Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Queer Studies and Religion in Contemporary Africa: Decolonizing, Post-secular Moves

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Second, queer studies, if it really takes seriously African queer subjectivity, must contend with the fact that many LGBT people in Africa actually identify with the same religious traditions that are so vocal against them, including (and maybe in particular) the mushrooming Pentecostal churches. Epprecht calls it an “apparent contradiction’ that many LGBT people in Africa ‘are proudly, happily and deeply religious.”[18] However, the observation of African LGBT people’s religiosity can only come as a surprise, and be considered a contradiction, on the basis of certain assumptions–that religion is inherently homophobic, that religious commitment is a matter of individual choice, and that religious commitment conflicts with sexual identity–that need to be interrogated and complicated vis-à-vis the complex realities of contemporary African contexts. Rather than contemplating the ‘apparent contradiction’ that African LGBT religiosity would present, we need to in-depth explore and understand this religiosity. Crucial questions here center around the possible positive, empowering meaning religion has to African LGBT people and the way they negotiate sexual/gender and religious identities–in Wilcox’s words, “the grassroots sort of queering that religious LGBTI/Q people perform on a daily basis.”[19] Some critics may ask whether this queering is subversive enough, but then the counter-question is, ‘subversive enough for whom?’: for the people concerned, or for the Western queer scholar? Based on his research in Zimbabwe, Nathanael Homewood has recently demonstrated how Christian, in particular Pentecostal, practices provide a space for what he–with the queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner–calls the “counter-intimacies” of Zimbabwean homosexual men who in “inventive ways … have crafted worlds in very normal–read: heteronormative–spaces.”[20] Highlighting the possibility of public and queer intimacy in the heteronormative spaces of Charismatic churches in Zimbabwe, Homewood challenges the definition of Berlant and Warner that queer world-making must be radical, anti-normative and actively aggressive politically. This point echoes the work of scholars such as Saba Mahmood whose approach, in the words of Claudia Schippert, has been “instructive to queer scholarship on gender and religion in successfully decentering the (often Western white male Christian) assumption of resistance or transgressiveness that the ‘ideal queer’ too often seems to posit.”[21] Similar studies that explore expressions of queerness in African religious spaces, and that question normative definitions of queerness as transgression, need to be conducted in other African contexts and religious traditions, providing rich empirical comparative material on which African queer studies can build. Thus, paraphrasing Spurlin,[22] I think it is imperative for queer studies in Africa to investigate how queer cultural, political and religious practices among African LGBT people help to (re)articulate a critique of both the popular nationalist claims that homosexuality is un-African and opposed to African cultural and religious values, and, at the same time, lead to a more self-reflective critique of the colonizing gestures of queer identity politics in the West that rely on Euro-American secular models of LGBT liberation.


Whether scholars contributing to the fields of enquiry broadly outlined above will explicitly embrace and use the terms “queer studies” and “queer theory” is an open question. They may very well develop indigenous terms to refer to their work, as Epprecht suggests–although the current trend seems to be one of an increasing acceptance of queer terminology in Africa and the emergence of a field called African Queer Studies.[23] Regardless of the question of naming, it is clear that their work is informed by and builds upon the methodological and analytical tools developed in queer and postcolonial studies and is queer, in Halperin’s infamous definition, because of its “positionality vis-à-vis the normative”–both in terms of sexuality and religion.[24]

For non-African scholars working in the field of African queer studies, critical sensitivity is required both to the productive effects of the concepts and terminology they bring to the field, and to the epistemologies, politics, and meanings of locally preferred ways of naming, identifying, and theorizing. Another key challenge for such scholars is not to let the focus on deconstruction of sexual and other subject positions, which tends to dominate Western queer theory, to dominate their projects, but to combine this with a commitment to, and engagement with the justice and human rights concerns that members of same-sex and otherwise queer communities in Africa face.[25] Methodologically this might imply a preference for participatory and action related types of research where the research participants are considered stakeholders in the project and co-producers of knowledge, and where the lines between academic inquiry and social advocacy and activism become blurred. Decolonization applies to methodology as much as to theory, and it opens up exciting new avenues for postcolonial and post-secular scholarship on sexualities and queer politics as they intersect with religion and faith in contemporary African settings.

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  1. Marc Epprecht, Sexuality and Social Justice in Africa: Rethinking Homophobia and Forging Resistance, (London: Zed Books, 2013), 66-67. [Return to text]
  2. Wilcox, “Outlaws or In-Laws?,” 94. [Return to text]
  3. Nathanael Homewood, “‘I Was On Fire’: The Challenge of Counter-intimacies within Zimbabwean Christianity,” in Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando, eds., Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 243-259. [Return to text]
  4. Claudia Schippert, “Implications of Queer Theory for the Study of Religion and Gender: Entering the Third Decade,” Religion and Gender 1:1 (2011), 81. See also Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). [Return to text]
  5. William J. Spurlin, “Broadening Postcolonial Studies/Decolonizing Queer Studies: Emerging ‘Queer’ Identities and Cultures in Southern Africa,” John C. Hawley, ed., in Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections (Albany, State University of New York Press, 2001), 187. [Return to text]
  6. See Ashley Currier and Thérèse Migraine-George, “Queer Studies / African Studies,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22:2 (2016), 281–305; Keguro Macharia, “Archive and Method in Queer African Studies,” Agenda 29:1 (2015): 140-146. [Return to text]
  7. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 62. [Return to text]
  8. Ibid. [Return to text]