Africa / Americas

Photos’ goal: Prove that being LGBTQ isn’t ‘un-African’

"I spent such a large part of my childhood trying to “pass” as straight that by the time I came out, I had exhausted my ability to care how most people thought of me. I dress accordingly," says Netsie, a queer Ethiopian-Namibian woman living in the United States. (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

“I spent such a large part of my childhood trying to ‘pass’ as straight that by the time I came out, I had exhausted my ability to care how most people thought of me. I dress accordingly,” says Netsie, a queer Ethiopian-Namibian woman living in the United States. (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

Photographer Mikael Owunna has a mission: to debunk the myth that it is “un-African” to be LGBTQ. To accomplish that mission, he photographs LGBTQ African immigrants and tells their stories.

Photographer Mikael Owunna (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

Photographer Mikael Owunna (Photo courtesy of YouTube)

A queer Nigerian-American photographer, Owunna has been doing that work for more than three years, displaying the photos and stories online at Limit(less), also known as LimitlessAfricans.com.

He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, seeking funds to expand his project with photos of LGBTQ African immigrants in Europe. So far, he has been pledged $7,058 toward his $10,000 goal.

 

For safety, some of the names given below are pseudonyms.

Owunna writes about his project:

Photos Debunk the Myth that it is “un-African” to be LGBTQ

Gesiye, a bisexual/queer Nigerian-Trinidadian living in Trinidad & Tobago, says, "I hear this a lot in the Caribbean, that the LGBTQ experience is un-African or un-natural. From the homophobic music that we all dance and sing along to, to the fact that it’s still illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender in Trinidad. It’s exhausting. I wish we would accept/understand that gender-fluidity and same sex attraction are historically indigenous and African.” (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

Gesiye, a bisexual/queer Nigerian-Trinidadian living in Trinidad & Tobago, says, “I hear this a lot in the Caribbean, that the LGBTQ experience is un-African or un-natural. From the homophobic music that we all dance and sing along to, to the fact that it’s still illegal to have sex with someone of the same gender in Trinidad, it’s exhausting. I wish we would accept/understand that gender-fluidity and same-sex attraction are historically indigenous and African.” (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

In 1927 a special case came before the High Court of Rhodesia, in modern day Zimbabwe. On trial was a young Xhosa man named Nomxadana, who also went by the name Maggie. Nomxdana had been caught wearing all female clothing, including underwear and high heels, and posing as a female nurse for years, and this was against Rhodesian colonial law.

During the trial, the colonial court brought Nomxdana’s father, Slopo Maxinge, to the stand and pressed him to call his son mentally affected, as his behavior was clearly “unnatural” from their European perspectives. Nomxadana’s father, though, refused to be coerced and defended his son saying, “My son has been wearing dresses ever since he was a baby… I have never thought him mentally affected.”

African indigenous understandings of gender and sexuality have always been incredibly rich and varied and defied European notions of what is “natural” and “un-natural.” And the fearless testimony of Nomxadana’s father in front of the High Court of Rhodesia in 1927 is just one example showing the countless expressions of precolonial African ideas about gender and sexuality.

People we would now see as LGBTQ have always existed in African communities. Despite this, there is still a pervasive myth that it is “un-African” to be LGBTQ and homosexuality is still widely criminalized across the continent as a legacy of the same colonial mandates shown vividly in Nomxadana’s case.

[Editor’s note: For more information, see this blog’s article “21 varieties of traditional African homosexuality.”]

Growing up as a queer Nigerian-American, I also encountered this “un-African” myth, and so I started my photography project, Limit(less), on LGBTQ African immigrants to debunk it.

Here are some of the stories from the project:

“We are here, we exist and WE ARE NOT going anywhere,” says Mai’Yah, who posed for this photo in Brooklyn along with three other queer African womenm Badu, Yéwá, and Amadi, (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

“We are here, we exist and WE ARE NOT going anywhere,” says Mai’Yah, who posed for this photo in Brooklyn, New York, N.Y., U.S.A., along with three other queer African women — Badu, Yéwá, and Amadi. (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

 

 

Brook, a queer Ethiopian living in the United States, says, “This 'Un-African' sentiment is due to Western influence during the colonial era and continual pressure now. There is lots of historic evidence showing LGBTQ inclusion in many African cultures’ pre-colonial eras. Homophobia is what’s foreign to the continent.” (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

Brook, a queer Ethiopian living in the United States, says, “This ‘Un-African’ sentiment is due to Western influence during the colonial era and continual pressure now. There is lots of historic evidence showing LGBTQ inclusion in many African cultures’ pre-colonial eras. Homophobia is what’s foreign to the continent.” (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

 

“Saying something is 'un-African' is saying a kaleidoscope can only be one colour,” says Wiilo, a queer Somali living in the United States. (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

“Saying something is ‘un-African’ is saying a kaleidoscope can only be one colour,” says Wiilo, a queer Somali living in the United States. (Photo by Mikael Owunna, published with permission)

Brian, a queer Rwandan living in Canada, says, "Brian: Queer Rwandan (Canada) “My Africa is one that is intrinsically hate-free, welcoming, comprehensive and protective. It’s not about knowing if LGBTQ is “un-African” or not but it’s more about understanding that homophobia and transphobia are clearly not derived from African values, culture and traditions.” (Photo by Mikael Owunna, used with permission)

Brian, a queer Rwandan living in Canada, says,
“My Africa is one that is intrinsically hate-free, welcoming, comprehensive and protective. It’s not about knowing if LGBTQ is ‘un-African’ or not but it’s more about understanding that homophobia and transphobia are clearly not derived from African values, culture and traditions.” (Photo by Mikael Owunna, used with permission)

 

LGBTQ African people have always existed and we continue to exist to this day on the continent and in diaspora as well. I recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to fundraise and bring Limit(less) to Europe to shoot LGBTQ Africans there this fall and continue chronicling our stories across the diaspora.

We can get back to our rich precolonial African understandings of gender and sexuality as expressed by Nomxadana and his father back in 1927. And as the stories and images above show, it is still possible, despite everything, to be LGBTQ, African and whole.

Contact information:

Website: http://www.mikaelowunna.com
Instagram: @mikaelowunna
Twitter: @mikaelowunna

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One thought on “Photos’ goal: Prove that being LGBTQ isn’t ‘un-African’

  1. Pingback: Photos’ goal: Prove that being LGBTQ isn’t ‘un-African’ | 76 CRIMES – Terence's Museyroom

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