The early box office success, and swift criticism, of the Queen biopic movie Bohemian Rhapsody, is also attracting interest in Freddie Mercury’s African roots: The country of his birth, may not only have failed to embrace him, but most certainly would have persecuted him through its criminalization of homosexuality and bisexuality. Freddy mercury was born in the historic quarter of Stone Town on the island of Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off the coast of Tanzania. Last month, the government announced a regional taskforce to “hunt down” men and women suspected of being LGBT. Homosexuality is illegal in Tanzania but the law was rarely enforced until president John Magufuli’s stepped up his anti LGBT rhetoric. I have no doubt that had he been alive Freddy would be speaking out and and using every decibel of his voice to tone and wake:
Starring Rami Malek, Mercury’s sexuality is a key part of the on-screen character. Malek explores what he calls the “unsettled” Mercury, a man at odds with his religion and family. Yet, the film has been criticized for overlooking his childhood in Zanzibar, using it instead as a brief backdrop to the tense relationship between conservative parents and their rock star son.
Born Farrokh Bulsara, his father worked as a cashier at the island’s High Court and the family lived comfortably in a flat overlooking the ocean. Anglican nuns oversaw his early education at the Zanzibar Missionary School before his parents sent him to school in India at the age of eight. The Bulsaras were Parsi and devout Zoroastrians who attended a temple in Stone Town.
Mercury returned to Zanzibar in 1963, aged around 17, but his time was short-lived. The Bulsaras were among thousands of Indians who fled to Britain in 1964 during the Zanzibar Revolution. While the film may not explore these details of his early life, the Lesley-Ann Jones book Mercury: An intimate biography of Freddie Mercurydigs deep into his Zanzibari roots.
Mercury and Zanzibar’s relationship remains complex, even after his death. Along with the spice markets of Stone Town, local guides also offer a tour of Mercury’s Zanzibar. The tour takes fans from the Bulsara family home through Stone Town’s narrow streets where Mercury might have played, to the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where he would have been initiated, and ending with dinner at Mercury’s a restaurant named and decorated in his honor.
Yet, Mercury’s sexuality remains an uncomfortable topic in the conservative society, even as it brings business to locals cashing in on tourism and bootleg Queen albums and DVDs.
Last week, 10 men were arrested for suspicion of being gay, following a call by politicians to report gay people to the police. Hundreds more have gone into hiding, or fled to Kenya and other more liberal countries. If he were alive, Mercury would have been forced to flee again.
Somehow I have the feeling that if Freddy Mercury were alive today, he would be a voracious and vocal opponent of the old Colonial penal codes which continue to criminalize LGBTQ people even as the Colonizer masters have since decriminalized their own countries and redefined their stance on homosexuality, going so far as to legislate equality for LGBTQI people. Freddy Mercury also understood that the Sun City of Bophuthatswana, a South African homeland, albeit a concomitant of Apartheid and undemocratic South Africa, was the only place in South Africa where black and white people could mix together socially and sexually on equal terms, and so while other rock artists were chirping “aint gonna play Sun City,” Queen with Mercury at the helm performed there at a concert that I was able to attend with my South African black friends and colleagues- something I was unable to do with regard to any concert in South Africa at the time. Another aspect to Freddy’s life left out of the film.
I often wonder if the role of speaking against the criminalization of homosexuality is only up to those of us born on African soil, albeit that our birth was with thanks to our Colonizer roots. For myself, in addition to my birthplace on African soil, my refugee legacy is rooted in Eastern Europe’s antisemitic Pogroms, and it has dealt me a hand which I believe compels my activism against homophobia and transphobia on the continent. I can see so clearly the irony in Africans declaring homosexuality un-African, as if to fall for the perception that they are truly living a post-Colonialism existence, where a current form of Colonialism is being further imposed by missionary Evangelicals: Lest africans forget their pre-Colonial reality that in many societies homosexuality was just no biggie:
Evaristo Article, “The idea that African homosexuality was a colonial import is a myth” notes:
Africa has 54 countries and more than a billion people. One of the most ridiculous myths about it is that homosexuality did not exist in the continent until white men imported it. Robert Mugabe is one such propagator, calling homosexuality “un-African” and a “white disease”.
This myth has been perpetuated not only by other dictators and political leaders such as Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan MP David Bahati and Parliamentarian speaker Rebecca Kadaga, former President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and others, all to enhance their political viability through the popular notion that homosexuality is an abomination, but also by the white Colonialists who continue, in effect, to colonize through their fundamentalist delivery of Christianity. Indeed it has been the Lou Engels and Scott Lively types who continue to export hate from abroad in the form of their Evangelical interpretation of the Bible. Their message has been heard and received and spread and at the helm of this messaging is that if you accept homosexuality in your land, it is SUCH an abomination that God will remove his protective hand, and all hell will break loose. Underpinning this are the myths and lies of what homosexuals will do in your country: “they will recruit and teach your kids to be gay,” they will “pay you to be gay”, “they are gay by choice, not by design,” “gay is evil,” etc. etc.
However with all this comes the denial, and one that Freddy may well have drawn awareness to had he been alive in today’s milieu:
Throughout history people everywhere have explored and experimented with their sexuality. The desire to do so has never been confined to particular geographical locations. Its reach is universal. Yet today the myth of a pre-colonial sexual innocence, or more fittingly, ignorance, is used to endorse anti-gay legislation and stir up homophobia and persecution in Africa.
While much has been written about this dangerous turn of events, little has been written about its origins. Two trailblazing studies in the field – Boy Wives and Female Husbands edited by Stephen O Murray and Will Roscoe, and Heterosexual Africa? by Marc Epprecht – demolish the revisionist arguments about Africa’s sexual history. From the 16th century onwards, homosexuality has been recorded in Africa by European missionaries, adventurers and officials who used it to reinforce ideas of African societies in need of Christian cleansing.
The Portuguese were among the first Europeans to explore the continent. They noted the range of gender relations in African societies and referred to the “unnatural damnation” of male-to-male sex in Congo. Andrew Battell, an English traveller in the 1590s, wrote this of the Imbangala of Angola: “They are beastly in their living, for they have men in women’s apparel, whom they keep among their wives.”
Transvestism [Evaristo’s term] occurred in many different places, including Madagascar and Ethiopia. Among the Pangwe people of present-day Cameroon and Gabon, homosexual intercourse was practised between males of all ages. It was believed to be a way to transmit wealth. The Nzima of Ghana had a tradition of adult men marrying each other, usually with an age difference of about 10 years. Similar to the pederasty of ancient Greece, Sudan’s Zande tribe had a tradition of warriors marrying boys and paying a bride price, as they would for girl brides, to their parents. When the boy grew up, he too became a warrior and took a boy-wife.
In this same tribe lesbianism [Evaristo’s term] was practiced in polygamous households. In the 18th century the Khoikhoi of South Africa used the word koetsire to describe men considered sexually receptive to other men, and soregus was the word they used for a friendship which involved same-sex masturbation.
Homosexuality is also recorded among the Siwa of Egypt. It was considered a boy’s rite of passage in Benin, and woman-woman marriages involving a bride price existed in more than 30 African societies from Nigeria to Kenya to South Africa.
How far back can homosexuality be traced in Africa? You cannot argue with rock paintings. Thousands of years ago, the San people of Zimbabwe depicted anal sex between men. The truth is that, like everywhere else, African people have expressed a wide range of sexualities. Far from bringing homosexuality with them, Christian and Islamic forces fought to eradicate it. By challenging the continent’s indigenous social and religious systems, they helped demonise and persecute homosexuality in Africa, paving the way for the taboos that prevail today.
Millions of gay people living in Africa face a choice: If they stay, they can either repress their natural sexuality or risk losing their liberty and their lives. The legacy of colonialism is alive and well, noting: “It’s homophobia, not homosexuality, that was imported to Africa.”
With this said – in honoring the memory of Freddy Mercury and his birth land, with all its complex hues, I wonder whether others in the celebrity realm would be willing and/or able to come to the fore in this imperative quest to TRULY decolonize? And… oh….. could it be up to the Colonizer to do so?
Lets talk Kanye West and wife Kim Kardashian and their recent visit to Uganda. Shrouded in ignorance the two seemed so oblivious to the oppressive dictatorship of the man whose hand they shook in the name of Kanye needing “inspiration for a new album”:
Kanye West’s trip to Uganda has been excruciatingly tone deaf. West handed out oversized shoes to orphans and relished photo-ops with one of Africa’s longest-serving oppressive autocratic rulers, Yoweri Museveni, who signed the” Kill the Gays Bill”. In doing so the rapper seemed content to turn his back on fellow rapper Bobi Wine, who had been detained and beaten by Museveni’s henchmen. Not to mention the socio-economic issues facing West’s fans on the continent, all in exchange for a typically selfish motive: Kanye asserted that his trip to Uganda would help him finish, and perfect, his long-awaited album.
This Kanye West publicity stunt may be perceived as good for Uganda, but when it comes to West’s career, he has ignorantly alienated his African fan base and inserted this final nail in his U.S. rapper career too – unless of course he can come up with some rap beat and narrative which those Trump supporting MAGAs can relate to.
Museveni, in receiving the Wests and their gift of a pair of fitting sneakers, (yes his fit!) hoped having the high-profile couple in the country would help promote tourism and the arts. ….
I guess Kanye Wests would not be a good choice to take on the cause of true decolonization through decriminalization! So who in the celebrity community – the loud voices among us – should assume the role of what may once have been Freddy’s? Are we gong to leave it to us little voices: I am all ears!
Tanzania is serving to highlight right now what is going on in much of Africa, where gays, lesbians, bisexual, intersex and transgender people are brutalized each and every day in the 34 countries where they are criminalized and also in many of the other 20 some countries which remain steadfast in their homophobia. There is very little leadership other than from some countries threatening and cutting aid and the latter may not be the best response.
South Africa’s LGBTQ community has called for leadership from Present Cyril Ramaphosa, my article NOTES:
Just this week Johannesburg Pride took a bold stand … (and sent a letter) to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa calling on him to show leadership on the Continent, with the request to specifically condemn the spate of persecution against LGBTQ+ Tanzanians, also noting the flagrant abuse to LGBTQ+asylum seekers and refugees that occurred at the hands of Parliamentary delegates from African countries at the Legislators meeting in Geneva of the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU), where a majority voted to ban debate on the subject of LGBT human rights – as some nations sought to bring the subject to the floor, in the hope of passing an amendment to include LGBT people in a declaration on migrants and refugees. …..
South Africa it is about time leadership come out with a vehement statement and follow up diplomacy. And it is time for South Africa’s LGBTQ+ community itself to stand behind Jo’Burg Pride – it is about much more than a parade, a dance and beer – it is about our world – our continent – it is about all of our lives! Its time to decriminalize homosexuality everywhere. There must be a collective voice and it must be loud and clear. When you fight for those beyond your own borders, in essence you are fighting for yourselves. Now is the time to put pressure on President Ramaphosa to stand up for freedom of the press and freedom sexuality and gender identity for the entire continent of Africa.
It is time to call for a Presidential Advisory Council/ Leadership Council on LGBTQ+ Africa– to create strategy and develop diplomacy to fight for the decriminalization of homosexuality on the Continent of Africa.
With all that said WORLD – what next? Who is on board to call out the new Colonizers? Where is the new affirming religious Christian leadership? Who is on all board to speak WITH Africa’s LGBTQ community?
Decriminalization of sexuality ought to be at the helm of every single aspect of one’s consciousness when dealing with Africa – surely? Lest we forget all of you spending your hard earned dollars on the lovely Safari in Tanzania, Uganda – etc – have you spoke out lately?
Oh how I miss the promise of a Freddy!
BY MELANIE NATHAN, mostly a mom!
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