertise is America. Well written and important papers are
mixed up with a superficial interview with a Kikuyu man living around the
corner from Murray in San Francisco. This young man only discovered
same-sex desires after he left Kenya for London at age 23.
Murray's final essay comparing forms of same-sex behaviour with other
social factors is rather useless because his data are incomplete and
unreliable. The editors heavily count on English material, and only use
texts in other languages from times long past, which makes the book very
unbalanced. An article on gay life "Libéralisme et vécus sexuels à Abidjan"
by Marc le Pape and Claudine Vidal published in Cahiers internationaux de
sociologie (Vol. 76, Jan-June 1984; special issue on "le sexuel") did not
make it to San Francisco. A translation of this article should have
contributed much more to the collection than Michael Davidson's three-page
memories of "A 1958 visit to a Dakar boy brothel" which is utterly
The important African theme of marriages among women is discussed by
Murray himself and Joseph Carrier, as if there are no good and intelligent
specialists in the field. The editors deplore the absence of material on
female homosexuality, but they should have worked harder to find authors
across the gender line. There is a full-length book on the topic in German
Frauen heiraten Frauen. Studien zur Gynaegamie in Afrika (Women marry
women) by E.Tietmeyer (München, 1985) but this important source was missed
by the editors. And shortly after they published their compilation, Evelynn
Blackwood and Saskia Wieringa came with Female Desires. Same-Sex Relations
and Transgender Practices across Cultures (New York, 1998) which includes
two papers by female authors on female same-sex desires in Lesotho and
Most articles in the collection of Murray and Roscoe are written by
Europeans and Anglo-Americans, and at most three by Africans. As no
biographical data are given on the authors, this remains however queerly
unclear. No effort has apparenty been done to include more authors of
African descent. Research regarding sexual practices and Aids, which is
available, is not picked up. The collection looks very much like a reader
hastily compiled for an undergraduate course.
Murray and Roscoe have done an important job but they should have done it
much better and more thoroughly. Let us hope that this first but
disappointing book on the theme will soon be followed by others to counter
the ridiculous idea of many African politicians that same-sex practices are
a foreign import on their continent.
University of Amsterdam
Copyright Gert Hekma © 1999