- Heterosexual Africa? The Story of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS
Marc Epprecht’s Heterosexual Africa? undermines the dominant narrative of uniform heterosexuality in Africa and questions its origins and longevity. Epprecht’s intention is to contest assumptions of African heteronormativity by drawing on resources ranging from colonial scientific studies to humanities scholarship, including film and literature. His audience is interdisciplinary and broad, though the historical grounding of this text is apparent. Epprecht demonstrates that the myth of exclusive heterosexuality is not only wrongheaded but also detrimental to sexual health and human rights.
Heterosexual Africa? is primarily concerned with the history of an idea, as the title indicates. Epprecht is not simply interested in documenting the existence of same-sex sexuality in Africa—as he points out, this has been done elsewhere, although largely overlooked. Instead, Epprecht traces patterns of heteronormativity that have been endemic and harmful. He does this using empirical evidence and by considering silences in the historical record, specifically, how they came into existence, were defended, and changed over time.
Where did ideas about exclusive heterosexuality in Africa originate? Epprecht finds documentation of such beliefs in science, health, and theological literature. He links them to colonial perceptions of a homogeneous and inferior Africa. But far from being monolithic in their [End Page 555] assumptions of heterosexuality, these assertions were constantly undermined by largely unknown research that pointed to cracks in their hegemony. Epprecht demonstrates how contradictory and scant existing research into the subject was minimized. More commonly known are a wide range of professional discourses that contributed to the conception of African sexuality as dependent on notions of reproduction and family. Epprecht shows that much of this research is not methodologically sound, is often based in disciplinary divides, and construes same-sex sexuality as imposed by outside influences or nonexistent. The common denominator across a wide and varied field of thinkers was “the elevation of heterosexuality to a defining characteristic of Africanness” (161).
In addition to the broad conversations to which Epprecht contributes, he makes important interventions into topical discussions and debates related to heterosexuality as well. For instance, how can we better understand contestations concerning the sexual orientation or prowess of the infamous Shaka Zulu? How did Franz Fanon’s views of homosexuality affect his work and influence otherwise radical leaders and thinkers? And what does a consideration of heterosexuality tell us about mental health care in Africa?
But perhaps the most important topic with which Epprecht is concerned is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As he points out, the racialized use of anthropology, psychology, and biomedical sciences facilitating colonial privilege is essential to understanding responses to HIV/AIDS in the present. Inaccurate scholarship formed the backdrop for the advent of HIV/AIDS and the resulting perfunctory research into same-sex sexuality. Repetitive citations of such erroneous research played a critical role in the idea that homosexuality was irrelevant to HIV/AIDS in Africa, what Epprecht calls an “incestuous tendency in scholarship” (118). Epprecht traces the development of scholarly and popular responses to HIV/AIDS in Africa, putting them in transnational context and detailing their ramifications. And he links these responses to overarching discussions about health, human rights, and colonial legacies in Africa, arguing for the importance of illuminating such linkages to combat HIV/AIDS and understand how hegemonic heterosexuality works and sustains itself.
An important challenge facing Epprecht in writing Heterosexual Africa? was how to find substantive data constituting evidence into a subject that has been so widely overlooked by researchers. Epprecht tries to create and reshape this history, with differing degrees of success, given the paucity of pertinent material, despite the obvious gaps that exist. As he points out, antihomophobic scholarship gained credibility in the 1990s by relying on conservative methodologies and uncontroversial sources; however, Epprecht’s subject forces him to take risks in this text that might unsettle traditional historians. Another way he responds to this challenge is through his...