In many countries colonised by the British, anti-LGBTQ+ laws did not exist before the UK introduced them. As stated by Zing Tsjeng of VICE World News in her series ‘Empire of Dirt,' “many of Britain’s former colonies don’t have histories of being hateful towards LGBTQ people.”
Otamere would agree, and says “there's plenty of evidence to suggest that many countries, like my native Nigeria, had conceptions and expressions of gender and sexuality that might to our modern eyes be ostensibly queer.” It’s still important to recognise, though, that this is a complicated subject.
Some countries have never been acceptant of same-sex relations and many countries have only strengthened their anti-LGBT laws post-independence. There runs the risk, says Otamere, of “anachronistically fetishising the idea of these pre-colonial societies as these sorts of queer utopias.
Rather, it’s important to realise, “how much was lost, and how incomprehensible it is to us now. A whole world, whole ways of being, whole paradigms, stolen, erased, lost irrevocably to us forever.”
Some accounts of historic acceptance are still available to us though. Hijra, a term which refers to transgender and intersex people in South Asia, were largely accepted and revered by society pre-colonisation. They are mentioned in ancient texts (e.g. the Kama Sutra), have a 4000 year-old history and were considered to have religious authority. As stated by the BBC, the British, however, saw them as “ungovernable” and made efforts to erase and target them with laws -- it was only in 2014 that India overturned these laws and recognised them as a third gender.
Sheba Akpokli, an LGBTQ+ rights activist from Togo, explained in a Euronews podcast that Togo also has historical words referring to the third gender, like nousugnon o nononusun. Sheba explains they were once esteemed parts of Togolese society -- in 2021, however, homosexuality is illegal in Togo.
Some African countries had less binary gender norms before colonisation and the spread of Christian fundamentalism -- both are seen to have caused a loss in cultural attitudes toward gender and sexual identity.
Overall, there are many accounts that suggest same-sex relations were “tolerated among many ethnic groups” across the continent prior to colonisation.