The Literature Review
After getting organized and re-finalizing my research question, objectives, and methodologies, I started working on and drafted my literature review! To be honest, the literature review for this project was a bit daunting for me. There is so much information, which is amazing, especially since queer African studies (from a socio-cultural approach) is a relatively recent and continuously evolving field. But with so much information, it's hard to select what's important for a literature review. The sources range across various years and disciplines and provide their own type of insight into the topic. Choosing sources that frame my overall research question and inform my methodologies and research process is of the utmost importance. In addition, having a decent understanding of the history and evolution of queer African studies is important to me so I can understand where my research will fit into the field overall.
After talking with Dr. Brown, the goals of my literature review are to provide an 'intellectual map' of the field, pull out the primary arguments of the selected sources and synthesize how they relate to my work, and identify what ideas have informed my thoughts on the project. Various sources provided a brief history of queer studies in Africa. Starting from the late 19th century, research on and accounts of pre-colonial African genders and sexualities came with both implicit and stated colonial and imperialist biases that viewed African sexualities as barbaric, deviant, and backward. These accounts came from colonizers, both colonial powers and private companies, who sought to "civilize" African peoples. In the early 20th century, Western anthropologists continued to eroticize and misrepresent African genders and sexualities. Therefore, while these accounts serve as some of the only written documentation of pre-colonial African conceptions of gender and sexuality, they have to be taken with a grain of salt (Tamale 2011). Despite a dearth of written sources, accounts of these pre-colonial ideologies exist in traditional songs, jewelry, clothing, names, meanings, systems, and folklore, as well as through storytellers and orators across the continent (Tamale 2011).
Knowledge of same-sex sexualities, acts, and/or relationships in Africa increased in response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This research was mainly biomedical (Sandfort and Reddy 2013). In many ways, this work continued the colonial and imperialist trend of aiming to change behaviors that were seen as backward and dangerous without keeping any socio-cultural considerations in mind (Tamale 2011). Homophobic counterforces mobilized in response to an increased understanding of same-sex sexualities (Sandfordt and Reddy 2013). Despite these counterforces, the field of queer African studies continues to grow as an interdisciplinary field. Various organizations (like the African Gender Institute at the University of Cape Town, the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, and BAOBAB, a Nigerian women's rights association) continue to center queer and feminist studies within African social, cultural, and political contexts.
One issue I came across is that many of these sources focus on sexuality rather than gender. While the two are intrinsically intertwined, I want my work to focus on gender identities and expressions in particular. I will have to learn to apply information on sexuality to that of gender. A few sources also pointed to the fact that, unlike most Western terminologies regarding gender and sexuality, in some African contexts, terminologies refer to 'gendered sexualities' and 'sexualized genders' (Tamale 2011). This points to the fact that the language I use will be extremely important. Using local terminology when and where I can ensures that I am staying as true to the realities of gender identities and expressions as I can. It will also be vital to clearly define terms like "queer," "gender expression," "queerphobia," and "gender non-conforming," in the context of my paper and in African queer studies. Tamale (2011) points out that throwing out Western queer studies is not particularly useful when doing queer studies outside of Western cultures, but it is important to reconceptualize and alter theories, ideologies, and terminologies to make sure they adequately reflect specific cultural practices and identities.
Writing the literature review also really helped me figure out the structure of my paper and the types of questions that I'll be asking. Learning to be okay with not answering them is a new challenge for me! I have a bad habit of wanting to read every single thing to make sure that I don't miss any information. In nine weeks, that's just not realistic. I have ten books that I'm using for my research that total over 2,500 pages. Learning to be okay with not writing the most comprehensive paper on the topic ever and accepting the limitations of time and resources is important not only for my future graduate school or work endeavors but also for my mental health! I am still learning how to conduct research and this is a new field for me. It's totally fine if I leave with more questions than answers or plan on returning to the subject later!
One last thing I'm grappling with after writing my literature review is deciding what lens(es) I want to approach this paper with overall. I am most familiar with U.S. Black (lesbian) feminism, but I have to question whether that is the most useful lens to approach queer African studies/identities from. Sylvia Tamale notes that feminist lenses are, in her opinion, ideal for African queer studies, and I have to agree. It's a matter of what feminist framework to use. I have far less experience with African feminisms, but this project could be a great way to introduce myself to it. After all, one of my primary goals for this project is to grow as a queer studies and feminist studies student, and wide exposure to different frames of thought is an excellent way to do that. A few sources I have read have pointed out that while African feminisms are tackling queer issues, the project of integrating queer studies into African feminisms is a work in progress. Right now, I'm tasking myself with broadening my knowledge of queer studies and African feminisms to figure out if a combination of these lenses will allow for a strong analysis throughout my paper.
Overall, I feel like I'm off to a good start! I'm learning more about myself and what works for me in terms of structuring my time. I've also already learned so many new things about Africana studies in general! I'm excited to continue the research process with a better understanding and framing of what I want this project to be and what I want to produce from it. Thanks for staying on the journey with me!
- Jenia :)
Sandfort, Theo G.M., and Vasu Reddy. 2013. “African Same-Sex Sexualities and Gender-Diversity: An Introduction.” Culture, Health & Sexuality 15 (Sup1): 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/13691058.2013.797218.
Tamale, Sylvia. 2011. “Researching and Theorising Sexualities in Africa.” In African Sexualities: A Reader, edited by Sylvia Tamale, 11–36. Oxford, UK: Pambazuka Press.