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Queer studies in the global North has inspired growing research on gender and sexual variance in the global South, yet it has framed issues in the language of post-industrial societies that does not address African needs. Queer African studies has emerged since the early 2000s. Scholars have not only contested the "homosexuality as un-African" myth; they have also documented indigenous same-sex sexual practices throughout the African continent and adopted Afrocentric perspectives in their works, resisting the imperialism of Eurocentric and US-based queer studies. (1) However, there are tensions between queer African studies and queer studies that need to be articulated. Many publications in queer African studies remain anchored in national case studies that, while helping generate organic knowledge about African gender and sexual dissidence, can become mired in descriptions of lived experience and politics instead of theorizing African gender and sexual diversity in a continental, pan-African, or transnational-comparative context. In addition, queer African studies is institutionally and geopolitically dislocated. In this short essay, we address the question of the transnational, or rather of the "transnationals" in queer African studies, which traverse the back-and-forth trajectories linking "Africa" and the "West," the local and the global. Through the concept of incommensurability, we grapple with new ways of representing queer African subjects and communities as subjects rather than objects of transnational discourses.


Poised at the shifting intersection of queer studies and African studies, queer African studies constitutes a nexus of crisscrossing and often competing discourses. In their investigation of queer modernities in Asia, Howard Chiang and Alvin Wong advocate for queer regionalism in an attempt to "recalibrate the uses of transnationalism as an unquestioned dominant framework within queer studies" (2016, 1645). Chiang and Wong's project to reconceptualize "queer regionalism as crisscrossing temporality and spatiality that emerge from within transcolonial encounters" echoes Achille Mbembe's description of the "postcolony" as "a period of embedding, a space of proliferation" that escapes historical and geopolitical confinement (2001, 242).

The transnational in African studies itself still needs further development. Indeed, the US system of racialization and racism confined African studies to the African continent, whereas Africana and black studies became invested in exploring diasporic identities and formations, both real and symbolic. Divisions between African scholars and Africanist scholars (both African and Western-based) have been exacerbated by regional, linguistic, and disciplinary divisions in African studies and proliferating avatars of "Africa," "Africans," and "African-ness." A renewed conception of Africa as "people" foregrounded in the works of writers, artists, and critics has fostered kaleidoscopic views of Africa. Moreover, diasporic articulations of Africa have been propounded by critics who challenge the notion of race as seen mainly through the prism of the transatlantic slave trade (Arondekar and Patel 2016, 157; Macharia 2016, 184-85).

The motivation to decenter Western categories stems in part from postcolonial feminist theorizing, which challenges the dominance of white Western feminist perspectives in transnational discussions about feminism, gender, and sexuality. Queer of color critics, anthropologists, and feminists of color engage with the global south by working at the crossroads of race, gender, sexuality, and nationalism and by challenging the narrow parameters of Western-based identity politics. (2) For example, some feminist scholars of African descent interpreted the practice of woman-woman marriage in some African societies in markedly different ways. In a woman-woman marriage, an affluent woman paid bride-price to an unmarried woman's family and married her. The female husband claimed her wife's children as part of her lineage. In social interactions, men usually treated the female husband as a man. It is important to note that after the colonization of different African societies, the introduction of a capitalist cash economy transformed intimate relationships, marriages, and family arrangements. As a result, woman-woman marriages declined in frequency.

African feminist Ifi Amadiume (1987) claims that woman-woman marriages never entailed same-sex sexual contact. In contrast, African American feminist theorist Audre Lorde contends that same-sex sex "has existed for ages in most of the female compounds across the African continent" and that some woman-woman marriages were "lesbian relationships" (1984, 50), a characterization that Amadiume rejects. Lorde asserts that woman-woman marriages promoted homosocial bonds between women, increasing the likelihood that female wives and female husbands would have explored the possibility of sexual intimacy. Amadiume objects to treating African woman-woman marriages as "lesbian-like" relationships, an argument premised on a logic of cultural incommensurability (Kendall 1999, 161). Amadiume suggests that same-sex eroticism was fundamentally incompatible with woman-woman marriages. According to Amadiume, "lesbian" subjectivities would not have resonated culturally with African female husbands and wives who participated in woman-woman marriages.

Which interpretation of woman-woman marriages is the most accurate, the most respectful? What is out of bounds in comparing same-sex eroticism across time and societies? From a transnational queer studies perspective, both interpretations are potentially valid: Amadiume creates conceptual distance between women's emotional support for one another and "lesbian" sexual practices, while Lorde uses African woman-woman marriages to politicize erotic attachments between women of African descent. In turn, this incommensurability between an African feminist scholar's and a diasporic, African American feminist scholar's interpretations illustrates the productivity of transnational sexuality studies.


As part of a "litany of complaint," Keguro Macharia notes that
the work now circulating as queer African studies in the United States
is indifferent to many of the conceptual frames in African studies.
Reading through this emerging body of work... it is difficult to
imagine that African philosophers, including John Mbiti, Kwasi Wiredu,
and Nkiru Nzegwu, have ever written anything that conceptualizes
personhood, individuality, or community. (2016, 183, 185)(3)

Macharia here points to the need to (relocate) queer African studies in a way that does not simply transform Africa into the backroom of queer African studies. Africa has been historically engaged in transcontinental and transoceanic trade and exchanges, commercial as well as cultural, and its global destiny does not start with the transatlantic slave trade and/or colonization. Stella Nyanzi (2014), a Ugandan medical anthropologist and feminist and queer activist and scholar, highlights accepted and celebrated "queerness," understood here as gender and sexual dissidence in indigenous cultural practices, on the continent. (4) Other scholars have been conducting archival work on same-sex sexualities in Africa, plumbing oral testimonies and documents (Ekine and Abbas 2013; Epprecht 2004, 2008; Gaudio 2009).

Transnational research in queer African studies wrestles with the issue of incommensurability in its endeavor to analyze and translate specific African practices and structures. One example of the transnational objectification of vulnerable bodies in queer African studies is Western observers' appropriation of what some black South African lesbian activists term "corrective rape" (Muholi 2004), a concept that South African activists challenge (see Hames 2011). In instances designated as "corrective rape," men rape women they perceive or know to be lesbians with the intent of punishing them for their gender and sexual transgression, for being sexually unavailable, and for competing with men for the affection of black women. Black transgender women and men and feminine gay men have also reported being victims of anti-queer rape and violence. This particular form of anti-queer violence has received news coverage not only in South Africa but also in the United States (Carter 2013; Dixon 2011). Non-South African journalists situate anti-queer violence in relation to South Africa's high rates of femicide, violence against women, and rape. Such contextualization perpetuates the notion that South Africa is a dangerous place to be black and queer. Emphasizing the universal oppression of lesbians worldwide, Victoria A. Brownworth (2014) links the corrective rape of black lesbians in South Africa to the fifty-year-old murder of Kitty Genovese, a lesbian bartender raped and murdered while her neighbors listened to her cries for help, and to the March 2013 deaths in Texas of Britney Cosby and her partner Crystal Jackson, who were murdered by Cosby's lesbophobic father. In the attempt to generate public outrage against anti-lesbian violence, Brownworth collapses the distinctions between these forms of violence and ignores the specific consequences of post-apartheid poverty, racial injustice, and underemployment that exacerbate gender and sexual violence in South Africa. In other words, she fails to account for the socioeconomic and cultural inadequacy or incommensurability between lesbians' experiences with sexual violence in the United States and black lesbians' experience with "corrective rape" in South Africa.

As illustrated by the example of corrective rape in South Africa, conceptual incommensurability results when scholarly comparison strains against categorical inadequacy, particularly in instances when "cultural translation" fails (Boellstorff 2007, 139; Povinelli 2001). Episodes of incommensurability do not necessarily mean that one's project fails. Instead, these episodes constitute opportunities for scholars to revisit how they define the contours and translate the content of gender and sexual diversity. In some cases, entertaining the possibility of cultural incommensurability could prevent scholars and well-meaning activists from misusing the experiences of gender and sexual minorities beyond Western borders. The example about the "lesbian" potential of African woman-woman marriages illustrates what is at stake in attempts to situate non-western cultural practices within a Western framework that projects "global gay" identities worldwide. Under scholarly scrutiny, plausible comparisons can wither or dissolve into isolated practices that refuse easy comparison, prompting researchers to reconsider terms they take for granted. Whereas other scholars might abandon an investigation of woman-woman marriage in different African societies, tenacious scholars interested in transnational comparison would continue researching this instance of transnational gender and sexual "diversity." Incommensurability does not have to be an obstacle; it can be an opportunity for conceptual, methodological, and theoretical reflection and allows activists and scholars to question the assumption that gender and sexual minority constituents' subjectivities eventually converge with and match the collective identities promulgated by LGBT movement organizations.

Such incommensurability has found expression not only in political action, organizing, and dissidence but also in aesthetic creativity and representations of queer Africans, whether in literature, art, film, or other visual media. For example, South African photographer and activist Zanele Muholi's exhibited work focuses on black South African lesbians. While documenting anti-queer violence, Muholi's photographs illustrate a vibrant sensuality. An exhibit of Muholi's work, entitled Personae, was held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, from October 2016 to January 2017. The showcasing of Muholi's queer and visual activist media in a space dedicated to celebrating "freedom's heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times" ( illustrates both the transnational scope of a queer African artist's work and its productive resistance to cultural translation or equivalence. According to Kevin Moore, who curated the Muholi exhibit in Cincinnati:
The Freedom Center is not the most ideal place to show art photography
but, in the case of Zanele, whose work is equal parts art and activism,
the context made perfect sense. Zanele herself felt very strongly that
the mission of the Freedom Center was an exceptionally good place to
create a dialogue around her work.... Zanele travels around the world
and has "community" everywhere due to her activities as an online
artist and activist. (Kevin Moore, email message to authors, May 25,


Rather than foreclosing possibilities, the dislocation of queer African studies gestures toward new ways of producing and articulating transnational discourses that stress the limits of translation, analogy, and commensurability. Macharia celebrates "a certain African genius for waywardness. As practiced by Stella Nyanzi," he notes, "waywardness accumulates odd stories, little moments, folksy wisdom, and seemingly disconnected anecdotes.... Often, it is a stubborn refusal to come to the point" (2016,188). The example of African woman-woman marriage scholarship developed above illustrates the productive waywardness of even the most rigorous scholarship and the importance of a certain "stubborn refusal to come to the point," or the importance of incommensurability. Woman-woman marriages aren't just examples of gender diversity because women married other women. "Female husbands" participated in the reproduction of patriarchal social arrangements, which depended on women's physical and reproductive labor. Some female husbands may have been seeking escape from the strictures of women's roles, but they also behaved like other senior women in different precolonial and colonial African societies who supervised and exploited the labor of more junior women in their households.

Examining the cultural and historical specificity of gender and sexual "diversity" in different African contexts presents scholars with the opportunity to re-evaluate how they populate categories like diversity and resistance and to redraw the boundaries around these categories. The question: "Where is the transnational in queer African studies?" or, in Maya Mikdashi and Jasbir Puar's terms: "Can queer theory be recognizable as such when it emerges from elsewhere?" (2016, 215) should therefore provoke an intervention rather than a didactic or seamless description and welcome interruptions and uncertainties as well as a relentless attentiveness to the unequal flow of global politics and capital.


(1) See Ekine and Abbas (2013); Epprecht (2004, 2008); Gunkel (2010); Hoad (2007); Massaquoi (2008); Munro (2012); Nyanzi (2014); Woubshet (2010).

(2) See Alexander (2005); Arondekar (2005); Boellstorff (2007); Hong and Ferguson (2011); Mohanty (2003).

(3) Pointing to the works of John D'Emilio, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, Sara Ahmed, Elizabeth Povinelli, and Michael Cobb, Macharia further criticizes the way "deracination has so often been fetishized, if not celebrated, in queer studies" (2016,183).

(4) Nyanzi writes, "Queer Africa must reclaim... African modes of blending, bending, and breaking gender boundaries" (2014, 66).


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ASHLEY CURRIER is Professor of Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati (USA). She is the author of Out in Africa: LGBT Organizing in Namibia and South Africa (University of Minnesota Press, 2012) and Politicizing Sex in Contemporary Africa: Homophobia in Malawi (2019, Cambridge University Press). Her research addresses gender and sexual diversity politics in southern and West Africa.

THERESE MIGRAINE-GEORGE is a Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Cincinnati (USA). She has published and edited various scholarly pieces on Francophone writers, African literatures, cultures, and films, and queer studies. She is the author of African Women and Representation: From Performance to Politics (Africa World Press, 2008), From Francophonie to World Literature in French: Ethics, Poetics, and Politics (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), a book of essays: Mes Etats-Unis: Portraits d'une Amerique que vous ne connaissez pas (Edilivre, 2009), and two novels: Amour de travers (Edilivre, 2010) and Envoi (Edilivre, 2014).
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Author:Currier, Ashley; Migraine-George, Therese
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2018

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