During the recent Synod of African Bishops in Rome, it appears the issue of homosexuality in Africa assumed some major significance. Archbishop Robert Sarah, Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, in a session during the synod, suggested that a materialistic ideology was being imposed on African countries from the West, bringing with it a host of evils including abortion, artificial contraception and the legitimization of homosexuality. He described it as a “lethal ideology” and “contrary to African culture.”
In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, during the synod, Ghanaian Archbishop Charles Palmer-Buckle was asked if there really was a Western campaign to corrupt African values. He replied, “We don’t only suspect that there is a campaign, we think it’s deliberate.”
Now, wait a minute, when did African Christians begin to speak out against Western ideology? Christianity itself is a Western import to Africa! Africa was colonized with Christianity! Besides, where did the myth that homosexuality was exogenous to African culture come from? Research shows that homosexuality and bisexuality have been present in every culture and in every generation . The native conceptions and practices of male homosexuality in many societies across every region in Africa have been documented in Murray and Roscoe’s Boy-Wives and Female Husbands. Indeed, it was Christianity that introduced homophobia to Africa.
Let’s first look at the Catholic Church and the history of homosexuality. The modern Catholic Church, and, indeed, many religious denominations have tried over many centuries to deny the toleration – and, in many cases, the veneration – of homosexuality in earlier ages. Many of the Church’s founding fathers did profess same-sex attraction and practiced what we now call homosexuality as well as cross-dressing. The exalted ranks of the saints include St. Aelred of Rievaulx, St. Anselm, St. Bernard, St. Sebastian, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity and Sts. Sergius and Bacchus – all same-gender-loving people. Actually Sergius and Bacchus were martyrs who were described as Erastai, or lovers. It should be noted here that these people did not self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered – because the concept ‘gay’ did not exist as we know it today and same-gender-loving behavior hardly raised eyebrows – but these holy people revered by the church did express or practice same-sex love. So how did the church come to revile same-gender love as it does today?
The roots of the negative attitude towards homosexuality can probably be traced to the book Physiologus, a book of descriptions of animals, birds, and fantastic creatures, sometimes stones and plants with an anecdote from which the moral and symbolic qualities of the animal are derived. This was probably based in part on the Epistle of Barnabas (now considered apocryphal), written sometime between AD 100 and 130. This epistle is characterized by exaggerated allegory. For example, Barnabas 10:6 says “Moreover thou shalt not eat the hare [Lev. 11:6] …. for the hare gaineth one passage (anus) in the body every year; for according to the number of years it lives it has just so many orifices.” The next verse continues: “Again, neither shalt thou eat the hyena… Why so? Because this animal changeth its nature year by year, and becometh at one time male and at another female.” The hyena is not specifically mentioned in Leviticus. In Deut. 14:8 the word used in the Septuagint to express the prohibition against eating pork resembles the word for “hyena”, and the two are etymologically related. The male and female hyenas were thought to be somewhat hard to distinguish, as their genitalia are rather similar. With the extremely limited knowledge base of the animal kingdom and biology available at the time, the writer of the Physiologus made exactly the same fanciful connection between the colorful legends about animal sexuality and Mosaic Law.
This began a campaign against homosexual behavior by some religious leaders including St. Augustine (who is known to have had at least one homosexual experience and also for advocating forced conversions) and St. John Chrysostom. But this theology did not become the norm until about the 11th century because homosexuality was very commonly and openly practiced and this theology was considered extreme, just like the Church’s teaching to limit sex only for the purposes of procreation. Throughout the Middle Ages, not only did the open practice of homosexuality continue, but it flourished in the monasteries of the time. Many of the priests and abbots not only left us literature celebrating their gay lovers, but some of the poetry they left us was pretty erotic!
Around the 12th century, there was a new fascination with order and conformity and the lines between church and state began to blur. In fact, the church and the state actively cooperated to strengthen their respective institutions. It was then that the sexual mores promulgated by the church found their way into secular law including propaganda against homosexuals, Muslims, Jews and minorities of all kinds. By the end of the 12th century, the intolerance had reached hysterical proportions, resulting in the witch hunts in France and the Spanish Inquisition – probably the most repressive phenomenon in the Catholic world that went on until about the 17th century. The Inquisition was what the Church wielded to ensure conformity. Peter Cantor (d. 1197) was the first to argue that Romans 1:26-27 referred specifically to gay people. The term “sodomy” came, for the first time to refer exclusively to homosexual sex.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sodomy as “copulation with a member of the same sex or with an animal” or “noncoital and especially anal or oral copulation with a member of the opposite sex”. Sodomy always requires the practice of a sexual act whereas being a “homosexual” does not. So since the definition of sodomy includes oral sex between heterosexuals, it follows that the term “sodomite” would be more correctly applied to a heterosexual who engages in such behavior rather than a homosexual who does not engage in any act of sodomy.
In spite of the Age of Enlightenment during which many thinkers and writers rebelled against the emphasis on conformity, the repression of alternative ideas and the confluence of church and state, the Church maintained that it alone was the moral authority of the world. It had built an impenetrable moral lobby that inevitably influenced legislation. And it was adamant in maintaining a ban on homosexuality and, in a sense, fanned the flames of homophobia.
This was the context in which, and the background against which the first Portuguese Catholic missionaries arrived in pre-colonial Africa in the 15th century. But their influence did not take hold in the mainstream until the 19th century. According to Dr. Neil Lettinga in “Sub-Saharan Christianity: A History of the Christian Church in Sub-Saharan Africa”:
Between 1890 and 1914 missionaries became more closely related to the various European powers, for good or ill, and whether in alliance or opposition. African rulers were no longer the primary political powers, missionaries now, whether they wanted to or not, became subject to and identified with the colonizing European powers. The colonial rulers in turn did not hesitate to use missionaries to help them subdue and control the colonies… European education became one of the key elements in the new political reality and the interplay between convert, missionary and colonial government… Missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant virtually monopolized the African school systems, and schools became a major conduit for new mission converts.
This was how homophobia was introduced into Africa, where human sexuality was still innocent and unfettered. Africans were brainwashed into thinking that there was something wrong with their sexuality and were restricted to sex according to the Church’s regulation. The special Christian animus toward homosexuality was carried to Africa by Europeans and stimulated denials that “the sin not named among Christians” existed among “unspoiled” Africans.
But how wrong could they be!
In the central African Zande culture, before European conquest, it was regarded “as very sensible for a man to sleep with boys when women are not available or are taboo.” English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard was told that in addition to times when women were not available for sex, some Azande men had sex with [young men] “just because they like them.”
Among the Fon, the predominant people in Dahomey (now Benin), Melville Herskovits in the 1930s reported that, after the age at which boys and girls may play together, “the sex drive finds satisfaction in close friendship between boys in the same group . . . . A boy may take the other ‘as a woman.’ This was refered to as gaglgo – their term for homosexuality. Sometimes an affair of this sort persists during the entire life of the pair” (Murray)
Among the Tswana (in addition to homosexuality among the men laboring in the mines), it was reported that back home “lesbian practices are apparently fairly common among the older girls and young women, without being regarded in any way reprehensible.” Use of artificial penises was also reported among the Ila and Naman tribes of South Africa. (Murray)
It is disappointing to see how complete the colonization of Africa has been, especially hearing what the apparently learned Archbishops have said. First of all, homosexuality is not alien to African culture. What is alien to Africa is Christianity. What is alien to Africa is homophobia and sexual repression.
Secondly, if there is a deliberate campaign, it was the brainwashing in the 19th century by the Holy Ghost Fathers and the White Fathers, missionary orders sanctioned by the Propaganda de Fide (The Office for Spreading the Faith), and the Second Vatican Council, which encouraged acculturation and gave Africans a certain sense of entitlement to Catholicism. That is how in 2009, African bishops can believe in their hearts and declare that homosexuality is “contrary of African culture”. On the other hand, they just might feel obliged to defend policies which they know are out of tune with the world, but dare not overturn centuries of Church theology.
In 1990, Dr. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, a German theologian, in her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven wrote: “Catholic moral theology is a folly that invokes God and pretends to be religion….It has warped the consciousness of many men and women. It has burdened them with hair-splitting nonsense and striven to train them as moral acrobats instead of making them more humane and kinder to their fellow beings.” (page 334). A scathing criticism.
It should be obvious by now that homophobia has its origins in ignorance and superstition. It is spread by ignorance, by repression, social conservatism and the alliance of church and state. If the Synod of African Bishops wants to be true to African culture, they should study the real history of our people and reject the colonial hand-me-downs that hold much of Africa in its vice-like grip. We have allowed the former colonialists and missionaries to write our history for us, selectively, and tinctured with their own prejudices, superstitions and ignorance. But further, being so gullible, we have made it our own! Our ancestors knew long ago that homosexuality is a normal part of life and should be tolerated, accepted and integrated into every facet of culture without prejudice or ignorance.