Ezra Chitando – « Masculinities, religion, and sexualities »

(a) Religions, masculinities, and straight sexualities

Across cultures, religions have tended to promote masculinities that prioritize straight sexualities. Hegemonic masculinities in most societies are buttressed by religious myths that present the able-bodied, straight man as a ‘real man’. In this scheme, all other sexualities, particularly homosexuality, become inferior and are ranked below straight sexualities. Sacred texts, inherited beliefs, and traditions are all marshalled to promote and protect straight sexualities. Regrettably, this often generates homophobia.[12]

Religious ideologies serve to prop up straight sexualities and to police all other sexualities. Thus, there is a complex and dynamic play amongst the concepts of religion, masculinities and sexualities. Religions frame masculinities, which in turn find expression and affirmation in sexualities. Sexualities are crucial, therefore, to the imagination and expression of masculinities. The notion of a ‘real man’ is bound up with assumptions about his (supposed) straight sexuality. In the religious (and patriarchal) ideology, anything else is a contradiction in terms. It is not surprising that straight sexualities are prioritized and projected as having been granted the ‘divine seal of approval’ across many religions and cultures.

To be fair, religions also seek to control straight sexualities and to promote ‘responsible masculinities’. Thus, we find an emphasis on self-control, faithfulness in relationships and nurturing loving, monogamous (or, in the case of Islam, the option of closed polygamous) marriages in religious teachings on straight sexuality. In addition, in the context of Africa (but also elsewhere), straight sexualities are associated with the capacity to reproduce.

Although there are other factors that are integral to constituting masculinities, sexuality is a key component. Thus:

‘Sex is only one of several thematic factors that resource the dominant masculinity narrative, but it is without doubt a significant one. Nearly everywhere in the world manliness is closely associated with our sexual partner(s), the sexual appeal of our partner(s), the size of our penises, the claims we make about our sexual stamina, whether we can maintain a healthy erection and how virile we are.’[13]

Straight masculinities and sexualities have, however, come under severe stress in the contemporary period. The ‘sacred canopy’ under which they have historically thrived has been challenged. Further, the idea that straight masculinities grant straight men the right to dominate women, children, and other men has been rendered problematic due to contestations within straight masculinities themselves. The assumed homogeneity of straight masculinities has been exposed by the fault lines that follow the cleavages of race, age, class, region, religion, and others. In Africa, as elsewhere, rapid social change has brought with it the ‘burden of masculinity’, and straight sexualities are buckling under its strain. The contradictions of straight sexualities, particularly the challenge of living up to the ideals of sexual prowess while at the same time being restrained by ideals of self-control and – in some religions – abstinence, have become all too clear. Thus, straight sexualities promoted by the three main religions of Africa have fundamental flaws and need to adopt a more realistic perspective.

(b) Religions, masculinities, and gay sexualities

Religions have generally not brought good news to non-normative masculinities and sexualities in Africa, and globally. Whereas there has been some progress in acknowledging and embracing gay sexualities in different parts of the world, it remains clear, as discussed above, that straight sexualities have found much greater acceptance in comparison to all other sexualities. Consequently, gay sexualities continue to struggle for a place in the sun, as religious and cultural ideologies have formed powerful covenants to oppress them. Religions have often cast non-normative masculinities and sexualities as innately sinful and unacceptable. In the context of Africa, some politicians have used attacks on gay sexualities as a ploy to gain mileage with religious communities. They have sought to appeal to followers of African Traditional Religions, Christianity, and Islam by demonizing gay sexualities. Instead of investing in tackling the pressing problems of (and with) their citizens, they have spent time attacking gay sexualities. This diversion has the effect of projecting such politicians as God-fearing, thereby attracting support from adherents of the different religions who happen to espouse mainly conservative theologies.

Gay sexualities have been constructed as occupying a rung lower than straight sexualities. The same religio-cultural ideology portrays gay sexualities as effeminate and as betraying ‘real masculinity’. In this scheme, gay masculinity is policed and threatened for not defending masculine honor (which is associated with straight sexuality). Conservative versions of different religions attack gay sexualities for allegedly frustrating the divine plan of clearly defined genders and the complementary relationships between distinct male and female beings. In addition, since gay sexuality is not associated with procreation directly, it is subject to constant attacks by conservative religious actors.

Religious opposition to gay sexuality also stems from the imagined ideal of a compact and stable nuclear family.

This ideal has gained ground in post-colonial African contexts and has begun to undercut the cherished notion of the extended family. In fact, some versions of African Pentecostalism associate the extended family with the cult of the ancestors and discourage fraternizing with relatives in the larger community. Thus, part of the contestation over gay sexuality and the discourse over ‘family values’ is based in the idea that there (must) subsist everywhere and at all times families made up of a man and a woman, children and pets living happily ever after. The argument is that gay sexuality threatens this tantalizing ideal by setting up the idea or possibility of a different family. This is notwithstanding the fact that although the nuclear family is much cherished, throughout history and in the contemporary period, other types of families have always existed. There will almost always be more non-nuclear families than nuclear families in any society at any given point in time.

Gay sexuality has been negotiating with, resisting and even dismissing religious traditions as it strives for acceptance in society. In those places where religions have a much greater presence and say in public life, such as in Africa, gay sexuality continues to experience greater levels of discomfort. However, there has been notable progress, with some religious leaders openly expressing the view that their religions are not intrinsically homophobic. Further, some scholars have highlighted how some religions have either not criticized, or have embraced, homosexuality.[14] Utilizing liberative dimensions within the different religions, the LGBTI movement and its allies are making some commendable progress in Africa and other parts of the world. The progress can be seen in the extent to which sexual diversity has been forced onto the agenda, particularly in discourses on HIV and AIDS. Further, the scrapping of colonial pieces of legislation that prohibited same-sex sexual relations in a number of African countries highlights such progress. Such developments would have been unthinkable about a decade ago.

(c) Religions, masculinities, and celibate sexuality

Celibate sexuality occupies a complex place in the ranking of masculinities by religions. On the one hand, the celibate and childless man is celebrated for his ability to master the body and its demands, while on the other hand his masculinity can be questioned on exactly the same grounds. This is particularly the case in Christianity. Thus, celibate sexuality is often characterized by ambivalence in religious contexts. However, in Africa the concept has come under sustained attack due to the association between masculinity and virility. The African traditional understanding of masculinity has been that a man is supposed to invest in perpetuating the lineage particularly through male progeny, and thus celibacy is considered ‘un-manly’ and problematic.

Two additional issues need to be highlighted. First, the framing of celibacy as a reflection of masculine discipline and conquest of the flesh emerges from Christian theologies that find the body problematic, as already mentioned above. Thus, celibacy is taken to represent the ultimate masculine achievement, namely, gaining complete control of the body’s desire for sex (although sexuality transcends sex). Second, there is a danger that celibacy can play the same role as machismo, that is, detesting femininity in all its forms and promoting either masculine distance from or conquest of femininity. However, the practice or ideal of celibacy is limited to versions of Christianity and is not actively promoted in African Traditional Religions and Islam.

[12] Elijah G. Ward, ‘Homophobia, Hypermasculinity and the US Black Church’, Culture, Health, and Sexuality, 7.5 (2005), 493–504.

[13] Kopano Ratele, ‘Male Sexualities and Masculinities’, in Sylvia Tamale (ed.), African Sexualities: A Reader, Cape Town: Pambazuka Press, 2011, p. 399.

[14] See for example, Ronald Long, Men, Homosexuality, and the Gods: An Exploration into the Religious Significance of Male Homosexuality in World Perspective, New York: Routledge, 2004.