In the minds of many queer Africans, there stands a panopticon – a prison-like structure with a tower containing a singular guard formed of queerphobic social norms. It is a violent structure
What makes violence, violence? As I write this, members and allies of the Namibian LGBTQ+ community gather themselves to protest a legal block preventing newborn twins from uniting with their parents because of their sexuality; it is perhaps one of the most violent acts of suppression, the type that wraps itself up in legal philosophy, solidifying itself in laws and norms. Violence against LGBTQ+ members has permeated African society for a long time, most of it apparently “subtle” and “intangible” to onlookers but still as real as any other type. The truth is that blood and gore have a monopoly over our conceptualisation of violence. The pain and trauma that paints itself over the flesh is easier for us to register and thus, easiest to empathise with.
Violence against LGBTQ+ members has built itself into our society, normalising itself in homophobic cautionary tales and jokes and reproducing itself from the stands of pulpits and family secrets. It is not only external but also internal. In the minds of many queer Africans, there stands a panopticon – a prison-like structure with a tower containing a singular guard formed of queerphobic social norms. It is a violent structure that comes as a result of being yourself while growing up in post-colonial communities that denounce your identity; a perceived failure to self-regulate along the confines of communal morals and values. Let’s talk a bit about why the panopticon exists in our minds, how it manifests as violence and what we should plan on doing about it.
The idea of the panopticon has its roots in English philosophy. It was a disciplinary concept designed by 18th century English social theorist Jeremy Bentham and expanded on by Michel Foucault. It had a dualistic purpose, to exist as a real design for a building and as an experiment on the reaches of control. Structurally, it was a ring-shaped building that held prison cells along its entire width and had a singular tower in the centre. In the tower, a guard would be able to sit and see every inmate in the prison, but they would not be able to see him. Each inmate was alone in their room and cut off from communication with their peers, however, they would constantly be visible to the guard, should he choose to look at them. The power of the panopticon lay in the permanent visibility of those in the cells, who would self-regulate and discipline themselves along the rules of the system because the guard was always potentially watching. In our case, the panopticon is a mental structure. An annular building which represents the mind where our consciousness, identity and self-awareness lies and the tower at the centre, holding a guard made up of generations of the cis-gender heteronormative moral prescriptions.
And it wasn’t always like this, the African continent was not only a land of wealth and health but a diverse space where communities did not criminalise or shame queer identities, for example:
- Female husbandry was a widespread practice,
- The Imbangala people of Angola practiced non-gendered polygamy,
- While England was sentencing gay men to death, Buganda had a gay monarch, King Mwanga II
- Igbo and Yoruba tribes did not have a binary of genders,
- The Dagaaba people assigned gender based on the energy one would present rather than anatomy and
- Castes of male diviners in southern Africa like the Chibandos, Quintana’s, Gangas and Kibambaa were said to carry female spirits
The list can go on and on to reflect the historical statement. But as with many difficult things on the African continent, the beginning of the colonial endeavour is where the story of the cis-hetero Panopticon begins. The colonial project through its introduction of western methods of socio-personal organisation and Christian moralism denounced and slowly erased practices of gender and sexual fluidity on the continent.
The adoption of western morality and its interpretation of gendered identity and prescriptive heterosexuality was the undoing of the widespread acceptance of sexual diversity on the continent. But most importantly, it was the way these moralist values were weaponised in their introduction to the continent which led to the way in which they would become the same internalised weapons of the contemporary panopticon. Assimilation was used as a tool for control in the colonial space; those who could adopt the languages, customs and beliefs of the colonisers received the benefits of education, jobs and luxurious goods. So, if living up to these standards in colonial times could lead to greater chances of integration into a system of white-approved social dwelling, then living up to them now could lead to social acceptance in the contemporary world built off the legacy of white supremacy.
So, if you grew up in a religious or traditional household, chances are you recognise the panopticon. With the repressive moral teachings always watching – eerily causing you to self-regulate along the lines of what has been taught as “normal” or “right”. It is a system of social control that became internalised through years of both silent and active repetition. The thing is that actualisation and the truth calls on you to embrace your identity and live as you are. This is what the internal violence becomes rooted in, the clash between social programming and your innate desire to be yourself. It manifests in many ways, some momentous, others seemingly minatory; It makes you change the way you speak or prevents you from gender expression. It can root itself as deep feelings of rejection and manifest as homonegativity, causing you to act out against other members of the LGBTQ+ community. It can be shame or depression, defensiveness, anger, or bitterness. It is that which is most of all unseen.
When your identity conflicts with normative prescriptions of being, that internal violence is not only torturing, but also reflects how queer bodies have been policed in their presentation of themselves in social spaces as well as in personal spaces- and what can be more personal than your mind?
It, however, is a form of violence that is often overlooked and categorized with other matters in conversations about intervention. It needs to be discussed in spaces that are talking about violence against queer bodies. Repressive forms of violence affect identity development, self-understanding and emotional wellbeing and they can lead to mental health issues like depression and anxiety. It is life threatening when depression incites suicidal ideation and distress, when trans people are not able to visit health centres to get adequate or suitable healthcare or when queer people are in abusive relationships. There is no true freedom when there is no space to know yourself and grow into yourself; and as advocates of human rights, it is important to realise that the forms of oppression that break out of the social space into the internal world are invasive.
The analogy of the panopticon works because it helps to illustrate the fact that the internal anguish we experience as queer people is not one of our own making, but one that has colonial roots and is upheld by those who do not work on unlearning horrible prejudices. When your identity conflicts with normative prescriptions of being, that internal violence is not only torturing, but also reflects how queer bodies have been policed in their presentation of themselves in social spaces as well as in personal spaces- and what can be more personal than your mind? – where they would otherwise be allowed to be vulnerable and free.
If the personal is the political, then the structures which do not actively work on dismantling the cis-heteronormative hegemony exist in direct opposition to the lives of queer African bodies. The socio-political organisation of the societies we live in needs severe reconstruction.
Panopticons are for burning