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Parallels in the Gender Minority/Sexual Minority Histories of Africa and Asia

This brief exploration of similarities between the sexual minority/gender minority cultures of Africa and Asia is not intended to promote the reinstitution of archaic practices such as slavery, sexual access to minors, and castration. These practices might have been acceptable in times past, but few would champion their morality today. We merely seek to highlight the similarities between different cultures, for better or for worse. Without a knowledge of our similarities, it is easy to assume the 'racial other' is culturally inferior in one way or another. For example, many East Asian gays do not question mainstream stereotypes of West Asian and African cultures, e.g. "There are no gay Muslims", or "Africans are primitive, and thus least likely to be gay." And the reverse is also true - some non-East Asians hold stereotypes of a sexist, patriarchal East Asian culture where polygyny is the norm and there is little place for lesbians and gay men.

Addressing these stereotypes in depth is not within the scope of this article. The few commonalities listed below are only intend to suggest that no culture has a monopoly on 'gayness', nor can any culture claim to be on a 'higher ground' when it comes to 'sexual morality'.

Lesbians as "grinders"

A Swahili term for 'lesbian' is 'msagaji' - a 'grinder'.1 Coincidentally, a Chinese term for 'lesbian' is 'tofu grinder'.

Emperors and Eunuchs

The Abbasid Caliph Muhammed al-Amin (r 809-813) was well known for his fondness for the court eunuchs, especially a certain Kawthar, so much so that contemporary writings called him "a husband for the eunuchs".2

Emperor-eunuch affairs were also very well-documented in Chinese history. According to Qing era accounts, Emperor Wu of the preceding Ming Dynasty did not visit his wives more than 4 or 5 days a month. The rest of the time he spent with youthful court eunuchs. Emperor Wu was said to have used the eunuch Qian Ning as a "pillow". When the court officials could not find the emperor, they would try locating Qian Ning, for the chances were the Emperor would be with him. Emperor Wu's successor Wanli was also a lover of eunuchs. He was famous for favoring the '10 Handsome Ones' – ten exceptional good-looking young eunuchs.3

Typically, the only time a ruler's sexual activities make it into the history books is when these affairs interfered with his public duties. The favorites of rulers, whether same-sex or opposite sex, are seldom portrayed in a good light – typically going down in history as political opportunists, or at best people with no special talents except pleasing the head-of-state. Negative portrayals of eunuch/emperor or king/page boy affairs do not necessarily indicate that the general culture is homophobic. It would be interesting to compare them against historians' treatment of female favorites. In the case of Chinese history, both male and female favorites of the emperors are portrayed negatively.

Age-set military homosexuality

The Azande, an ethnic group occupying southwestern Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the northeastern Congo, practised institutionalized bonding between a warrior and a younger warrior apprentice. "Many of the young warriors married boys... When a warrior married a boy he paid spears [bride price]... to the boy's parents... addressed the parents as ... 'my father-in-law' and 'my mother-in-law'. The boy fetched water for his husband... bore his shield when travelling... The two slept together at night, the husband satisfying his desires between the boy's thighs. When the boy grew up he joined the company and took a boy-wife in his turn."4

A similar pattern of institutionalized military homosexuality occurred in the Japanese samurai class. A teenager bonds formally with an older samurai, who becomes the 'active' partner in their sexual relationship. As in the Zande model, the relationship ends when the younger man 'comes of age' (sometime between 18-23 years of age), after which the young man can start a new relationship with a younger samurai boy.5

The hwarang, an elite military corp of ancient and medieval Korea, were also said to have practiced homoeroticism among its members.6Hwarang (flower youths) were young men of noble lineage, and excellence in the martial arts was a key aspect of their training. Another distinguishing feature of the hwarang was their good looks and their attention to their appearance.7 Another all-male warrior organization which sanctioned homosexuality among its members was the late 19th century/early 20th century cross-ethnic South African rebel group led by a Zulu named Mathebula. Mathebula ordered his troops to abstain from physical contact with women.Instead, the older men of marriageable status in the regiment would keep younger initiates as boy wives. Mathebula claimed that this custom among warriors predates his organization: "Even when we were free on the hills south of Johannesburg some of us had women and others had young men for sexual purposes."8

Man-boy marriages

The Chinese of Fujian province also had a man-boy marriage tradition similar to the Azande. Unlike the Zande marriages, the Fujianese marriages were not linked to the military, but like a Zande husband, a Fujianese husband of a boy-wife also paid bride price and was treated like a son-in-law by the boy's parents. As in the Zande and Japanese traditions, Chinese man-boy unions ended when the boy reached manhood.9

The South African Thonga ethnic group practiced a man-boy marriage custom involving paying of bride-price to the boy's older brother and a wedding feast.10

Rulers and their page boys

The chiefs of the Mossi of Burkina Faso and the King of Buganda (in Uganda) were known to have had sexual relations with page boys.11 Similarly, Japanese shogun and daimyo sometimes used their pages as bed partners.12 Islamic literature records the love of Sultan Mahmud of Afghanistan's Ghaznavid dynasty for the slave boy Ayaz.13

Tranvestism and homosexuality among shamans

The Dagara ethnic group of Burkina Faso believe being differently-oriented and being spiritually gifted go together. Many of the Dagara individuals who served as spirit guardians between this world and the Otherworld could be identified as people who had desire for those of the same sex.14 In Angola, many MTF crossdressers who have sex with men were also said to be powerful wizards.15 The Ila ethnic group of Zambia called biological males who lived as women mwaami, meaning prophet.16

Peoples across Asia and the Pacific also have religious roles associated with gender-crossing and/or homosexuality. The mahu, shamans of Polynesia, are often MTF cross-dressers who engage in sex with non-mahu men.17 Shamans of the Chukchi ethnic group of Siberia take a cross-gender role and also participate in homosexual activity.18 . The Dyaks of Malaysia also have cross-dressing shamans who are treated as women.19

  1. Behind the Mask: homosexuality in Tanzania
  2. World History of Male Love: Abu Nawas Middle Eastern literature
  3. Male-male Eroticism from the Emperors to the Commoners
  4. Evans-Pritchard, 1971, pp. 199-200
  5. The World History of Male Love: Japan
  6. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Vol. 4, p. 579, under "South Korea"
  7. The International Encyclopedia of Sexuality, Vol. 4, p. 579, under "South Korea"
  8. Steven O. Murray and Will Roscoe, Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities, p. 177
  9. The Long History of Same-sex love (Thousand Dragons web)
    Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China, p. 132
  10. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Vol. 1, p. 24, under "Africa, Sub-Saharan"
  11. Homosexuality in "Traditional" Sub-Saharan African and Contemporary South Africa
    Charles Lwanga and Companions - Catholic Way
  12. Gary Leupp, Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan, pp. 52-55
  13. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Vol. 1, p. 18, under "Afghanistan"
  14. Murray and Roscoe, pp. 92-93
  15. Murray and Roscoe, p. 147
  16. Murray and Roscoe, p. 176
  17. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Vol. II, p. 938, under "Pacific Cultures"
  18. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, Vol. II, p. 939, under "Pacific Cultures"