Language is a powerful tool that can be used to further or restrict Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) rights. By the same token, you can invent a language in order to create a safe way to communicate for those who live in hostile environments.

“Gayle” in South Africa is a case in point. During the Apartheid era, Gayle was a secret language the primary purpose of which was to enable open communication within the LGBTQ community and facilitate activities within the community. Functioning as a sort of code, Gayle allowed the LGBTQ community to speak openly, without detection in the public sphere when the government monitored and censored LGBTQ activities.

How Africans used to understand homosexuality and forms of gender expression in the pre-colonial era is captured in the terms used in various tribes and kingdoms across the continent. These terms not only acknowledged the existence of LGBTQ individuals but even celebrated them. For example, in the Langi tribe of northern Uganda, people who were born intersex would belong to a third gender known as mudoko dako. Mudoko dako people were legally allowed and socially sanctioned to marry a man or woman.

When homosexuality is equated with pedophilia, it represents a deliberate discrimination.

Dan Daudu – “Men who are like women”

In the Kikuyu and Meru tribes in Kenya, special religious leaders called mugawe dressed and wore their hair like women, and in some cases married other men. Throughout Western Africa, especially in Northern Nigeria, the Hausa tribe’s vocabulary included the term dan daudu which means ‘men who are like women’. When a child born as a boy was recognised as a dan daudu at an early age, he would be given female-specific toys and encouraged to express their gender openly regardless of biology.

After the introduction of discriminatory laws and western religion by colonial powers in Africa, the perception of homosexuality and gender identity changed drastically. This is reflected in the language now used to understand LGBTQI people and issues. Current political and social elites often refer to homosexuality as a western phenomenon. According to a recent study by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), nearly half of respondents (47%) in the African region believe that homosexuality is a foreign concept imported from the West. Furthermore, many Africans hold strongly negative connotations of the word homosexuality. According to Malawian LGBTQI researcher Alan Msosa, most Malawians conflate the term homosexuality with paedophilia. This makes it exceptionally difficult to advocate for LGBTQI rights in the country.

The African Charter is an international human rights instrument intended to encourage and protect human rights and basic freedoms in Africa. The use of language in it further suggests a problematic stance on LGBTQI people. Article 2 of the Charter states that ‘{e}very individual shall be entitled to the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms recognised and guaranteed in the present Charter without distinction of any kind such as race, ethnic group, colour, sex, language, religion, political or any other opinion, national and social origin, fortune, birth or other status.’ However, sexual orientation is notably absent in the African Charter.

Language is widely being weaponised against the LGBTQI community in Africa. Advocates of LGBTQI rights should try to find ways to change the way language is used to describe LGBTQI individuals and issues. To this end, they could lean on historical facts and cultural terms with positive connotations.

LGBTQI rights must be claimed in courts.

The LGBTQI community must be visible.

One indicator of the rule of law in a country is the treatment of minorities.

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