History of a blind spot

Queen’s professor Marc Epprecht wins award for work studying gender and sexuality in Africa and promoting local scholarship

Epprecht’s latest book examines the largely ignored issue of homosexuality and the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
Epprecht’s latest book examines the largely ignored issue of homosexuality and the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

When I first contact Marc Epprecht for an interview, he defers for a week. “I’m in Tanzania at the moment,” he said in an email to the Journal.

Epprecht, a professor with Queen’s development studies and history departments, was granted the Desmond Tutu Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Study of Sexuality in Africa in October of this year.

The award recognizes Epprecht for achievements in the area of African studies—specifically his approach to studying issues of African gender and sexuality.

The award was presented by the International Resources Network-Africa (IRN-Africa), an arm of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York. CLAGS was founded in 1991 and was the first university-based research centre in the United States dedicated to the study of historical, cultural and political issues concerning the LGBT community.

IRN-Africa also aims to establish comparative and collaborative projects among researchers and widen the availability of resources to academic and activist researchers in Africa.

“There are countries which have very hostile attitudes, not just towards gay rights but to doing the research,” Epprecht said. “There’s a bill up in Uganda right now that’s just mind-bogglingly oppressive, which would essentially require parents to report their children if they suspect the child to be homosexual. African scholars are labouring under harsh circumstances.”

IRN has centres located all over the world that attempt to connect people are doing similar research and encourage local research efforts.

“It’s a structural problem. Most of the scholarship is coming from outside of Africa because there is more access to libraries, the ability to travel, hire research assistants, and publish,” Epprecht said. “In Africa—not always, but often—there are huge problems getting access to up-to-date secondary materials. The idea of the network is to help each other overcome these obstacles.” IRN-Africa has focused on getting the work of African scholars more widely published and distributed. Epprecht said limited distribution in Africa is a problem and it’s unfortunate that African scholars’ success depends on publication in the Western world.

“They’re doing really great work but they can’t get published. To have a scholarly publication on their C.V.s can help scholars be more respected professionally. It sounds a bit colonial that they have to publish in the West in order to get credibility in Africa. Unfortunately that’s the way things are right now.”

Epprecht, who travels to Africa roughly once a year, first became interested in the study of African sexuality while spending three years living in Zimbabwe following his master’s degree.

“I had studied imperialism more generally speaking during my MA,” he said. “Then a chance came up to work in Zimbabwe, which at that time had just got its independence. It was an exciting place to go. I had a wonderful time, not doing research but teaching, and it made me want to follow up, to make a career out of academic work in Africa.”

A PhD from Dalhousie University in 1992 brought Epprecht back to Africa, studying gender in Lesotho. There, he became interested in the study of African sexuality.

“At that time I had a young family and I was learning about patriarchy,” he said. “I was getting politically conscious about my own socialization as a man in a patriarchal society, so that project in Lesotho was looking at women and gender in that context. Sexuality didn’t come into it per se, but it was on the sidelines, and I did learn that the colonial state had been very interested in controlling and shaping the gender roles of African men and women.”

A later trip to Zimbabwe solidified Epprecht’s interest in sexuality in Africa.

“I had arrived exactly when President [Robert] Mugabe had started making a whole bunch of speeches denouncing gays and lesbians. That kind of homophobia is not unheard of in North America either, but what was unusual was that he kept at it, and he linked homosexuality to Western colonialism. That seemed kind of strange, so I wanted to look at that and see if there was any truth to that,” he said. “I just kept going. The more I explored, the more questions got raised.”

Epprecht, who is white, said his race hasn’t been an issue in the course of his research.

“It comes up when I present the research in certain venues. I must say it’s never happened in Africa. In North America, people seem to be more sensitive,” he said. “In the course of my research I’ve found that if you ask respectfully, people will talk to you.

“I understand very well the optics are bad, having a white man come in and write about this, and it’s totally in my interest to develop the next generation of African scholars who are doing work in this field.”

Epprecht said studying Africa from Canada isn’t always a disadvantage.

“It depends on the nature of the project. My latest book is historiographic, and I couldn’t have done it if I was in Africa,” he said. “There are some really obscure publications and I had to be able to get my hands on them. For some other projects, I have to be in Africa, looking at archives and talking to people. The next IRN-Africa project I’ll just be editing, and the actual research will be done by African scholars.

“Sitting here at this desk you can feel pretty far away. It’s important to me to get back to Africa as much as I can,” he said, adding that he hopes to spend a half-year sabbatical in Africa in the near future.

Epprecht’s three most recent books are closely related to each other—“Like The Lord of the Rings,” he joked.

Hungochani: The History Of A Dissident Sexuality In Southern Africa is an academic text based on Epprecht’s research in Zimbabwe. Hungochani begins with precolonial societies’ attitudes toward non-normative sexuality, and tracks changes in sexual practices as colonialism, capitalism and Christianity spread; the book reconstructs the emergence of a modern gay identity and documents gay rights struggles in the region from the 1980s onwards. In 2006, it won the Canadian Association of African Studies Joey Gregory Prize.

“It basically asks whether homosexuality existed in Africa before white people came—were there traditions to explain such behaviour in a society that puts such a heavy emphasis on heterosexual reproduction? How, and why, did that change over time. And why is a certain stereotype of homosexuality so threatening to so many African leaders today?”

His second book, Unspoken Facts: A History of Homosexualities in Africa, deals with similar issues, but is not an academic text. Written in collaboration with gays and lesbians living in Zimbabwe, its intended audience is those to whom these issues matter most—people living in the country, human rights workers and sexuality activists.

Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AIDS is a historical examination of writing about African sexuality.

“The possibility of same-sex sexuality is largely written out,” Epprecht said. “Ethnographers, psychiatrists, professional academics—overwhelmingly European or American men up until the 70s or 80s—were producing this myth about African heterosexuality as a primordial essence, and in the process vigourously ignoring all the evidence to the contrary that was there to be seen.”

Epprecht said the denial of an African homosexual community has had ramifications on AIDS work on the continent.

“I found myself getting frustrated. Not just my work, but all this other work is coming out about men who have sex with men as an issue with HIV/AIDS in Africa,” she said. “There’s a lot of information out there but it’s getting ignored. UN AIDS has nothing at all about homosexuality or anal sex or anything like that in their section on Africa. “For every other part of the world, [UN AIDS] talks about these things, but not Africa. There are textbooks written for doctors that don’t deal with homosexual intercourse at all. Why are they ignoring all these people? The new book is the history of this blind spot—this refusal to see what is there if you look for it.”

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