Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Debating Gender and Sexuality in Tanzania

Sexuality and gender identity debate in Tanzania

Marjorie Mbilinyi

We want to share with you the latest developments in TGNP’s efforts to ‘break the silence’ around issues pertaining to sexuality and gender identity. The ‘question’ of sexuality has provoked major debate during and after this year’s Gender Festival, and attracted a lot more media coverage than the issue of land grabbing by global agribusiness, for example, or the growing movement for a new Constitution, or the demand for sustainable livelihoods and employment for all.

During this year’s Gender Festival 2011 which focused on ‘land, labour and livelihoods’, there was a separate workshop 3 on ‘sex, sexuality, bodily integrity, politics of choice and struggles against GBV and HIV/AIDS in the workplace: public and private’. The topic of sexuality and gender identity also came up in workshops on health and on the new Constitution. This followed Gender Festival 2009’s ground-breaking keynote paper on sexuality that was presented by Sylvia Tamale, and followed up later by plenary and workshop presentations by young gay men. Many more LGBTs participated in this year’s Festival, and several chose to flaunt their gay identity openly by style of dress, walk, talk, etc. Lesbians have been present throughout but not as visible nor audible.

The subject of sexuality and gender identity has now become the major focus of several of Tanzanian email lists and blogs, including

Reading the ideas circulating thus far, a sizable number of people assume that heterosexuality is the ‘norm’ in Africa, and have expressed alarm at the breakdown of traditional African values, the importation of Western ideas and behaviour, and moral decadence. Several argue that NGOs are following ‘the money’ of donors by opening up to LGBT people; that the very idea of homosexuality in whatever form is a Western imposition funded by donors!

Many other people have argued that this is a question of human rights and democracy; that activists are expected to welcome diversity in all aspects of our lives. Some have asked why there is so much concern about who people choose to sleep with at this moment of high level state corruption and land-grabbing?

Another line of argument is to say that people should condemn the practice of same sex, but not those who practice it; they are victims of childhood abuse. Many of the LGBT voices who chose to speak aloud during this and 2009’s Festivals emphasised their personal experience of childhood abuse, and/or of being punished and eventually expelled from their families and communities because of their identity.

Others, albeit few in number thus far, have argued that human beings have the ‘natural’ potential to act in a variety of ways, sexually, but have been shaped by the dominant patriarchal heterosexual ideology to silence and repress alternative ways of being. That there are many men and women with same sex identities who have chosen to hide their preferences; they marry, bear children and often lead very unhappy lives because they are not free to be themselves openly.That it is necessary to unlearn, as Sylvia Tamale explained back in 2009, the enormous baggage of patriarchal and bourgeois thought and ideology about sexuality, including imperial and racist views about the sexuality of African women.

We welcome more contributions from members of the African feminist movement to help broaden the scope and depth of the conversation about sexuality and gender identity.


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