Decolonizing sexual orientation, gender identity and expression: A feminist perspective

By: Thuli Mjwara

“A person with the most language in the room has the most power.” These are the words commonly shared by IAM’s Reverend Michelle Boonzaaier when opening discussions around human sexuality and diversity. Human sexuality is commonly discussed in church solely within the context of “no sex before marriage” often forgetting that human sexuality refers to far more than sexual intercourse. The lack of language in many indigenous languages to describe varied sexual orientation and gender expressions and identities disempowers those who do not define themselves by well-established terminology.

IAM participated in the Global Feminist LBQ Conference hosted in the Western Cape from 6 – 9th July 2019, this provided an opportunity to engage with activists from different countries and build solidarity. The working group of 22 LBQ activists created a space for advocates to come together to share knowledge, exchange strategies, strengthen connections, mobilize resources and take the lead in building a global LBQ women’s movement with the capacity to influence the world agenda on human rights, health and development.

Language of identity throughout history was a theme that ran throughout the conference. In one of the plenary sessions titled, “Decolonizing knowledge on gender, sexuality and bodily integrity in the Middle East and North Africa”, presenters spoke about how fluid gender was historically and how this gender fluidity has never been recorded as problematic in certain contexts. Participants grappled with the lack of direct translations of the concepts of “lesbian,” “gay,” “transgender,” and “bisexual.” The lack of terminology does not mean that there were no people within the communities that presented this way, but that the categorization of gender was one not constructed. Gender roles were performed within the home without biological genitalia (sex) defining the distinct roles. This is most clearly reflected in the example of the Azande ethnic tribe of North Central Africa. In addition to female brides, the Azande warriors took on young male brides who they paid lobola (bride price in the form of spears and gift exchanges). The male brides performed household duties such as collecting firewood, fetching water and holding the warrior’s shield and had the responsibility to look after the warrior whilst at war. Intimacy with the male brides was by thigh sex, with anal penetration frowned upon. The relationships with the male brides were about companionship, sexual gratification and service. Thus, the presentation of sexual and gender diversity was embodied and expressed differently. During the session it also emerged that in our indigenous languages there are not different words for ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ and often one term captures both meanings. Another concept that was discussed was ‘race’ – in some languages race is defined as a categorization of species (in animals), in others the categorization of people by ethnicity, and few languages defined race by skin color. The participants agreed that the most commonly defined term was for intersex persons, possibly attributed to midwives who needed a term for children that presented outward biological ambiguities.

Throughout the conference, lessons and experiences from the feminist movement were used to explore the LBQ movement, using feminism as a theoretical framework to define the process of decolonializing and to analyze the concepts of gender, sexuality and bodies. The panelists referred to I.M Young’s use of feminism that whereby he states in the production of knowledge there are five phases of oppression: exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, cultural imperialism and violence. The presentation and dialogue illuminated the challenge that activists and advocacy workers face when conducting trainings within communities that speak indigenous languages. The backlash experienced from these communities often points out that the variety of sexual orientation and gender identity and expressions of LGBTQ people does not exist in their languages therefore not form part of their cultures, despite the fact that European missionaries and anthropologists have recorded such diversity as early as the 16th century. The continuous ‘lack of language’ does not mean that we do not exist, now or in the past. Feminism as a theoretical tool allows one to see that categorizing (with regards to gender) allows patriarchy and commercialization (in the form of slavery). The five phases of Young may be critiqued in that they are attributed to Christian missionaries colonizing the sexuality and gender identities and expression of indigenous people. Therefore, even the recordings of the missionaries are flawed as they recorded diverse sexualities and genders through their religious-cultural bias lenses. One cannot only depend on the records of the missionaries as a sole primary source as this will also undermine the project of decolonizing sexual and gender identities and expression.

Reflecting on the discussion, it seems clear that oral tradition needs to be supported by written documentation. Unwritten tales of gender fluidity in our African communities are often held by the elderly and traditional leaders, who do not always share them widely. The journey of reconciling one’s sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is challenging as the struggle for acceptance and affirmation by our families, our loved ones and community is a cold reality. The lack of access to the affirming stories of gender fluidity and their coexistence within a loving community, leaves those on a journey without language and symbols to self-identify. By engaging with those that hold the stories, documenting them, and making them accessible to the queer community, we will empower and ground our existence within a cultural and even religious rooting. In the process of decolonizing our identities, there is a need to create language and words that are affirming in our indigenous languages. In reclaiming our identities, a continued lack of affirming language and terms leaves us powerless, as if we have never existed. “A person with the most language in the room, has the most power.” Reclaiming our power over our bodies, our identities and our cultures calls on us to create new words and languages that will empower us. It is time that positive, inclusive and affirming terms in our indigenous languages are developed.