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THE PORTRAYAL OF HOMOSEXUALITY IN SELECTED AFRICAN PROSE
- Background to the Study
Homosexuality denotes same-sex relationship or same-sex marriage. (Pollack, 1998: 207; Thompson, 1994: 357; Sarason and Sarason, 2002: 248; Aldrich, 2003:50; Allman, 2001:20) McMahon and McMahon (1982: 30) and (2011:245) state that homosexuality is that kind of sexual relationship between two members of the same sex. It involves a drive towards a member or members of the same sex.
But Nnachi (2011) sees homosexuality as a psychopathological condition. He argues:
The most basic definition of homosexuality is abnormal sexual attraction towards the members of the same sex. Thus, a homosexual may be considered a person with sexual desires directed wholly or in part towards members of the same sex. (p.245)
At the heart of homosexuality is desire and people are believed to be “wired” differently to nurse and pursue different desires. In the first place, it is suggested that every literary text is in some way about desire and in the end one loves one’s desire and not or what is desired (Bennet and Royle, 2009:208).This corroborates the view earlier expressed by Pollack (1998:206) where he recounts an encounter with a young boy:
Being different, being gay…..I always knew I was different from the other guys, seventeen year old Bill explained to me. Whenever I went out to the movies with friends, most of the other guys were just dying for a cute girl to sit next to them. Nobody else seemed to realize it, but I was really hoping a good-looking guy would sit next to me. I don’t think anybody had any idea what I was going through. (p.206)
Being homosexual, or gay, therefore, implies that a boy or girl, when he or she grows into adulthood, will primarily feel attracted, in a romantic sense, to other men or women. For instance, rather than falling in love with women and longing for a woman as a spouse, gay men fall in love with other men and hope to find a man with whom to share their adult lives. Again, just as heterosexual or straight boys do not ‘decide’ they are going to be heterosexual and as adults do not ‘choose’ a heterosexual lifestyle, homosexual boys do not ‘decide’ to be gay and, as adults, do not ‘choose’ to live a homosexual existence (Pollack, 1998: 207).This view is, however, problematic. This is because it seems to have foreclosed the option of choice open to humankind, of possibilities and even what people see as opportunities as life unfolds through growth. This view is supported by Thompson (1994:380) when he avers that homosexuality is a sexual orientation that goes arm in arm with sexual politics. Homosexuality is a form of rebellion. “It is the revolution nobody noticed”(Thompson,1994:380).Homosexuality is the dividing line between what societies presume to be “normal” (straight) and abnormal sexual behaviour. The subject is, today, assuming a very daring dimension. Pollack (1998:xxii) notes that “Boys today are in serious trouble, including many who seem “normal” and to be doing just fine. Confused by society’s mixed messages about what is expected of them… many feel a sadness and disconnection they cannot even name.”
Sarason and Sarason (2002) hold this view:
Homosexual behaviour is sexual behaviour with a member of one’s own sex. Homosexuals are individuals who prefer to engage in sexual activity with members of their own sex over an extended period. Female homosexuality is often called lesbianism… In recent years the term gay has been used by homosexuals to describe their life-style because they feel that the term has fewer negative implications than homosexual. (p. 247)
Viewed alongside heterosexuality, homosexuality does not have a long history. According to Bennet and Royle (2009):
The first entry for homosexual in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1892. Critics such as Joseph Bristow have demonstrated that a critical appreciation of a play such as Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is crucially dependent on an understanding of the historical emergence of a homosexual lifestyle at the end of the nineteenth century… While the term homosexual can refer to both men and women, its entry into the English Language in the late nineteenth century did not result in a sudden visibility for lesbians, however. (p. 209)
This phenomenon started to generate both fear – homophobia – and interest, queering into a new subject or lifestyle that is a radical departure, not only from patriarchy, but also from heterosexuality which has been the norm over time. In deconstructing heterosexuality, Sarason and Sarason (2002:248) remark sharply, “In the bad old days,…homosexuality was considered a mental illness.”Homosexuality, undoubtedly, started off in the closet. It, most probably, came into the open in Sodom. Consequently, the Bible reports that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:1-25). According to the Bible, God forbids it, “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination” (Lev. 18:22). It is a crime that attracts the death penalty:
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.(Lev. 20:13)
Moreover, a curse is placed on Sodomy /bestiality while culprits are to be put to death (Lev. 20:15; Deut. 27:21). Thousands of years later in the New Testament (of the Bible), homosexuality is seen as nothing but sexual aberration, with dire consequences (Rom. 1:27; I Tim. 1:10; Rev. 21:8).
The word homosexuality first appeared in the English Dictionary in 1892 (Bennet and Royle, 2009: 208). Gay-related issues and activities are considered third wave feminism. Feminism itself has been traced to the publications of Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) and John Stuart Mills (1809), according to Sotunsa (2009:1). But the world had to wait until the 1960s for an open confrontation with homosexuality (Thompson, 1994:1). Thompson observes that the publication of The Advocate, a magazine published in the United States of America (1967/68), gave voice to gay interest and tips on a number of issues. Thompson says:
The tips, however, were for gay white men only; The Advocate wholly ignored people of color and almost never referred to lesbians, addressed their issues, or did anything to cultivate their participation. (p.1)
Thompson’s Long Road to Freedom (1994) is a compendium on homosexuality. Thompson himself is gay. Gay Pride Day was celebrated in New York City’s Central Park in 1970 (Thompson, 1994:33). Acting Up (the struggle for integration of homosexuals into the mainstream) was to follow in 1987. “Paradoxically, while 1987 was the year that gays and lesbians moved more heavily into the mainstream, it was also the year that heavy protest action against mainstream enterprises was launched (Thompson, 1994:307).Then came 1990, Year of the Queer (Thompson, 1994). Thompson puts it this way:
If it aint on the six o’clock news, it aint news. In 1990,NBC, CBS and ABC couldn’t avoid us anymore. Week after week, we were six o’clock news… Twenty years, of gonzo gay activism had paid off handsomely in the “year of the queer”, self proclaimed queers, disempowering the old slur by reclaiming it as an affirmation, upstaged the more traditional approaches to activism pioneered by national organizations and gay activities in the decades after Stonewall. With the assistance of seasoned media-savvy activists like Larry Kramer and Muchelangelo Signorile, queer street fighters shrewdly positioned themselves to refocus the world’s televised view of homosexuality. (p.357)
Today, in America, most parts of Europe and other parts of the world, homosexual relations are legal. For example, May 17 is International Day against Homophobia (first celebrated on May 17, 2005 in more than forty countries) and “gay pride parades” are common in Europe and America (Kimmel and Messner, 2009:327).However, Africa is yet to come to terms with homosexuality. It appears that no one is openly comfortable with the subject. Thus, while the West is busy expanding the frontiers of same-sex relationships, Africa appears to be dissipating a lot of energy in the opposite direction (Thompson, 1994, xvii; Sarason and Sarason, 2002: 269; Nnachi, 2011:251 and This Day, Tuesday, 20 September 2016: 43).
With the exception of South Africa, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Africa are very limited in comparison to many other areas of the world. Thirty-eight of 53 African nations criminalise homosexuality in some way. And some African leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Yahyah Jammeh, former Gambian President, claim that homosexuality was brought to the continent from other parts of the world (Nnachi, 2011). Nnachi observes:
In Sudan, Southern Somalia, and Mauritania homosexuality is punishable by death. In Uganda, Tanzania and Sierra Leone, offenders can receive life imprisonment for homosexual acts. Egypt slams a jail term of up to 17 years on homosexuals. (p.252)
Moreover, in Nigeria, Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition ) Act 2013 is already in force. The Act reads in part:
1(i) A marriage contract or civil union entered into between persons of same sex:
(a) is prohibited in Nigeria.
2(2) No certificate issued to persons of same sex in a marriage or civil union shall be valid in Nigeria.
(3) Only a marriage contracted between a man and a woman shall be recognized as valid in Nigeria.
4(i) The registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, their sustenance, processions and meetings is prohibited.
(2) The public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly is prohibited.
5(2) A person who registers, operates, or participates in gay clubs, societies, or directly or indirectly makes public show of same sex amorous relationship in Nigeria commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of 10 years imprisonment.
Homosexuality has been seen as a queer specie world over, although the perception varies from place to place. This explains why it is dogged by fear – homophobia. Homophobia is the irrational fear and hatred of those who love and sexually desire those of same sex (Pharr, 1998:453). One who is homophobic may be called a homophobe. Lehne (2009: 325) defines homophobia as the “irrational fear or intolerance of homosexuality. Although both men and women can be homophobic, homophobia is most often associated with the fear of male homosexuality. This fear is a mixture of revulsion, apprehension, contempt, prejudice, aversion and antipathy, resulting in homosexual panic.
Citing online sources, Lehne (2009) says:
Homophobia is the fear or poor treatment of homosexuals. Coined by George Weinberg, a psychologist, in the 1960s, the term homophobia is a blend of the word homosexual and phobia from the Greek word phobos, meaning “fear” or “morbid fear”. The word “homophobia” is often used together with the word “transphobia” in documents explaining human rights violation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgander(people)-LGBT. (p.326)
In Africa where gay activities are muffled, literature remains a most veritable tool of probe. This is because the literature of a people is always revealing; it has been likened to a wonderland (Drake, 1971:v) The writer has also been described as the conscience of his society (Franco, 1970). Franco observes further:
The artist has a special responsibility towards society. The writer is increasingly considered as a man of conscience; his personal awareness makes him testify to the truth as he sees it, a truth which means facing his own and his national circumstance with unflinching honesty. (p.225)
The corollary is that literature mirrors society. Therefore, texts will be chosen across some selected regions of Africa – North, South and West – for the purpose of probing gay practice and lesbianism in Africa. The texts are:
- Walking with Shadows by Jude Dibia (2005);
- Go Tell the Sun by Wame Molefhe (2011);
- Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika (2002) and
- Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor (2001).
- Statement of the Problem
Over time, it has largely been assumed that human society has not only been designed to be patriarchal, but also heterosexual. Feminism is winning the war against patriarchy, but homosexuality is still being repelled with fury by individuals, groups and organisations. While the resistance is abating in the West, the opposite is the case in Africa. Due, perhaps, to phobia, not much has been done in this emerging field of study by African writers, literary scholars and critics.
Yet, Sharonrose (1998:467) argues that bisexuality is far from new. In the article, “Myths /Realities of Bisexuality” Sharonrose observes that bisexuality has been recognised and practiced since ancient times, but only recently has it emerged as a political identity in US sexual politics. Masculinity, feminism and, of late, homosexuality have been focal to gender studies. Even in Africa, masculinity and feminism have received remarkable attention. The result is seen in the volume of works on these subjects. But very scanty work has been done by African writers and critics on same sex matters.
Elliot, Mcfarland, Granite and Peckan (1970:1) argue further that all serious literature is concerned with universal themes – that is subjects which touch all normal men’s lives; spiritual not material; justice rather than food distribution; love rather than sex. Great themes touch our strongest emotions. In our time, literature (like architecture) has become more international. Homosexuality is fast benefitting from globalization, touching all men’s and women’s lives. It can no longer be ignored. The questions of identity and homosexuality have a good deal in common as they both constitute humanly important themes today, in politics and literature. This position is in consonance with that canvassed by Elliot, et al (1970: XVI) when they posit that “There are a great many things to say about what literature is, but they must all include two essential points. It is a special way of talking, and it is about humanly important themes.”
The present study, therefore, attempted to fill some gap created by the dearth of literature on this form of prose which will also serve as spring-post for further enquiry by writers, researchers and critics. This is because homosexuality is fast becoming one of the great themes in world literature – themes such as the question of truth, the nature of justice, the meaning of greatness, fate and free will, love and hate, good and evil and the question of identity, among others.
- Aim and Objectives of the Study
The main objective of this study was to investigate the portrayal of homosexuality in selected African prose. The specific objectives are to:
- find out the ways in which homosexual characters are portrayed in the selected African novels;
- determine reasons for negative or positive portrayal of homosexual characters;
- find out the attitudes of heterosexual and homosexual characters to one another in the selected texts;
- examine how the characters become homosexuals, that is, is it biological, cultivated or circumstantial and
- investigate issues of homophobia in the selected texts.
- Research Questions
This study addressed these questions, following closely the stated objectives.
- How are gay and lesbian characters portrayed in the chosen texts?
- What are the reasons for the negative or positive portrayal of homosexual characters in the texts?
- What are the attitudes of heterosexual and homosexual characters to one another in the selected texts?
- How did the characters become homosexuals: biological, cultivated or through circumstances?
- What are the causes and effects of homophobia in the selected texts?
- Significance of the Study
Homosexuality is repeatedly in the news these days, although for the wrong reasons, most of the time. Homosexuals are either physically assaulted by heterosexuals or they incur the wrath of the law by sexually assaulting non-homosexuals. It is as though homosexuality was not practised at all in Africa. The study becomes essentially important as it carried out an in depth examination of the chosen texts so as to determine the practice of homosexual activities in Africa. A robust analysis of the selected texts has helped place homosexuality in its true perspective.
Besides, the study explored the African situation through en