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Africa Today 47.1 (2000) 153-155

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Murray, Stephen, and Will Roscoe. 1998. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities. New York: St. Martin's Press. 358 pp. $29.95 (cloth).

Recent years have seen African nations begin to confront the issue of homosexuality. While the 1994 South African constitution included sexual orientation among protected civil rights, others have decried and attacked homosexuality. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe ordered the harassment of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) in 1994 and two years later destroyed the political influence of ex-President Canaan Banana with a conviction on sodomy charges. Presidents Daniel arap Moi of Kenya (1999), Sam Nujoma of Namibia (1996), and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (1999) [End Page 153] have denounced same-sex behavior and insisted on strict enforcement of anti-gay legislation. In response, gay men (and a few women) have begun recounting their life stories in the press.

At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, bringing together bishops of the Anglican Communion from around the world, a condemnation of homosexuality passed over the rigorous protests of American and European bishops, but with strong support from African prelates. The Anglican Church debate served to confirm for some the conventional wisdom that homosexuality is a western phenomenon. Its presence in Africa is explained as a legacy of colonialism and/or an evil introduced by Arabs. As the underground existence of same-sex relationships emerges, this book demonstrates the inaccuracy of the myth that there are no homosexuals in Africa.

Sociologist Stephen Murray (Director, El Instituto Obregon) and anthropologist Will Roscoe (Institute of Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University) have pioneered in comparative studies of homosexuality. These include: Oceanic Homosexualities (1992), Latin American Male Homosexualities (1995), and American Gay (1996). This work culminated in Murray's Homosexualities (1999) which brings together his theoretical insights. Roscoe has studied Native Americans, especially the berdache tradition in Zuni Man-Woman (1991). The two collaborated on Islamic Homosexualities (1997); this includes North Africa, which is excluded from their African study. This body of work represents the most extensive cross-cultural scholarship on homosexuality.

The present book is a wide-ranging collection of materials which include academic articles, translations from early colonial memoirs, and contemporary accounts. Unlike the other works cited above, no theoretical framework is given, since the editors argue that there are "multiple Africas and diverse patterns of same-sex sexuality" (p. xviii). The continent is divided into four regions, with North Africa excluded. Each section is introduced with an overview and three to five articles. There is a balance of gay male and lesbian articles.

Materials from 1732 to the present effectively demolish the myth of the foreign origins of homosexuality in Africa. There are, however, special patterns. African societies vary considerably in their tolerance of same-sex behavior, although none could be called gay-positive. Most homosexuals fulfill their social duties of marriage and begetting children, and their same-sex activity parallels a conventional family life. Gay/Lesbian identity and social networks are rare (South Africa being a notable exception), and a gay infrastructure of bars and meeting places is largely invisible. That it exists at all, quite outside any western influence, is amply illustrated in the participant-observer accounts in Murray and Roscoe's book. Approximately one-third of the book was written by Murray and Roscoe.

Boy-Wives and Female Husbands opens up a topic that has as often been denied among Africanist scholars as it is among the political and social elites in Africa. A great deal remains to be done. While this book contains some fine scholarly articles, such as Deborah Amory's "Mashoga, [End Page 154] Mabasha and Magai: Homosexuality on the East African Coast," the mix is quite uneven. The editors make some suggestions for further research, and one hopes that this book will spur focused scholarly studies. To this reviewer, what immediately came to mind is situational homosexuality in work camps and schools; the impact of urbanization; in traditional societies, the presence and meaning of same-sex behavior in age-sets and secret...