In “pre-colonial times,” wrote the late feminist scholar Niara Sudarkasa, women in West Africa were “conspicuous in high places.” They led armies, often played important consultative roles in politics, and in the case of the Lovedu people (present-day South Africa), they were even supreme Rain Queens. What it meant to be a woman in many African pre-colonial societies was not rigid. “Among the Langi of northern Uganda,” writes Sylvia Tamale, dean of the faculty of Law at Makerere University Uganda, “the mudoko dako, or effeminate males, were treated as women and could marry men.” There were also the Chibados or Quimbanda of Angola, male diviners whom, some scholars have argued, were believed to carry female spirits through anal sex.
For centuries, woman-to-woman marriages in pre-colonial African societies seemed to indicate to Europeans that the strong correspondence between male to man and female to woman was not prevalent in Africa. This practice of same-sex marriage was documented in more than 40 precolonial African societies: a woman could marry one or more women if she could secure the bridewealth necessary or was expected to uphold and augment kinship ties. The idea that a female could be a husband perplexed Europeans, and often lead to fantastical conclusions.
Writing in 1938, the anthropologist Melville Jean Herskovits imputed assumptions on woman-to-woman marriages that were, in the words of the anthropologist Eileen Jensen Krige, “foreign to the institution.” He insisted that “it is not to be doubted that occasionally homosexual women who have inherited wealth… utilize this relationship to the women they marry to satisfy themselves.” Although he was operating on pure conjecture (no documented woman-to-woman marriages were known to be lesbian marriages), and while heterosexuality was certainly the dominant form of sexuality in pre-colonial Africa, Tamale notes that “there is no doubt that same-sex copulation was also practised.”
An anxiety that historians discern in the historical record is how uncomfortable European travellers, and later anthropological accounts, were with the idea that their gendered worldview didn’t easily map onto the societies they encountered. “There is among the Angolan pagan much sodomy,” wrote one Portuguese soldier in 1681, “sharing one with the other their dirtiness and filth, dressing as women. And they call them by the name of the land, quimbandas.”
In another story, the inquisition in Brazil had heard complaints about Francisco Manicongo, one of the “negro sodomites who serve as passive women,” a jinbandaa from Central Africa, who had to be punished for being a deviant (in the eyes of Christians). Europeans, averse to what they called “sodomy,” expressed distress towards the idea that some people whom they perceived as men would dare be considered by their societies as women.
With what the slave trade and colonialism implied—the more often forced, but sometimes voluntary movement of people across the Atlantic—these transgressive gender performances became the target of the inquisition. The Church disseminated the message that individuals who did not conform to their idea of men and women could be a bad influence on Christian colonial society.
One of those targeted was Vitoria. Her story was popularized by the ground-breaking work of the Brazilian queer historian Luiz Mott. We know of Vitoria (originally a slave named Antonio, from Benin, West Africa) from the authoritative accounts of the Portuguese Inquisition in Lisbon, which had her arrested in 1556. She dressed as a woman, and worked in the riverbank of Lisbon, where she would beckon men, “like a woman enticing them to sin.”
“Under questioning by the Inquisitors,” according to James H. Sweet, a historian at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Vitoria “insisted that she was a woman and had the anatomy to prove it.” The inquisition was not convinced and she was eventually given a life sentence. Whereas the Portuguese could only see deviance and sodomy, “their feminine gestures, their same-sex behaviours were simply expressions of their broader spiritual roles, roles that went completely unrecognized by the Portuguese.”
It would be anachronistic to call these ways of being “transgender.” That would be to retrofit them into gender categories that we use in the twenty-first century. But the theological frustration with deviance and sodomy that was often used to repress them is familiar today. As Tamale puts it, “the ironic truth is that it is not homosexuality that is alien to Africa but the far off lands of Sodom and Gomorrah plus the many other religious depictions of other sexuality that are often quoted in condemning same-sex relations on the continent.”
The same can be said about the campaigns that intermittently condemn trans men and women in Africa. In Tamale’s view, these are “state-orchestrated ‘moral panics’” serving as decoys to distract from socioeconomic and political dysfunction. What the memory of Vitoria and the many other nonconforming victims of the inquisition demonstrates is that it is not homosexuality and trans identities that are a colonial import into Africa, but homophobia and transphobia instead.