Some History of Homosexuality in Benin

One of the most respected authorities on human sexuality is Prof. Stephen O. Murray, a gay sociologist, anthropologist, and independent scholar. In 2005 he wrote an overview titled ‘Homosexuality in ‘Traditional’ Sub-Saharan Africa and Contemporary South Africa’ that included historic perspectives on which the following comments are based.

Needless to say, as everywhere in Africa, sexual varieties and behaviors have characterized tribal territories for centuries. In the late 1800s the British explorer Sir Richard F. Burton noted that “it is difficult to obtain information in Dahome (now Benin) concerning eunuchs, who are special slaves of the kind, and bear the dignified title of royal wives”.

In the 1930s American anthropologist Melville Herskovits reported the view of the predominant Fon tribe in Benin that homosexuality was an adolescent phase: “[When] the games between (prepubescent) boys and girls are stopped, the boys no longer have the opportunity for companionship with the girls, and the sex drive finds satisfaction in close friendship between boys in the same group…. A boy may take the other ‘as a woman’ this being called ‘gaglgo’, homosexuality. Sometimes an affair of this sort persists during the entire life of the pair.

Herskovits also noted, “homosexuality is found among women as well as men; by some it is claimed that it exists among women to a greater extent”. Suspicion of what women are up to among themselves and a strong need for the shelter from male competition/hostility/suspicion in an emotionally-intense best friend relationship are especially strong in West Africa.”

Prof .Murray is the co-author, with Will Roscoe  (American scholar, activist and author), of the seminal volume Boy Wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities’.

Modern Pink Life in Benin

The following (undated) essay was submitted by Jimmy Leon,  an educator activist for Amnesty International USA and the Coordinator for African-Rapport

The Pink Shadows of Benin
Benin is a beautiful country situated in the green and coastal sector of West Africa, with very long sandy beaches with coconut palms, Beyond its lagoons of Porto Novo, Nokoue and the others, the Mountains of Atakora begins gradually to rise.

But behind this very friendly country where the inflation rate goes up to 15% and the population up to 6.5 million, we find a very hostile society towards what is not normal–what is out of place.  Although homosexuality in Benin is technically legal, homosexuals are seen as unnatural beings and therefore hostility towards them is no more than a ‘natural’ reaction. The taboos surrounding this issue and the barriers put up to stop knowing about it are everyday present.

Such feelings are omitted by a gay Benin native named ‘Kali’ (not his real name), whose strongest desire is to be free, quite free and without fear of getting punished by local authorities or simply by the society where he lives; the society with its prejudices, its religious moral values, that in many cases are hypocritical and selfish. Kali discovered his homosexuality by himself. He knew that he didn’t feel attracted towards the opposite sex.

“Once, I met a young guy in a sex video center, we saw a porno film together and he introduced me to his gay friends. It was amazing and at the same time interesting to be able to see and to enter the world which I knew by myself long before,” said Kali.

Until now, Kali has kept his homosexuality secret and no members of his family or friends know about the pink side of this witty young African man. As he stated himself, the suffering from such a sacrifice leads him to a state of depression and with an uncomfortable feeling in himself, his body, his sexuality, and his sexual relationships.

A friend of his, as he sadly testified, was evicted from his parent’s home when they discovered the gay side of their beloved son. Many times these evictions are brought about by fear and prejudices brought by the injustice of colonialism and the wrong moral values of an unjust system that criminalized normal homosexual behavior and ridiculed their dignity.

Sodomy laws are many times enforced against the homosexual communities in the name of the African culture even though knowing very well that these laws were imported by the colonial power of past days–and that homosexuality was not imported. The laws punish and condemn our people only because of our sexual orientation, making us criminals and destroying our little hope of being at least the person that God created.

There is not much physical violence in Benin, but a psychological violence. Gays are often assaulted verbally, making them feel guilty for their sexuality. Verbal sexual abuse is profoundly shameful, a form of degradation and in many ways the leading way to suicide of gay people worldwide…

In Benin,  gay meeting places are at the beach, where they can be themselves. In the capital there is also a cruising café shop, where they meet. Some of the gays here are very loud and feminine, making them a big target for discrimination. Some gays in Benin travel to Ghana, where the selection of gay places are more widely offered.


Is Homosexuality Legal or Illegal In Benin?

There are conflicting reports on the internet as to the legal status of homosexuality. Traditionally it has been illegal butt more recently (since 2010?) there appears to have been a change to decriminalize such behavior. The following comments were posted by a gay American Peace Corp volunteer, Marcus, that  appear to be the latest word on this issue:

I am a currently serving US Peace Corps Volunteer. An acquaintance at the US Embassy in Benin seems to believe the law against homosexuality has been repealed as is evidenced by Benin’s approval of his and his husband’s visas to serve at the US Embassy here as diplomats; their visas were denied by the Cameroonian government when they applied as a married couple to work at the US embassy there.

Additionally, an American lesbian diplomat couple’s visas were recently approved by the Beninese government and the women will be arriving in the coming weeks. This is progress and indicative of a change in an official change in stance on homosexuality on the part of Benin (and the US State Dept. who fought for these two couples).

Regardless of what is codified, homosexuality here is very unacceptable. The respect for the rule of law in Benin is weak (and weaker the more rural you endeavor) and people cling to traditional customs and often fear strong changes like an acceptance of homosexuality, even though such changes are towards a recognition of basic human rights.

Just as in most African countries, Beninese find homosexuality to be a Western phenomenon that might be infiltrating the country but is nonetheless un-African, un-Beninese. However, most Beninese are extremely undereducated and do not know what critical thinking is–let alone how to implement it in their daily lives. Thus, there is hope for homosexuality in Benin, but not until the institution of secular education is strengthened and made free and made as mandatory as for children in the West.

I might add that here in Africa in general but Benin in particular (and Zambia, as my experience there allows me to comment) some men will engage in same sex acts but will not define their acts or themselves as homosexuals. I have even heard of some men who consider only anal penetration as characteristic of homosexuality, but actions less ‘invasive’ are not.

Furthermore, Westerners like to attach labels to what they observe. An American who just stepped off the Brussels Air flight will look around and might think he sees a bunch of queers. Men here hold hands as a sign of friendship and also will be quick to call another man beautiful/handsome. The continuum on which an American perceives a person’s actions as purely heterosexual, something between, or blatantly homosexual will be different from that of a Beninese continuum with respect to the bisexual area in between the two extremes (hetero-normative behavior and overtly homosexual activity).

Regardless of being able to hold hands with another man or hold his waist in Benin, for us foreigners to openly express we are a gay couple would put our personal safety at risk; violent reprisal is a real danger. Benin is in high need of strong willed, well educated, tactful citizens to form an organization, without Western leadership, that will conduct outreach to raise awareness about the existence of homosexuals.

Is There Gay Life in Benin?
The author of this article is a former Peace Corps gay American who tells about his experience and observations in Benin.
May 15, 2006
By a Returned Volunteer

Arriving in Africa, I was certain that I would be signing a two year vow of celibacy and a contract for a non-gay existence. I knew that this would be difficult. Although I am not the type of guy who only shops in gay markets and eats in gay restaurants, I do enjoy hanging out with other like minded guys and dabbling in the gay social scene.

After a few months of ‘stage’ in Benin, my role as a PCV changed drastically, as my villageois lifestyle as a TEFL volunteer melted away, and I took on an HIV/AIDS prevention project for Beninese youth with a large American NGO in Cotonou, the largest city in Benin. With a population of 700,000 people, a large expatriate community, a smattering of foreign restaurants, and a host of activities to keep me busy, I knew that my Peace Corps experience would be very different from that of my fellow PCVs. I also knew that this was my chance, if any, to glimpse a trace of the homosexual community in Benin. I was, after all, the only out gay volunteer, so I had to look elsewhere for my gay brethren.

Keeping in mind that homosexuality is illegal in Benin and that any involvement with such issues could endanger my place as a volunteer, I set out to find a sign of its existence. Over the course of my first six months at post, I deftly posed non incriminating questions to my colleagues and to the people I met… ‘What is the urban view of homosexuality?’ ‘How does it differ from that of the village view?’ ‘Does HIV/AIDS prevention material address homosexuality?’ ‘What’s the word for homosexuality in Fon?’ ‘Do you know any homosexuals?’

The majority of responses were rather vapid and noncommittal, quick shrugs. For them, homosexuality was such a non-entity in Benin—something that exists in Europe and America but had not ‘infected’ Africa. Some responses indicated beliefs that homosexuality was a gene only found in white people.

Although men walk hand in hand down the street, this act was entirely nonsexual; locals were quick to identify this as completely normal, entirely replete of any homosexual undertones. I was not quite so sure. Sometimes I felt that the inquisitive looks that I received while walking down the street from Beninese men were more than a slight curiosity—the particular ‘I know about you’ gleam was in their eye, albeit fleeting and inconclusive.

Still, I kept on my path of discovery. Even though I had no hard proof and everyone seemed to deny the existence of homosexuality—no one spoke against it either. I continued to lie about my so-called ‘girlfriend’ in France—never mind the fact that she was a he; it helped to explain why I was not married or even interested in the plethora of available women. I kept telling myself that there must be a gay community in Cotonou—convincing myself that any city of relative size was sure to have an active homosexual presence, no matter how hidden.

At the same time, I must admit, I was beginning to lose faith in finding any evidence, and I began to resolve myself to the belief that whatever community there was would continue to evade me. Then, when I least expected it, I found it. Or rather, I found a trace of it, with promises that there were more. While at a housewarming party for a fellow American, I met a Beninese guy and his, ‘shhh’ boyfriend. I was elated. Finally, a glimpse.

Unfortunately, that was all that was to be provided to me. I learned that their secret was so hidden, that not even their closest friends knew. They both maintained a separate public life and only indulged in the presence of each other behind closed and locked doors. How sad…my initial reaction made me feel pity for their situation.

But in this society where such behavior is not ‘common’ and is unacceptable and worthy of imprisonment or even death (not legal death, but traditional villageois ‘death by burning’), at least their highly secretive life affords them some amount of existence as the gay men they are. They can be with each other in private and lie to others in public.  I have heard that other couples exist and even socialize together throughout the city and country. So much for Africans being immune to the gay gene.

To this day, not two months after this initial contact, I have yet to have any gay friends. I did learned that one expatriate was put in jail and had to flee the country due to rumors that he practiced homosexual sex; I will have to remain careful, especially in light of recent arrests of gays in Cameroon. I will continue to wait, and I will continue to observe. I have learned that life in Benin is full of mystery and surprises…so I shall remain patient and see what materializes. So much in life happens when you least expect it, and often the answer is closer than we think. Who knows, maybe my neighbors are gay?

Further comments: A Fight Yet to be Won