Women in Lesotho and the (Western) Construstion of Homophobia

The following passages have been pulled from the research of Kendall, titled “Women in Lesotho and the (Western) Construction of Homophobia” which was published in the anthology, female desires

“My search for lesbians in Lesotho began in 1992, when I arrived in that small, impoverished African country and went looking for my own kind. That was before the president of nearby Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, himself mission-educated, declared moral war on homosexuality and insisted that homosexuality was a ‘Western’ phenomenon imported into Africa by the colonists. When I left Lesotho two and a half years later, I had not found a single Mosotho who identified herself as a lesbian. However, I had found widespread, apparently normative erotic relationships among the Basotho women I knew, in conjunction with the absence of a concept of this behavior as ‘sexual’ or as something that might have a name. I learned not to look for unconventionally or visible performance of sex role rejection as indicators of ‘queerness.’ Most Basotho women grow up in environments where it is impossible for them to learn about, purchase, or display symbols of gay visibility, where passionate relationships between women are as conventional as (heterosexual) marriage, and where women who love women usually perform also the roles of conventional wives and mothers. I have had to look again at how females express themselves, how privilege and lesbianism intersect (or do not), and whether what women have together- in Lesotho or anywhere else- should be called ‘sex’ at all. I have concluded that love between women is as native to southern Africa as the soil itself, but that homophobia, like Mugabe’s Christianity, is a Western import.”  (157)

“My attempts to ‘come out’ to rural women and domestic workers were laughable; they could not understand what I was talking about, and if I persisted they only shook their heads in puzzlement. Despite this, I had some long conversations with Basotho women, especially older university students and domestic workers, who formed my social cohort in Lesotho and who trusted me enough to describe their encounters in as much detail as I requested. From these I learned of fairly common instances of tribadism, or rubbing, fondling, and cunnilingus between Basotho women, with and without digital penetration. This they initially described as ‘loving each other,’ ‘staying together nicely,’ ‘holding each other,’ or ‘having a nice time together.’ But not as having sex. No koai, no sex.”
“Lillian Faderman’s observation that ‘A narrower interpretation of what constitutes eroticism permitted a broader expression of erotic behavior [in the eighteenth century], since it was not considered inconsistent with virtue’ makes sense here. If these long, sweet Basotho women’s kisses or incidences of genital contact were defined as ‘sexual’ in Lesotho, they could be subject to censure both by outside observers who seem to disapprove of sex generally (nuns, visiting teachers, traveling social workers) or by the very women who enjoy them but seek to be morally upright and to do the right thing.”
“Since sex outside of marriage in Roman Catholic terms is i sin, then it is fortunate for women in this mostly Catholic country that what women do in Lesotho cannot possibly be sexual. No koai, no sex means that women’s way of expressing love, lust, passion, or joy in each other are neither immoral nor suspect.” (166-67)

“Nthunya (a woman from Lesotho) describes how the woman she calls ‘M’alineo chose her as her motsoalle (special friend) with a kiss. Nthunya writes: “Its like when a man chooses you as his wife, except when a man chooses, its because he wants to share blankets with you. The woman chooses you the same way, but she wants love only. When a woman loves another woman, you see, she can love with her whole heart.”
“Nthunya describes the process of their relationship, the desire that characterized it, the kisses they shared, their hand-holding in church, their meetings at the local cafe. And she describes two ritual feasts observed by them and their husbands, recognizing their relationship. These feasts, held one year apart, involved ritual presentation and slaughter of sheep as well as eating, drinking, dancing, singing, exchanges of gifts, and general merriment and validation of the commitment hey made to each other by all the people they knew. ‘It was like a wedding,’ Nthunya writes. ” (167)

“The classical exchange in this debate pits a realist/essentialist, who believes that lesbians have existed in most cultures and throughout history, against a normative/social constructionist, who believes that lesbians only appear where and when there is the socially constructed concept, ‘lesbian.’ What the situation in Lesotho suggests is that women can and do develop strong affectional and erotic ties with other women in a culture where there is no concept or social construction ‘lesbian’ and where there is no concept of erotic exchanges among women being ‘sexual’ at all. Ant yet, partly because of the ‘no concept’ issue and in part because women have difficulty supporting themselves in Lesotho, there has been no lesbian lifestyle option available to Basotho women. Lesbian or lesbianlike behavior has been commonplace, conventional, but it has not been viewed as ‘sexual’ or as an alternative to heterosexual marriage, which is both a sexual and economic part of culture.” (171-72)


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