Researching LGBT+ Families and Relationships in Africa

by Dr Matthew Waites


Dr Matthew Waites is an Associate Director of CRFR and is a Reader in Sociology, in the Sociology subject group within the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

He is co-editor, with Corinne Lennox, of Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Commonwealth: Struggles for Decriminalisation and Change, published open access online as well as in print (School of Advanced Study, 2013). Recent journal articles during 2019 have been published in International Review of Sociology and International Sociology, addressing both the historical sociology of colonialisms in Africa in relation to queer analysis, and critical interpretation of contemporary transnational LGBTI activism including human rights claiming.

In this blog, Matthew reflects on his work on a project seeking to change attitudes towards LGBT+ people in Africa.


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Strong in Diversity Bold on Inclusion team

About Strong in Diversity Bold in Inclusion

I have been working during 2019 as part of a new consortium project, focused on supporting LGBT+ people in five African cities within Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia and Mozambique (‘LGBT+’ meaning lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and others with experiences outside heterosexual norms of gender and sexuality). The project – Strong in Diversity, Bold on Inclusion is led by the development organisation HIVOS, with partner organisations including Coalition of African Leslbians (CAL) and African Men for Sexual Health and Rights (AMSHER), leading African transnational activist networks for LGBT+ people. The image above shows the Strong in Diversity Bold on Inclusion team, taken in Maputo, Mozambique, on 7 September 2019.

Our aim is to increase social inclusion and promote sustainable development goals (SDGs). As a project addressing the situation of LGBT+ people, it is clearly concerned in general terms with relationships and families alongside other issues; the theory of change being used is focused on changing the attitudes and practices of societal leaders towards LGBT+ people. These concerns speak to the concerns of CRFR, and our international conference in 2020, ‘Intersectionality, Families and Relationships‘.

Strong in Diversity, Bold on Inclusion is funded by the UK government’s Department for International Development (DFID), as part of the wider UK Aid Connect programme – which implies a structural position in North/South power relations that has to be carefully negotiated. Further NGO partners are Kaleidoscope TrustSynergíaArticle 19 and Workplace Pride, with varying levels of experience of working in the Global South. The research is based at School of Advanced Study in the University of London (led by Dr Corinne Lennox), in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights in South Africa (led by Professor Frans Viljoen). A positive feature of UK Aid Connect is that it has allowed an initial ‘co-creation’ phase for international consortia to work together designing planned activities. Phase 1 is nearly complete and we are awaiting news on the funding for Phase 2.

My main contribution to the work so far has been leading a literature review, co-authored with Dr Felicity Daly at School of Advanced Study. Within the review I led the reading and writing concerning the five national contexts (as distinct from international contexts): Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia and Mozambique, and their respective cities: Nairobi, Lagos, Dakar. Lusaka and Maputo. As well as using keywords to search for material in the International Bibliography of the Social Sciences, we also looked at relevant books, NGO publications and suggestions from our partner organisations for work happening outside academia.

Our work has led to some important insights on relationships and family life for people living outside heterosexual norms.

Lack of baseline data

The first main theme is the lack of baseline data from research in relation to LGBT+ people. In particular, very little relevant baseline data on such people has emerged from the African universities. In this context NGOs of various kinds, especially LGBT+ NGOs, have been crucial in conducting research to establish data in specific national contexts. For example, in Nigeria The Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERS) commissioned a Social Perception Survey on Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Transgender Persons Rights in Nigeria in order to establish attitudinal data. This has shown that while following the passage of the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act in 2014, in 2017 83% of Nigerians said they would not accept an LGBT person as a family member. By 2019 attitudes improved significantly, with the same figure reduced to 60%. A central task for our planned project is to collect and analyse new data on various dimensions of inclusion such as health, education, and employment, for which we plan to use both quantitative and qualitative methods.

HIV/AIDS research dominating the field

A second main theme is the way that HIV/AIDS research has profoundly dominated the field of academic knowledge-production in relation to LGBT+ people in Africa. Particularly within major cities there are substantial studies concerning HIV/AIDS in relation to both sexual practices (risks of infection) and treatment of gay and bisexual men and other men who have sex with men (‘MSM’). For example, in Senegal a significant body of research was taking place early in the emergence of the disease. However, this often focuses on contextually distinctive patterns, such as the high proportion of MSM who also are married and have sex with women (eg. Lamarange et al, 2009).). A major problem is the way that the focus on MSM leaves other groups out of the research picture, especially lesbian, bisexual and queer (LBQ) women, and transgender men and women in certain ways. Only in the past decade do we find the first studies emerging that are focused specifically on LBQ women’s experiences, especially in major city contexts (eg. Zaidi et al 2016).

The challenge to gender binary thinking

Also emerging from our literature review was the challenge to gender binary thinking. This was posed by Oyeronke Oyewumi in their 1997 book The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, and subsequently taken up and popularised globally by Maria Lugones in the influential decolonial feminist essay ‘The Coloniality of Gender‘. Oyewumi’s argument focuses specifically on the Yoruba people who live in areas including western Nigeria; yet the issues raised pose wider questions about the effects of what Lugones calls the ‘gender dimorphism’ of European colonialisms, and its contemporary legacies. One possible way to address this might be to methodologically deploy the concept ‘double consciousness’ from sociological theorist W.E.B. Du Bois, to investigate and express experiences of duality and two-sided reality that are a legacy of colonialism, including where people speak both African and European languages in different contexts. This poses difficult questions in terms of how to operationalise an approach in research methods, including for the planned team of city-based African researchers.

The relationship between contemporary Christianity and other forms of religion

A fourth theme is the relationship between contemporary forms of Christian religion finding popularity – especially neo-Pentecostalism as a key source of homophobia – and the preceding and intertwined forms of African religion such as of the Yoruba. Literatures on religion suggest that earlier notions of spirits invading the body have found refractions in Pentecostal Christian discourses concerning movements of the Holy Spirit, and the devil (see Pearce 2012). Hence some of the vehemence of Pentecostal homophobia in Africa, as seen in Nigeria for example, cannot be explained by the newness and distinctiveness of this form of Christianity, but rather can be better explained with reference to ways in which it amplifies prior discursive formations of subjectivity, cultural structures of feeling and perhaps affects.

Moving forward

The themes are offered here to provide, at this stage, only an initial sense of some emergent issues, that are not intended to provide a representative overview. What is clear is that consideration of the limitations of existing research literature on LGBT+ experiences in Africa can highlight the need for further research. Crucially such research needs to be undertaken in ways that seek to change existing transnational power relations shaped by colonialisms.

The review implies questions about whether and how researchers in CRFR’s network could and should become involved in research in Africa. In my case, the invitation to become involved reflected recognition of my work with LGBT+ African researchers and activists such as Monica Tabengwa and Sexual Minorities Uganda, over the past decade (such as in co-authored chapters with Tabengwa and collaborative events with Sexual Minorities Uganda). In general research partnerships best emerge from ongoing collaborative engagement. But I also found that the review of literature starkly showed major gaps in research on LGBT+ people’s lives in Africa. Transnational collaborations suitably structured to counter power imbalances could make more of a supportive contribution, in a context where African LGBT+ people are often finding it difficult to achieve secure academic posts within African universities to research these issues – despite the efforts of exceptional centres like the Centre for Human Rights at University of Pretoria, to promote such changes. The socio-political situation for LGBT+ people in many parts of Africa is too serious for academics in the United Kingdom, and in Europe more widely, not to engage with willing African partners in transnational research collaborations – and in light of this seriousness, such collaborations need to take a variety of forms.


Lamarange et al, 2009 ‘Homosexuality and Bisexuality in Senegal: A Multiform Reality’, Population-E, 64 (4) pp.635-666

Pearce, T.O. 2012 ‘Reconstructing sexuality in the Shadow of Neoliberal Globalization: Investigating the Approaches of Charismatic Churches in Southwestern Nigeria’, Journal of Religion in Africa 42, pp. 345-36

Zaidi et al 2016 ‘Women who have sex with women in Kenya and their reproductive and sexual health’, LGBT Health 3 (2) pp.139-145