The Africa Question:
Did They or Didn't They?

by Afolabi

One argument that is often used against the existence of Gay people in Yoruba-based religions is that homosexuality is anathema to the Yoruba worldview. This pontification is most often heard from African separatists and/or revisionists. By revisionist I am referring to people who descend from Lukumi lines but have attempted to alter their religious practices to more closely resemble those of modern day Nigeria.

Homosexuality Among the Yoruba

To approach this subject, one must first abandon all concepts of gender and sexuality as we have come to know them in the west. This is the single most difficult hurdle to pass when attempting to gain an understanding of the Yoruba attitude toward gender and sexuality. To try to define one culture by another's terms is the most dangerous pitfall between peoples, and, unfortunately, many Western Orisha priests fail to see how easily they succumb to the temptation. It is comical that these supposed "neo-Yoruba" priests attack Gays using Western ideas and social constructs totally foreign to the Yoruba people they delude themselves into believing they represent.

The Yoruba do not lock the concept of gender into the strict dualism we are so addicted to in the West. The polarities of man/woman, husband/wife, gay/straight are not enshrined in the fundamental Yoruba sociology as they are in American culture. J. Lorand Matory, assistant professor of anthropology and African American studies at Harvard, writes:

In Yoruba society, the heterosexual dyad is neither the unique foundation of social reproduction nor even the most privileged site in the manufacture of hegemonic gender categories. Historical changes in a range of lineage, class, ethnic, religions, national and racial hierarchies have overdetermined the innermost nature of Yoruba gender categories, leaving them inexplicable to any investigator who supposes that gender is simply the cultural elaboration of biologically given "sex." As we see, both male wives and female husbands are central actors in the Oyo-Yoruba kingdom and village. To understand the life of such communities in modern Nigeria, we must understand both the internally perceived logic and the externally perceived irony of these gendered roles.

He continues:

...various important anomalies challenge the realism of "women" and "men" as salient classes of social experience. For example, marriages between "women" are documented in a wide array of African societies, requiring ethnographers to reclassify some "women" as "men". In other cases, like the present one, all "women" are husbands to somebody and simultaneously wives to multiple others.

Then there are the numerous cases of "men"--studied more frequently in Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East than in Africa--who present themselves sexually or sartorially as "women" and are therefore classified as such in some cases. There are marginal and little-analyzed exceptions to Africanists' neglect of this last phenomenon. For example, Evans-Pritchard (1970), Shepherd (1987), Smith and Dale (1920), Besmer (1983:18), Boddy (1989:210-11 n.4), Beattie and Middleton (1969:xxv), Berger (1976:170), Turner (1967:223, 254), Baum (1993:25-31), and Brain (1976) mention symbolically significant instances in Africa of what Westerners have described as "homosexuality". As such cases accumulate, one wonders if some fundamental question has not been skipped by conventional investigative premises in the study of gender, particularly in Africa.

This kaleidoscopic view of gender, sexuality and social position is so utterly foreign to the Western mind that when we see it, we don't even know it is there. It is the assumption of the neo-Yoruba set that since we do not see homosexuality as we know it in the West among the Yoruba, then it must either be taboo or entirely non-existent. Often, the assumption is made long before the investigation is begun. Take these excerpts from Conrad Mauge's Yoruba World of Good and Evil, for example:

Self-abuse is submitting to lifestyles that are against the laws of nature such as homosexuality.

I am sure homosexuality exist (sic) among the Yoruba but it is not an obvious form of behaviour, nor is it a topic of discussion. Homosexuality is not acceptable because it is "counter-culture" or "counter-tradition" and hence frowned upon. I have not seen reference to it in the Odu Ifa, nor have I heard conversations among my elders that would create a position from which one can gain guidance. The Christian religious world has condemned homosexuality as "against God's law", and can document excerpts from the bible to support their stand.

So, if we are to understand Mauge correctly, he hasn't heard anything from his elders or Ifa about the subject, but the bible says homosexuality is bad, and that is good enough for him. Yeah.

Then, in a remarkable contradiction, he continues:

Several years ago I made a profound discovery while helping a young man, Ramon, come to grips with several of life's realities. Ramon's explanation to me of his homosexuality was that he was "a woman, trapped in a man's body." The profound discovery was that Ifa divination confirmed Ramon's statement to me. This one incident has created a need for me to further examine the mysteries that lie in the concepts of reincarnation and alignment.

But meanwhile, apparently, he is going to operate under the assumption that Gays should be condemned. Poor Ramon. This is the guy who is going to help him "come to grips with some of life's realities ... Sheesh. Idiocy like this can, of course, be dismissed, but we are not out of the woods yet...

Even with the knowledge that the Yoruba place little importance on the categorization of sexuality, it must still be said that the Yoruba are a people who hold the continuation of the family line in a place of paramount priority. This can possibly be attributed to an unusually high infant mortality rate, as well as the importance placed on ancestral worship. To have children is to have wealth, and also to have descendants whom one may leave behind to continue tending to one's soul in death. It was never an option among the Yoruba to not have children.

This does not mean, however, that same-sex eroticism did not exist among the Yoruba, it means simply that it did not exist as an institution. Not, anyway, as we know it in this country today. Indeed, until very recently, there was no word in the Yoruba language for homosexuality. There was no need. It wasn't until the West marched in and demanded that everyone identify themselves and their behaviour that such a need arose.

For the most part, regardless of whether an individual engaged in same-sex sexual relations, he or she still married and had children. The idea of a "gay lifestyle" was simply not a consideration. The need to have children outweighed any option of having a non-reproductive lifestyle. As we can see in today's Nigeria, with the presence of the first Nigerian Gay Organizations, this need no longer exists as it once did. Individuals have more liberty in choosing the path their lives will take.

It is a distinct possibility that Yoruba individuals who were not motivated toward the typical Yoruba family lifestyle entered or were encouraged to enter the priesthood of Orisha. The gender variant qualities of Orisha priests has been described by many anthropologists, and is evident in the symbolism of initiation and trance possession.

Matory writes:

Sango priests are mostly female. The many who are male don women's coiffures, jewelry, cosmetics, and clothing. The ritual metaphors of Sango-worship, in opposition to those enlisted in Ogun-worship in Oyo country, represent relations to the divine in sartorial images of femininity.

The vocabulary and dress code of the possession religions-including the Sango cult-illuminate the structure of that relationship. Recent initiates of Yemoja, Osun, Obatala, and Sango-to name a few of the gods that possess people-are known specifically as "brides of the god" (iyawo orisa). They wear women's blouses (bubo), skirts (iro), and slings of the sort that mothers use to carry their babies (oja). The god is said to "mount" (gun) those he possesses. The term "mount" is rather polysemic. It refers not only to possession but to the action of a rider mounting a horse (suggesting an extreme form of control) and an act of copulation almost animal-like in its violence or vulgarity. Indeed, the behavior of those mounted by Sango, the paradigmatic possessing god, is expected to be violent. The mounted priest may be called a "horse" (esin), recalling the importance of cavalry in Oyo's imperial expansion, a matter discussed in the following section. These parallel verbal associations suggest the suitability of women and cross-dressing men to a violent and sexually redolent subordination to the royal god. As one might expect, the "brideliness" of the initiand implies the character of the god, whom female devotees do praise as their "Husband (and Lord)" (Oko). We might expect this juxtaposition of divinity and husbandliness to affect the symbolic standing of worldly husbands as well. This ritual protocol manifests a logic strikingly different from that of the male cross-dressing found among the Ondo Yoruba, for example, where the female attire of the king (oba) on certain ritual occasions commemorates the founding of the kingdom by a woman (Olupgna 1983;Abiodun 1989). The cross-dressing of male possession priests in the Oyo-Yoruba context seems to represent, instead, the male adoption of a style and reproductive servitude attributed typically to the fecund wives of mighty husbands.

In Sixteen Cowries, Bascom describes Salako, an unmarried Obatala priest and merindilogun diviner from Igana:

Salako was about seventy years old. Slight and delicate of build, and with his hair plaited like a woman's, he had a somewhat effeminate appearance.

We can see also, in other African cultures, that there is a varying degree of recognition of non-Heterosexual relationships. Malidoma Some speaks of the concept of "gayness" and its irrelevance among his tribe, the Dagara:

... among the Dagara people, gender has very little to do with anatomy. It is purely energetic. In that context, a male who is physically male can vibrate female energy, and vice versa. That is where the real gender is. Anatomic differences are simply there to determine who contributes what for the continuity of the tribe. It does not mean, necessarily, that there is a kind of line that divides people on that basis. And this is something that also touches on what has become known here as the "gay" or "homosexual" issue. Again, in the culture that I come from, this is not the issue. These people are looked on, essentially, as people. The whole notion of "gay" does not exist in the indigenous world. That does not mean that there are not people there who feel the way that certain people feel in this culture, that has led to them being referred to as "gay."

..the gay person is very well integrated into the community, with the functions that delete this whole sexual differentiation of him or her. The gay person is looked at primarily as a "gatekeeper." The Earth is looked at, from my tribal perspective, as a very, very delicate machine or consciousness, with high vibrational points, which certain people must be guardians of in order for the tribe to keep its continuity with the gods and with the spirits that dwell there. Spirits of this world and spirits of the other worlds. Any person who is at this link between this world and the other world experiences a state of vibrational consciousness which is far higher, and far different, from the one that a normal person would experience. This is what makes a gay person gay. This kind of function is not one that society votes for certain people to fulfill. It is one that people are said to decide on prior to being born. You decide that you will be a gatekeeper before you are born. And it is that decision that provides you with the equipment (Malidoma gestures by circling waist area with hands) that you bring into this world.

These statements mirror, to a great extent, the theories expressed by the few anthropologists and sociologists who have made studies of the roles of sexuality and gender among the Yoruba.

Shaun de Waal of the Africa News Service, reiterates these ideas in his report about the struggle for Gay rights in South and Southwest Africa, with an ironic twist:

(What is) ironic is the fact that much anti-gay feeling - and the apparent need to police sexuality at all - seems inherited from Christianity, which is a Western imposition on Africa if ever there was one. It must be noted, too, that the fight around homosexuality and lesbian rights in the Western democracies keeps revolving around the same terms, descendants of the Christian idea of sin as moral corruption, of perversion as a deviation from the true path.

Anti-gay rhetoricians claim that there is no word for homosexuality in African languages, which is simply untrue (Shona: ngochani, Sesotho: maotaoana ...), but it does point to an important issue in the way homosexuality is traditionally understood in African culture. The concept of a homosexual identity - as opposed to an unnamed sexuality that is open to a variety of acts - is a relatively recent one. The word "homosexual" is barely 130 years old, while acts such as sodomy have been criminalised since the Middle Ages. Dunton and Palmberg write that "same-sex intimacy is tolerated [in African society], as long as it remains unnamed, and as long as it does not exclude sexual acts with members of the opposite sex."

The Meat of the Matter...Does it Matter?

Now we come to the truly scandalous part of the argument... Does it matter what the Yoruba thought and/or think about homosexuality?

Throughout the many discussions I have witnessed and taken part in regarding Gays in the religion, nobody seems to have brought this up. It doesn't seem to have dawned on anyone that the Yoruba may not be perfect.

If we were to subscribe to every belief and or practice that the Yoruba have ever held, we would keep and trade in slaves, we would sacrifice human beings and we would cut the clitorises out of young girls. I understand that at least two of these practices have fallen out of use, but precisely where do we draw the line of cultural perfection? Do we say that the Yoruba became perfect after abandoning slavery but before clitoridectomy? Perhaps after human sacrifice but before acceptance of homosexuality? Maybe they just need to stop mutilating young girl's genitalia and THEN they'll have it right. Precisely when can we look at any given people and say that they have ceased to evolve, and that a snapshot of cultural perfection should be taken so as to give us our model of moral behaviour?

During one particularly heated online debate, a particularly wretched woman declared that since the Yoruba ancestors do not accept homosexuality, then it must be enshrined as taboo in our religion. I wondered if it was her stance that our ancestors retain all beliefs, attitudes and prejudices after death. In that case, should we rape out of respect for a rapist ancestor? Should people descended from Nazis align themselves with Nazi philosophy? If my ancestors were any sort of bigot when they were alive, it is my belief that they probably got over it once they croaked. Death'll put things in perspective, methinks. If they are still bigots, I am afraid it is going to have to be their problem.