Forbidden love: Exploring true, complex lives of LGBTI Africans

By Mike Nicholson

Cover of "Esto No Es Africano"
Cover of “Esto No Es Africano,” which tells true stories of forbidden loves from Cairo to Cape Town

In recent years, news of homophobic laws in Africa has resonated across the Global North. While many individuals are at least superficially aware of the plight of LGBTI men and women in countries such as Uganda and Nigeria, the media’s focus on politicians and laws means that the lives of LGBTI individuals remain somewhat distant and inaccessible to those who have little knowledge of Africa and Africans.

“Esto No Es Africano,” or “This is Not African,” by Spanish journalist Marc Serena is thus an impressive and important book. Part ethnography, part travelogue, and part social commentary, Serena’s work reveals to readers the human face of LGBTI experience. He introduces us to a number of memorable, complex, and eminently relatable LGBTI individuals residing all over Africa — from Cairo to Cape Town, and from Cabo Verde east to Kenya. We meet characters as diverse as Muhsin, Africa’s first openly gay imam with a congregation of 60-odd people in Cape Town, and Tchinda, the first transwoman to come out of the closet in Cabo Verde.

Imam Muhsin Hendricks (Photo courtesy of the Alicia Patterson Foundation)
Gay imam Muhsin Hendricks of South Africa  (Photo courtesy of the Alicia Patterson Foundation)

Through Serena, these characters reveal their desires to live happily and to love freely—desires largely shared by LGBTI individuals in the Global North. Ultimately, we learn to think of his interviewees not as monolithic victims, but as complex human beings whose full stories deserve to be heard in the Global North.

Serena paints a picture of an Africa that is far more subtle and complex than is often portrayed in the media. Many of Serena’s interviewees reveal heart-wrenching stories of discrimination. Among others, he introduces us “Ice Queer,” an “undercover” gay Egyptian blogger, and Kholoud, a lesbian Berber from Tunisia, who share stories of familial rejection and forced conversion therapy. We next meet Said, a gay Moroccan man whose house has been vandalized, who has been beaten and harassed (by family, neighbors, and even police), and who has been denied employment due to his sexuality. Such profound hardships have driven Said to alcoholism and depression. We also meet Guirane, an HIV+ gay Senegalese man who has been imprisoned multiple times for homosexual behavior and who cannot return home due to death threats from his father and brother. In Ghana, we learn of several gay men who have been victims of extortion and blackmail. In Uganda, we meet Gloria, an intersex woman who is afraid to seek work and, often, to even leave her house for fear of taunting.

Ad for a Houari Mazouzi show in Paris.
Ad for a Houari Mazouzi concert in Paris.

Alongside these stories of discrimination, however, Serena presents readers with hopeful images. In Oran, Algeria, we are introduced to Houari Mazouzi, a well-known raï (Algerian popular music) singer who sings openly about his male lovers. In Cabo Verde, we meet Tchinda, the country’s first transgendered person to come out of the closet. Tchinda reveals that she has received universal support from her family and community and has been praised for her courage. “The whole world loves us,” she exclaims. In Tarime, Tanzania, we meet Agneda and Esther, two married women who belong to the Kuria ethnic group— a tribe that allows women without sons to marry other women. Agneda and Esther are raising children together and have the support of their community and the Pentecostal church to which they belong.

It would not be accurate, however, to claim that these individuals live free of discrimination. In Algeria, Cheb Abdou mentions that he is sometimes insulted in the streets and notes that, despite nominal social acceptance of homosexuality, gay men and lesbians are ultimately expected to get married and have children. Tchinda notes that, despite broad social acceptance, LGBTI people in Cabo Verde are barred from military service and occasionally face discrimination among Muslim communities. Ultimately, through Serena’s accounts, we come to know an Africa where the realities of being LGBTI are far more complex than is often portrayed by media in the Global North.

Serena’s book is clearly socially conscious and it is implicit that he favors expanded rights for LGBTI Africans. That said, his book is more akin to an ethnographic text or a travelogue than a persuasive essay. Overall, his tone is objective and his historical and contextual exposition is thoughtful and well-informed. He seldom interjects his own opinion into the narrative. He also does not propose any solutions to the problems that LGBTI communities face in Africa. Instead, he simply allows his interviewees to reveal their stories, giving voice to individuals whose might otherwise remain “voiceless.” Readers expecting trenchant social commentary may be left disappointed, but others will come away with a nuanced understanding of the lived experiences of LGBTI populations across Africa.

Marc Serena in 2013 while promoting his previous book, “La vuelta de los 25,” based on 25 interviews with 25-year-olds in 25 countries. (Photo courtesy of Beijing Today)
Marc Serena poses which promoting his previous book, “La vuelta de los 25,” which was based on 25 interviews with 25-year-olds in 25 countries. (Photo courtesy of Beijing Today)

Several important recurring themes punctuate Serena’s interviews.

First, the psychological impacts of discrimination are apparent. Said suffers from depression and alcoholism. Gloria is so terrified of discrimination that she is afraid to seek employment. A gay man in Ghana notes that many LGBTI individuals are afraid that “coming out” will hurt their families’ reputation. As such, many stay in the closet, often racked with depression and guilt.

Second, LGBTI populations face widespread employment discrimination in many African countries, particularly if their behavior is not thought of as gender-conforming. This lowers individuals’ self-esteem and exacerbates depression. Further, as in the cases of Said in Morocco, Guirane in Senegal, and Zungu in Tanzania, rampant discrimination drives many LGBTI individuals to prostitution.

Third, Serena’s work implies that cultural taboos surrounding sex and sexual education elevate the risk of STDs among LGBTI-identifying individuals, at least in some countries. Guirane reveals that he never learned about the benefits of using a condom—neither in school nor from family or friends— prior to contracting an STD. Likewise, Zungu, a sex worker in Tanzania, notes that the public is poorly informed about STDs. He noted that his clients sometimes demand bareback sex and threaten to report him to the police if he doesn’t comply. Several interviewees in Uganda and Zambia also note that it is very difficult to find spermicidal lube in their countries, raising their STD risk.

Finally, through the stories of Chengo in Zambia and Gloria in Uganda, we learn of the unique difficulties faced by transgendered and intersex individuals across Africa. Few transgendered and intersex people in Africa can afford hormone therapy, much less gender transition surgery. Further, few doctors are capable of performing such operations—individuals desiring a sex change must fly to large cities such as Cairo or out of Africa entirely.

It is clear that Serena’s book is clearly highly important and merits reading. That said, it is not without shortcomings. For one, Serena implies in his introduction that one of his principal goals is to counter the prevailing African argument that homosexuality is a Western import, a notion that is often employed by political and media demagogues to vilify LGBTI persons in countries such as Uganda and Nigeria. This goal is inherent in the work’s title, “This is Not African.”

While Serena’s case studies demonstrate to readers that sexual minorities in Africa span many ethnicities and social classes, his fundamental argument would be strengthened by a more thorough discussion of pre-colonial indigenous beliefs regarding homosexuality. His discussion of Tanzanian tribes that permit female-female marriages was particularly fascinating and may provide a direct challenge to the notion that homosexuality is a “Western” import.

That said, his interviews in Tanzania left me hankering for more information. Indeed, he notes that at least a dozen tribes across Africa have historically recognized same-sex relationships in some form or another. How do these tribes regard male-male relationships? Transgendered people? How are these tribes and their cultures regarded by other ethnic groups? I was left wondering why Serena did not discuss such tribes in greater depth. Was it simply impractical to do so? Ultimately, further explicit discussion along this vein might drive home the point that homosexuality is indeed as “African” as it is “North American” or “European.”

Marc Serena poses with the Catalan edition of his book.
Marc Serena poses with the Catalan edition of “Esto No Es Africano.”

Next, Serena focuses on specific individuals residing in specific countries. Readers seeking to gain broad insight into the experiences of LGBTI populations in a specific country may thus be left disappointed. In most of his case studies, Serena focuses on gay men and women. In some countries, notably Zambia and Cabo Verde, Serena documents transgendered individuals. In Uganda, his focus is on an intersex woman. Some of his case studies featured individuals that may face particularly severe challenges in their home countries. For example, Serena’s Kenya chapter focuses on a gay man suffering from albinism (John). The author alternates between discussing the problems he faces due to albinism and the homophobia he has encountered.

Ultimately, I was uncertain of the extent to which this case and the others presented are representative of the broader experiences of the queer communities in his selected countries. Perhaps interviewing a handful of gay men, women, and transgendered individuals in each country would have provided a more representative and comparative picture of the LGBTI experiences in Africa. At the least, some comparative discussion of the diverse experiences of gays, lesbians, transgendered people, and others would have been highly informative and enhance the coherence and cogency of the book. Serena’s attempts to contextualize his interviewees’ experiences is occasionally distracting and does little to help readers to understand the specific experiences of LGBTI Africans—the purported purpose of the book.

At times, Serena appears to digress into tangents. While it is important to discuss the cultural and social contexts in which the book’s protagonists reside (I should note that Serena often does this highly effectively), such exposition should thus ideally be limited to information that will advance readers’ understanding of LGBTI issues.

In his Mauritania case study, for example, Serena discusses female genital mutilation in significant depth. He also addresses complex topics such as discrimination against albinos (in Kenya) and undocumented migration (in Morocco). While these are serious problems that probably have affected the lives of LGBTI individuals in Africa, they are not LGBTI-specific issues. As such, Serena’s “asides” ultimately contribute little to the book.

Finally, Serena’s style alternates between that ethnographic and that of a travelogue. Several of his chapters feature long reflections on travel in Africa—the difficulty of traveling by bus, the chaos of transportation hubs, the atmosphere of tension at border checkpoints. In one chapter, he expresses mild frustrations directed towards pushy street vendors and beggars assuming that he is wealthy due to his skin color. Perhaps Serena is trying to conjure a mental image—beckoning readers to imagine they are in Africa. Ultimately, however, his reflections on travel again are somewhat distracting and add little to the book. I feel that the book may have been more effective had Serena included less personal narrative and focused more exclusively on the lives of those individuals whose lives form the heart and soul of the text.

Criticisms aside, this is a highly important book that merits reading. I sincerely hope that this book is translated into languages other than Spanish. The lives of LGBTI individuals in Africa are relatively poorly documented and inaccessible to many in the Global North. As far as I am aware, no other comparative, interview-based exploration of LGBTI lives exists. For those in the Global North, this book humanizes LGBTI Africans and makes their voices accessible to any who would care to listen.

Mike Nicholson, a doctoral student in San Diego, California, is a 2005 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and a former Fulbright scholar. He has lived in Chile, Turkey and in six U.S. states.

Esto No Es Africano is available in a Kindle electronic edition for US $9.99, in paperback from Editorial Xplora for 19 euros and in paperback from Editorial Xplora via Amazon for US $29.00.  It is not yet available in an English translation.




Written by Colin Stewart

Colin Stewart is a 45-year journalism veteran living in Southern California. He is the president of the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, which supports LGBTQ+ rights advocacy journalism, Erasing 76 Crimes. Contact him at [email protected]

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