Unpacking Pervasive Heteronormativity in sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities to Embrace Multiplicity of Sexualities

The article was published in the prestigious journal Progress in Human Geography in March 2023. It contributes to GCRO’s Queering Social Survey Research project.

Research on sexualities in the global South has highlighted ways in which sexualities are articulated and the many challenges faced by queer people due to discrimination attached to heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is a concept used to describe how heterosexuality is considered the only normal and coherent mode of sexuality. Geographers of sexuality have used the concept of heteronormativity to investigate how public spaces became (hetero)sexualised when socio-cultural norms constituted through repeated heterosexual acts such as heterosexual handholding and kissing. In addition, through their investigation, they found the significance of understanding the range of desires and bodies that are considered normal (heterosexuality) while others are not (non-normative sexual and gender identities). Moreover, the development of this literature has given greater recognition and representation to the multiplicity of sexualities and the fluid nature of sexual identities.

This article was written as a contribution to the scholarship on geographies of sexualities in sub-Saharan Africa. First, it unpacks query theory and its relevance of use in the African context. Queer theory critically interrogates the meanings of sexual identity and disrupts what is perceived to be a ‘natural order’ or ‘normal’ whilst celebrating the differences and multiplicity of sexualities and identities in society. Much of the theorisation of sexuality is West-centric and queer theory has been argued to be linked to the Euro-American views that display perceptions of the West/global North. This paper confronts those arguments and presents a possible way to use queer theory for the analysis of sexualities in Africa. In addition, queer theory unmasks how heterosexuality imposes itself as a norm in the global South, offering a useful conceptual apparatus for understanding the historical production of normality-versus-deviance because it not only permits an inclusive analysis of diverse identities, but it provides a more holistic picture for imagining multiplicative interactions of social identities.

Second, the article presents how space is an enabler or curtailer of queer life in sub-Saharan Africa. The institutionalisation of heteronormativity in the sub-Saharan African spaces has been driven by structural arrangements that have the authoritative power to define who belongs and to decide what bodies are allowed to do in space, when and where. Although space is not only defined by the powerful, individuals remake it by inhabiting it in their own way whilst changing the terms of inclusion from below. However, structural arrangements such as heterosexual-accommodating laws and masculinity/femininity norms dictate whether a person can enter a space or not; whether they can be safe; what they can and cannot do in safe or unsafe spaces; and what tactics they might have to adopt to negotiate the policing that they are subject to. In Johannesburg, there is a place called KwaMai Mai Traditional Market, one of the city’s most established traditional medicine markets where Zulu ‘traditional’ taxi drivers relax, and enjoy meat platters served with a good helping of music. Although the market was predominantly a space to de-stress for traditional taxi drivers who were intolerant of non-normative sexual and gender identities, it has become the coolest ‘new’ relaxation spot for queer people. This denotes that the intolerance of stigma and discrimination against queer people is on a gradual increase, especially in spaces of appropriation as previously claimed heteronormative spaces are evolving and becoming more tolerant and safer for queer people.

Third, the article presents the lived experiences of queer people in sub-Saharan Africa and it shows how ideologies based on religion, the colonial legacy, and African popular culture and media enforce heteronormativity. Several sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria, Uganda, South Sudan, Mauritania and many others, legislated against queer identities and same-sex sexual activities to silence the voices and experiences of those engaging in them. The claim suggesting that homosexuality is “un-African” has promoted prejudice, discrimination and violence against queer people. The authors argue that homosexuality has had a long history in Africa because homophobia is a Western import that was introduced during colonialism through penal codes criminalising homosexuality.

Lastly, the article provides a synthesis of recommendations which are potential opportunities and scenarios for destabilising strands of discrimination attached to heteronormativity. The scenarios presented include: 1) embracing the principles of ubuntu which were also a political ethic forged in the decolonial and anti-apartheid encounters of hegemonic struggles in South Africa; 2) deconstructing gendered and sexualised language at home, in education and legislative documents through the creation of a new non-binary language to breed a conducive environment in which marginalised voices could be heard; 3) exploring norms of sexuality through postcolonial lenses and relevant strands of queer theory to challenge hegemonic structures of power relations governing sexual identities; and 4) creating spaces that queer and heterosexual people can evolve through a mutual appropriation to create the potential for autonomy and non-heteronormativity whilst conceptualising space as fluid and not fixed.

“Space is not naturally and authentically ‘straight’ but rather actively produced and (hetero)sexualised.” (Binnie, 1997: 223)

Key points

● While the sub-Saharan African region has seen a gradually changing landscape with regard to the rights of queer people, there are ongoing heteronormative practices that suppress the expression of non-normative sexualities and gender identities.

● Public spaces are perceived as locations that are meant to be equally accessible to all people, irrespective of race, gender identity, and sexual orientation—however, queer people often experience significant inequalities when navigating public spaces because of widely shared norms of heterosexuality that legitimate homophobia and pose a threat to queer expressions.

● Tackling hetero(sexualised) and binary-defined norms through adopting deconstructive and non-binary approaches towards sexuality allows an opportunity to create inclusive and more integrated spaces, with a mixed contingent of individuals that would adapt to each other, rather than one to the other.

Recommended citation

Mkhize, S.P. and Mthembu, A. (2023). Unpacking pervasive heteronormativity in sub-Saharan Africa: Opportunities to embrace multiplicity of sexualities. Progress in Human Geography, 0(0): 1 – 15.

For further detail, please contact Sthembiso Pollen Mkhize [ sthembiso.mkhize@gcro.ac.za ]


The GCRO sends out regular news to update subscribers on our research and events.