Dominion of New York


June 1, 2012

Did Homosexuality Exist in Traditional African Societies?

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Written by: Kelly Virella
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This photo of a Himba woman was taken in Namibia's Oase Village in 2009. Photo courtesy of Flickr/david_salvatori


n many cultures, one of the most commonly held misconceptions about homosexuality is that it was imported from elsewhere, then gradually infiltrated and corrupted its new homeland. The British blamed their homosexuality on their Norman conquerors (from France). The French blamed the Italians, Bulgarians and North Africans. The Italians say it was the Bulgarians and North Africans who brought it to Italy. The Bulgarians say it was the Albanians and the Albanians say it was the Turks.

So it comes as no surprise that Africans play homosexuality hot potato too. The eastern Bantu blame the Nubians. The Sudanese blame the Turks. And many Africans declare that homosexuality is a foreign practice, introduced by the decadent bourgeoisie West. Right.

Like any good liberal, I like to blame whatever I can on The Man. And if you throw in a dose of African authenticity, I’ll eat it up. But even I have epistemological standards and this one has never passed muster with me: Africa’s history pre-European contact was just too long — at least 50,000 years — to assume that no two people of the same sex ever got it on.

I’d heard that there were books I could read about it, but I never quite got around to it. Then, on Facebook of all places, a stranger gave me a link to the blessed article below.

This unpublished essay by anthropologist and sociologist Stephen O. Murray documents historical accounts of homosexuality in sub-Saharan Africa.

An abridged version of this article — without footnotes — is available at

Reading these helped me dip my toe into this body of research and emerge a little more informed about historical accounts. I hope it’ll help you too. Read one and tell me what you think about African claims that homosexuality is foreign. Also, if you’re an expert on this subject, I’d love to hear more about the historicity of this research. Leave a comment.

Meanwhile, here are a few of the examples of homosexuality in traditional Africa that Murray cites.

  1. Central Africa, Zande people: In this culture, men slept with and married boys, even when the men had female wives. The boys were called “boy wives.”
  2. Southern Ethiopia, Maale people: In this culture, men crossed genders, wearing female clothes, performing female work, and having sex with men.
  3. Angola, Ovimbundu people: In this culture, there were gays and lesbians. Women there made and used dildos.
  4. Southeastern Africa, Namu: Ditto.
  5. Tanzania/Zimbabwe border, Nykakyusa: In this culture, adolescent boys had sex.


About the Author

Kelly Virella
Kelly Virella lives in an East Harlem walk-up with her husband, her bicycle and her books. She's worked as a journalist for 11 years and started this website during the summer of 2011. She fell in love with New York City during her first visit here as a 16-year-old and finally made good on her promise to move here in April 2010.


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