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Boy-Wives and Female Husbands

Book Review by John Long

Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities, Edited by Will Roscoe and Stephen R. Murray, Palgrave, 358 pages, $17.95

Among the many myths created about Africa, the myth that homosexuality is absent or incidental is one of the oldest and most enduring. Historians, anthropologists, and many contemporary Africans alike have denied or overlooked African same-sex patterns or claimed that such patterns were introduced by Europeans.

Among African Americans questions surrounding sexuality and gender in traditional African societies have become especially contentious. Some assert that original languages of Africa contained no words for gay or lesbian, concluding that homosexuality did not exist.

In fact, same-sex love was and is widespread in Africa. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands documents same-sex patterns in some fifty societies, in every region of the continent. Essays by scholars from a variety of disciplines explore institutionalized marriages between women, same-sex relations between men and boys in colonial work settings, mixed gender roles in east and west Africa, and recent developments in South Africa, where lesbians and gays successfully made that nation the first in the world to constitutionally ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.

An overview of the continent as it is covered in this book includes the Horn of Africa, the Sudan, the Zande, Coastal East Africa, Mombasa, Oman, the Interlake Region, the Bantu groups and Kenya.

Also included are oral histories, folklore, and translations of early ethnographic reports by German and French observers.

In leading the exploration and colonization of Africa, according to editors Will Roscoe and Stephen R. Murray, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to realize that African sexuality and gender roles "diverged in surprising and, to them, shocking ways from their own."

Roscoe and Murray explain how "In the early seventeenth century (Portuguese) efforts to conquer the Ndingo kingdom of the Mbundu (Umbundu) were stymied by the inspired leadership of a warrior woman named Nzinga (c.1581-1663). An African Joan d'Arc, she led her armies into the thick of battle.

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Among certain segments of the population in the Sudan, they explain, a male's same-sex union does not “disqualify him for marriage in the eyes of women.” They tell how two Mesakin men “had each for a time lived with two 'wives' one male and the other female.”

The first serious study of the subject, Boy-Wives and Female Husbandsis a significant contribution to anthropology, history, and gender studies, offering new, often surprising views of African societies, while posing interesting challenges to recent theories of sexuality.

This book is an invaluable resource for everyone interested in Africa's history and culture. Boy-Wives and Female Husbands reveals the denials of African homosexualities for what they are—prejudice and willful ignorance.

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