Rapturous reviews, record-breaking box office, and legit cultural phenomenon aside, Black Panther is a landmark, especially for black folks. The mythical Wakanda, King T’Challa/Black Panther’s homeland, imagines an African nation that was never conquered, never colonized, and is therefore free from the scars of that defilement. That idealism, and its possibilities, are thrilling.
One should never forget that homophobia, which as a queer black man is one of the first things I think about when discussing Africa, is a direct result of colonialism. Out of the 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal, nearly half—34—are in Africa. With only 54 recognized nations, roughly two-thirds of the continent is a dangerous place for queer people.
According to some leaders, like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, homosexuality is a Western import. However, in 2012, Museveni acknowledged the enduring existence of homosexuals in Uganda, only to, two short years and a looming election later, push through a severe anti-homosexuality bill that drew global condemnation. As Nigerian gay rights activist Bisi Alimi astutely observed in a 2015 piece for The Guardian, homophobia carries with it hefty political capital. “Across Africa,” he writes, “if you hate gay people, you get votes.”
In reality, in Africa, like all parts of the world, homosexuality is as old as human nature itself, and had a place in society. So homophobia is obviously the true import.
In many pre-colonial African societies, ideas about gender and sexuality were shaped by tradition but ran contrary to what Christian colonists believed acceptable or natural. In Kenya, male priests known as mugawe were female-presenting—wearing women’s clothes and hairstyles—and were often homoseuxal, sometimes married to men. In Uganda, the mudoko dako were effeminate men who were considered a different gender, but treated as women, and could even marry men.
Mwanga II of Buganda, a kingdom in present day Uganda, had over a dozen wives, though his harem also included male pages. When they were converted to Christianity and, in accordance with missionary teachings, refused his sexual advances, like any scorned kween with absolute power, Mwanga had the pages put to death. 2,000-year-old rock paintings by the San people of modern-day South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana depict male-on-male interocourse and coupling, indicating that homosexuality was socially acceptable.
The African diaspora had an array of terms to define non-heterosexual, non-monogamous relations, from the lesbian relationships (motsoalle) of the Basotho women of Lesotho; the homosexuals (gor-digen) of Senegal, whose capital Dakar was once a popular hot spot for gay hustlers. And much like in Ancient Greece, older men and younger men often had a mentor-mentee relationship that was also sexual. The highly feared Zande warriors of the Congo and Sudan married their younger male lovers, who performed household duties, and taught them the ways of the warrior until they, too, were ready to take on boy-wives of their own.
Yet, as Sylvia Tamale, a professor of law at Makerere University in Uganda, notes in a 2015 op-ed for Al Jazeera, same-sex relations were to the benefit of the greater society:
[T]he Ndebele and Shona in Zimbabwe, the Azande in Sudan and Congo, the Nupe in Nigeria, and the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi all engaged in same-sex acts for spiritual rearmament — i.e., as a source of fresh power for their territories. It was also used for ritual purposes. [...] In many African societies, same-sex sexuality was also believed to be a source of magical powers to guarantee bountiful crop yields and abundant hunting, good health, and to ward off evil spirits. In Angola and Namibia, for instance, a caste of male diviners—known as “zvibanda,” “chibados,” “quimbanda,” gangas” and “kibambaa”— were believed to carry powerful female spirits that they would pass on to fellow men through anal sex.
I mean, same.
Beginning in the late-19th century, Western Europe began feverishly invading Africa, conquering and divvying up the entire continent, usurping ancient traditions, and bringing with them Christianity. Because of this you can trace much of the buggery, or anti-homosexuality, laws in African countries back to imperialism. Which is the beauty of Black Panther’s Wakanda: an African nation that was allowed to develop on its own, with its own ideas and values, not those of its conquerors.
In the acclaimed reboot of the Black Panther comic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and later Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey, place a queer love story at the very center: Ayo and Aneka, members of the elite, all-female royal guard, the Dora Milaje, defect to form their own rebel alliance, the Midnight Angels. Though major characters in print, Aneka does not appear in the film at all, while Ayo (played by Florence Kasumba) had her biggest moment in the previous Captain America: Civil War.
Fans speculate that Okoye (the marvelous Danai Gurira) is Aneka’s replacement, especially after Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair described a scene from a screening that made Okoye and Ayo’s relationship less (or perhaps more) ambiguous but was cut from the final product:
In the rough cut of this Black Panther scene, we see Gurira’s Okoye and Kasumba’s Ayo swaying rhythmically back in formation with the rest of their team. Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, “You look good.” Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, “I know.”
Even without this scene, Black Panther still felt inclusive and representative of queer identity. The Dora Milaje—beautiful, bald, badass women who are Wakanda’s fiercest warriors—look like an army of, as one of the characters refers to them, “Grace Jones-looking chicks,” referring to the poster child of 80s sexy androgyny. I thought that was just a fluke of a queer nod until Okoye literally snatches her own wig during one of the film’s most thrilling battles.
And of course Black Panther, like all superhero films, is inherently queer. Aside from the lack of a secret identity (Black Panther is a traditional mantle every Wakandan king assumes), the film checks all the gay boxes: a hero in s tight-fitting or revealing costume (he’s wearing one of the sexiest super-looks, a slinky black catsuit);
the idealization and exploitation of the male physique (there’s a shirtless wrestling scene between Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan that will make generations of young boys gay);
and an emphasis on close male relationships (under different circumstances, T’Challa and Killmonger could’ve been besties).
Finally, Wakanda, as an advanced society, aspires to higher ideals and homophobia is nothing but a colonial relic; to that end, Black Panther’s ultimate message is one of inclusion, not isolation, of embracing diversity and otherness—therefore it’s very much a film that speaks to the greater joys of 2018, and not its regressive politics.