P139 – Dissident Genders and Sexualities: Comparative and Theoretical Perspectives From Africa (IAI sponsored panel)
10 July, 14:00 – 15:30

Hendriks Thomas / KU Leuven University
Geschiere Peter / University of Amsterdam (chair)


Spronk Rachel /University of Amsterdam

Over the last decades, an increasing number of ethnographies and histories have emphasized the fundamental fluidity of gender and sexuality in Africa. At the same time, political analyses describe new realities of gendered violence and popular and/or state homophobia across the continent. The time has come to bring these scattered studies together for comparative analysis and critical theory-building. Taking up Jean and John Comaroff’s (2011) call for “Theory from the South”, we argue that African contemporary realities suggest innovative analytical directions of global heuristic value for gender and sexuality studies. While, even in the west, “sexuality” starts to break down under its own conceptual weight, scholars in and from Africa have long recognized the limitations of “sexuality” as an analytical frame to understand various sexual and gendered subject positions. This panel intends to push the ongoing re-thinking of sexualities in Africa (Arnfred 2004) one step further and re-think (or even un-think) sexuality from Africa, by exploring how we can theorize the “sexual” afresh from lived realities of intimacy and desire. We call for comparative exercises that go beyond the ethnographic and push for innovative interventions looking for “theory” in the same place we look for “data”: out there in everyday experiences, understandings and imaginings on the African continent.

Genres et sexualités dissidents : perspectives comparées et théoriques d’Afrique (panel parrainé par IAI)
Pendant les dernières décennies, diverses ethnographies et histoires ont démontré la fluidité fondamentale du genre et de la sexualité en Afrique. En même temps, des analyses politiques décrivent des réalités nouvelles de violence et d’homophobies étatiques ou populaires à travers le continent. Il est temps de rassembler ces études éparpillées pour des analyses comparatives et des théorisations critiques. En répondant à l’appel de Jean et John Comaroff (2011) pour une « Théorie du Sud », nous postulons que les réalités africaines contemporaines suggèrent des directions analytiques innovatrices de valeur globale pour l’étude du genre et de la sexualité. Pendant que, même en Occident, le concept de « sexualité » se fissure sous son propre poids, en Afrique, les limitations conceptuelles pour l’analyse des thématiques sexuelles et genrées ont été reconnues depuis longtemps. Ce panel veut dépasser les recherches en cours  repensant les sexualités en Afrique (Arnfred 2004) et veut repenser (ou même contre-penser) la sexualité à partir de l’Afrique, en explorant des théorisations nouvelles du « sexuel » sur la base des réalités vécues d’intimité et de désir. Nous attendons des recherches comparatives, qui dépassent le niveau ethnographique, innovatrices proposant des « théories » à partir des terrains, expériences, conceptualisations et imaginations quotidiennes sur le continent africain.

Paper 1

Gaudio Rudolf / Purchase College, State University of New York

Urban desires: eros and infrastructure in Nigeria’s planned capital

Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, is a sexy young city. Conceived in the 1970s, its central location, monumental buildings and well-lit highways were meant to rally the nation’s regions and ethnicities after a bloody civil war. The capital’s infrastructural splendor was also designed to project an image of Nigeria as the ‘Giant of Africa’—the most populous country on the continent and the lodestar of Black people worldwide. As a planned city supposedly unfettered by tribal attachments, Abuja has a contradictory reputation when it comes to sex. On one hand, it is popularly imagined as a space of freedom and hedonism, where politicians and businessmen cavort with high-class prostitutes, and underemployed youth look for big men and women to be their sugar daddies and sugar mummies. On the other hand, Abuja is a site of spectacular repression and intolerance. The city government enacts periodic clampdowns on street prostitution while the National Assembly passed the Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act in 2014. This paper situates Abuja’s sexual contradictions within the larger set of tensions generated by (many) Nigerians’ aspirations for their capital to be seen as a beacon of African modernity. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork as well as critical analyses of popular media representations and Abuja residents’ talk about life in the city, the paper treats eros and infrastructure as simultaneously material and discursive domains, and demonstrates how they are mutually constitutive.

Paper 2

Dankwa Serena / University of Berne

“Women are my friends”: rethinking same-sex friendship and erotic intimacy in postcolonial Ghana

My contribution focuses on the discursive practices of women who desire women in postcolonial southern Ghana. It relays on my own ethnographic and historical research, which suggests that the ongoing (scholarly) omission of female same-sex relations in West Africa is not only a result of a masculinist coding but of a discursive emphasis on sexuality as a domain seemingly separate from friendship. Unlike in the global North, where homosexual marriage has become a powerful avenue to recognize same-sex intimacies as more than just “friendships,” friendship plays an important role in shaping erotic intimacies between Ghanaian working-class women. Framed by conditions of postcolonial precariousness, these intimacies need to be understood through women’s claims to the significance of erotic power and enjoyment. Doing this research, it has proven necessary to decenter sexuality in order to grasp same-sex passions in their full complexity and explore the genealogy of “supi” and other terms indexing Ghanaian historical understandings of female intimacy. Besides friendship, kinship emerges as a crucial metaphor in broaching a veiled, intimate same-sex discourse that is usually drowned out by Africanist anti-gay rhetorics. Focalizing sexual relationships that are considered friendships or siblinghoods by those who are involved in them, this paper seeks to dethrone the primacy of the sexual and challenges the analytical boundaries drawn between friendship, kinship, and sexuality.

Paper 3

Hendriks Thomas / KU Leuven University

Un-thinking sexuality: theorizing male same-sex desire from urban Congo

This paper takes up the challenge of theorizing the “sexual” afresh from lived realities in contemporary Africa by focussing on how male same-sex desire is conceptualized by men and boys who partake in multiple ways in, what one might call, homoerotic economies in urban DR Congo. On-going ethnographic research in Kinshasa and Kisangani among self-consciously “effeminate” (Lingala: fioto) men and their gender-conforming “normal” boyfriends uncovers the profound epistemological and ontological limitations of the concept of “sexuality” to understand and conceptualize everyday erotic experiences. In this paper, I elaborate on the vernacular sex/gender imaginaries that seem to structure homoerotic economies in contemporary urban Congo. I specifically focus on how the logics of penetration and reputation map out a set of homoerotic subject positions and on how this emic conceptualization of male same-sex desire is characterized by internal contradictions and instabilities that partly undermine its vernacular logics of categorization and identification. Thinking through and with these slippery logics, I propose a grounded theorization of “desire” that transcends the merely ethnographical. This reworking and re-thinking of emic and vernacular conceptualizations, by taking seriously radical Otherness as a political stance in a process of theoretical bricolage, is a way to un-think the taken-for-grantedness of “sexuality”.

Paper 4

Qiu Yu / University of Cambridge

“My sperm is a star”: sexuality, invisibility and ethical-making of African migrants in China

Based on yearlong fieldwork on the intimate relationships between Nigerian males and Chinese females in China, this paper is set out to explore the construction of African masculinity in a foreign land in which sexual intercourse is associated with a series of ethical bearings. From the perspective of Nigerian male migrants, the sexual intercourse is metaphorically called ‘star-giving’ and the male bodily liquid is considered as a free gift. The process of ‘gift-giving’ creates a kind of masculine vulnerability that the male body is opens up to the spirituality of good or evil nature from the female body. Accordingly, Chinese women are divided into categories of ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’, which is not only based on the physical cleanliness, but also on their spirits, judged by whether the spirits will jeopardise Nigerians’ business or migration plan. Against the Nigerian perspective, among the Chinese women, it is found that the ‘Africa body’ was racialised in a way that it is imagined with the dangerous yet invisible forces, associated not only with HIV/AIDS but also strong sexual prowess. The shift and contrast of the sexual imagination of ‘good/evil’ and ‘powerless/powerful’ in the intimate encounter, I argure, generates, an interesting ‘social drama’ (Turner 1984) in which a particular socialization is produced. By bringing into analysis the lived cross-border intimacy and sexuality in and out of Africa, this paper contributes on current debate from a comparative perspective.

Paper 5

Awondo Patrick / UMR Triangle, ENS-Lyon

Mobilizing “African MSM”: global solidarity, local deadlocks and postcolonial tensions

My communication questions the issue of homosexuality at the intersection of transnational LGBTI activism and examines the work of trans-national actors in the crusade for MSM rights in Africa. How their work maneuvers local actors, ignores or associates them, how these locals react? How is international advocacy for MSM concerned with the local/global interface? What role do transnational actors play on the African ground? What can we learn from the current rhetoric of “right to health for MSM”? We will provide answers to these questions through the case of Alternatives Cameroon, a community-based organization promoting health for MSM, by analyzing its connection to the international MSM question with two associative networks. First, “Africagay”, part of the historical French Gay association (AIDES), promoting MSM advocacy for Francophone African organizations working for health. We will see how the position occupied by AIDES confronts local networks of MSM in a battle for the leadership in what Hakan Seckinelgin calls “the global register of sexuality politics”, revealing the complexity of the transnational struggle for MSM health and tensions between Saviors and survivors. Secondly, we address the AMSHeR network (African Men for Sexual Health and Human Right), a pan-African network based in South Africa set up to give the leadership to African leaders who feel dispossessed by Africagay, which was accused of replacing the African victims of homophobia.

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