Grist for the Mill–Homosexuality: The Gatekeepers
by Sobonfu E. Somé
The west African author and teacher Sobonfu E. Somé, whose work has influenced numerous western luminaries, including Alice Walker, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, and Matthew Fox, offers us a fascinating look at her culture’s view of lesbian and gay men as spiritual gatekeepers for the community.
This essay is excerpted from her book ‘The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships‘. The words “gay” and “lesbian” do not exist in the village, but there is the word “gatekeeper.” Gatekeepers are people who live a life at the edge between two worlds– the world of the village and the world of spirit. What they do, they don’t like to communicate to anyone. It is their right to keep what they do to themselves. Everybody in the village respects that because without gatekeepers, there is no access to other worlds.
The gatekeepers stand on the threshold of the gender line. They are mediators between the two genders. They make sure that there is peace and balance between women and men. If the two genders are in conflict and the whole village is caught in it, the gatekeepers are the ones to bring peace. Gatekeepers do not take sides. They simply play the role of “the sword of truth and integrity.”
There are many gates that link a village to other worlds. The only people who have access to all these gates are the gatekeepers. I should mention here that there are two different kinds of gatekeeper. The first group has the ability to guard a limited number of gates to the other world, specifically, those which correspond to the Dagara cosmology– water, earth, fire, mineral and nature, because they vibrate the energies of those gates. The second group of gatekeepers, which is our focus here, has the responsibility of overseeing all the gates. They are not only in contact with the elemental gates, but also with many others. They have one foot in all the other worlds and the other foot here. This is why the vibration of their body is totally different from others.
They also have access to other-dimensional beings such as the kontombile, small beings who are very magical and knowledgeable. Now what would happen if you’re dealing with a culture that doesn’t care about these gateways? What happens is that a gay person cannot do his or her job. Gatekeepers are left unable to accomplish their purpose. This is one of the most distinguishing factors about gays in the village.
Now as to their sexual orientation, nobody cares about this question, they care only about their performance as gatekeepers. I figure if they want people in the village to know about their sexuality they will share it with them. The life of gay people in the West is in many ways a reaction to pressure from a society that rejects them. This is partly because a culture that has forgotten so much about itself will displace certain groups of people, such as the gay community, from their true roles.
In the village they are not seen as the other. They are not forced to create a separate community in order to survive. People do not put a negative label on them. Instead, gatekeepers are encouraged to fulfill the role they’re born to, to use their gifts in the interests of the community. In the village, gatekeepers have an eye on both genders. They can help the genders to understand each other better than usual in their daily life. That’s why a group of women, for example, might gather and bring a male gatekeeper to help them understand certain village issues. The same thing happens on the other side, with a female gatekeeper coming into the middle of the men’s circle.
Homosexuality is seen in the village very differently than it is seen in the West, in part because all sexuality is spiritually-based. Taken away from its spiritual context, it becomes a source of controversy and can be exploited by people. In the village, you would never see gatekeepers, or anybody for that matter, displaying their sexuality or commenting on the sexuality of others. Gatekeepers are the keepers of the keys to other dimensions. They maintain a certain alignment between the spirit world and the world of the village. Without them, the gates to the other world would be shut.
On the other side of these gates lies the spirit world or other dimensions. Gatekeepers are in constant communication with beings that live there, that have the ability to teach us how to deal with ritual. And gatekeepers have the capacity to take other people to those places. A gatekeeper’s knowledge is different from the knowledge of mentors and elders. This is because elders do not necessarily have access to all the gateways.
The gatekeepers, on the other hand, have access to all the dimensions. They can open any gate. Although their knowledge is very broad, elders will call upon gatekeepers to help them open a particular gate or help them better understand what the spirit world is about. I have seen people in the West who have lost their identity try to usurp the role of gatekeeper once they learn about the power it involves. They do this for their own benefit, without really knowing what it means to be a true gatekeeper.
Being a false gatekeeper is not helpful to anyone. It can only be harmful to the usurper. They need to understand that in the village, a person doesn’t become a gatekeeper because they desire power, or even because of a sense of sexual orientation. No. Gatekeeping is part of one’s life purpose, announced before birth and developed through rigorous training to ensure that its power is not misused. A gatekeeper is responsible for a whole village, a whole tribe. It is no game. Even though, in the village, homosexual relationships are not commonly the subject of ritual, here in the West they have become so, simply because of the circumstances of life.
The ash rituals, and almost any other rituals I have described, may be used to strengthen gay relationships. What we have looked at regarding intimacy, sexuality, ritual, conflict, and loss applies also to homosexual relationships in the West. Because any kind of relationship, unless it’s false or empty or superficial, any kind of relationship comes with problems. And there is a need to carefully maintain, and sometimes repair it. Maybe the only difference for gays and lesbians would be to have other gatekeepers, in addition to non-gay family members and friends, involved in their rituals.
“Homosexuality: The Gatekeepers” From The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships. by Sobonfu E. Somé. 1997 (http://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Intimacy-Ancient-Teachings-Relationships/dp/0688175791)
Long Road Home
December 4, 2002.
Cheikh Traoré is a 35 year-old AIDS educator working with African communities in London. He talked to The Gully about his work, and what it was like growing up gay in West Africa. (Part 1 of 2)
I am a health promotion officer for Britain’s largest HIV & AIDS service organization, the Terrence Higgins Trust. I work on a number of national health initiatives and programs with Britain’s African communities, organizing campaigns and producing information about health, well-being and access to services. I also work with health and social care professionals in the HIV sector. My decision to come to Europe from West Africa six years ago was motivated in part by my sexual identity. I wanted to put some distance between myself and my family and community. I knew that Europe had a more tolerant attitude towards sexuality.
What I didn’t know was that my race and ethnicity would be an issue to deal with. I had also decided on a career change; shifting from working as a clinical doctor to getting involved in community health. I was admitted to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where I earned a masters degree. My main interest then was in public health issues affecting Africa, especially malnutrition. But my interest changed again as I realized that HIV/AIDS was beginning to have a growing impact. In 1998, I decided to focus on AIDS work. This was also for personal reasons; understanding sexuality was a strong drive, but also my views on issues affecting women and young people in African communities. Fighting AIDS Among Immigrants I love my current job. It’s a very challenging position, and I believe in the ethos of the organization I work for. We believe that individuals and communities can have control over their health if they are given the right opportunities. My work at the Trust allows me to challenge oppressive belief systems and practices in the community while contributing to people’s knowledge about HIV and AIDS prevention.
There are enormous challenges to doing AIDS work with immigrant Africans. The first is social exclusion: a lot of the people affected by HIV are struggling to have a decent income, a decent roof over their head, and many individuals within the groups we are trying to reach move around a lot. HIV is often the least important of their priorities. In addition, HIV is a highly stigmatized condition, and people are still reluctant to fully embrace the problem. This stigma is a barrier to everything we are trying to do. That is why the first campaign my team decided to do two years ago was a campaign against stigma and prejudice towards people living with HIV in the community. Homophobia and AIDS
In two years of work with men, I found that while many men living with HIV are often unaware of the services available to them, those who are aware of available services sometimes don’t use them because homophobia makes them uncomfortable with gay staff or other gay clients in the same settings. The perception of AIDS as a “gay disease” constantly challenges heterosexual men. Many feel they have to make a point that they are not gay. In general, sexuality is a difficult issue to bring up with African communities — there are so many taboos. So, in order to have fruitful discussions on the subject, people have to devise appropriate ways to make people comfortable. For example, creating male-only or women-only groups or young people’s groups. I chose a personal strategy not to make my sexuality an issue in my work with the Trust, though I am out in my voluntary capacity with BIG UP, a Black gay male group in London.
This is partly because in the African communities I work with, HIV is predominantly a heterosexual problem, and because I always try to have unbiased views and establish clear boundaries between my own personal issues and the work. Then there’s the fact that challenging homophobia is something that I have only recently learned to do myself.
Growing Up Gay
My dad and mum are from two different countries and cultures. My mum is Nigerian from a Catholic family. My dad is Mauritanian from a Muslim family. They met while they were doing their university studies in Toulouse in the south of France, where I was born. I’ve spent most of my life, though, in West Africa. When I was six, we settled in Mauritania. I went to university in Senegal, and have lived in Côte d’Ivoire and Nigeria. I have only been in London since 1997. Growing up as a teenager in Africa was a very isolating experience for me. It took me a long time to understand my sexuality. I first realized that I was attracted to other boys in my early teenage years, but I did not know that this attraction had a sexual nature until I was 16 or 17 years old, and I didn’t call myself gay until I was thirty. I used to blame the fact that I was attracted to boys and men, having the “white man’s disease,” homosexuality, on the fact that I was born in France.
I secretly blamed my parents for it. At the same time, growing up, I didn’t consciously think of myself as either gay or straight. I don’t think I even had the concept that one had to be in one category or the other. In a way, I always thought of myself as having a unique sexuality: I was convinced that I liked both men and women sexually.
I had my first girlfriend when I was twenty-four. I had three or four other girlfriends after that, but my relationships never lasted more than six months, because I couldn’t share my true self with these women, and this caused a lot of emotional pressure for me. I never had the opportunity, or the courage, to be in a consensual sexual situation until I was twenty-seven. But even into my thirties, I was very much convinced for a long time that I would be able to enjoy sex with both men and women. I only recently found when I met my last boyfriend that I could be in a fulfilling relationship with one man (it’s still quite a revelation.)
I learned to deal with my sexuality by attending sessions organized by BIG UP. Through my boyfriend, I also met many other Africans who were gay. Many of them were often successful professionals like lawyers, doctors and businessmen. Meeting other Africans who were gay and comfortable with their sexuality had a very strong positive impact on me. My role models were not only African gay men. Reading about the lives of writers and personalities like Edmund White, Bayard Rustin, Jean Genet or James Baldwin was a strong and empowering experience.
I am not yet out to my family. And of course, being the oldest of seven brothers and sisters, everyone is longing to know who is my future wife. I sometimes feel guilty for not letting them know who I really am. I can see a time when I will be out with them, but I don’t think it will be an active process, like me going to them and telling them that I’m gay. They will probably hear it or find out in some way (if they haven’t already.) I don’t think I will ever feel ready to tell them.
Joining Forces to Fight AIDS
As a men’s worker, I’ve tried to challenge the prevailing view in the African community that homosexuality doesn’t exist [among Africans], and insured that HIV prevention policies never exclude African men who have sex with other men. I’ve also tried to create more links and more opportunities for “cross-fertilization” between gay men’s work and African HIV prevention. These ideas are now enshrined in some key prevention policy documents. I didn’t have to be ‘out’ myself to do it, I just needed to involve Black gay men in the work.
I also needed to help produce evidence about the need to work with men who have sex with men and convince pools of influential professionals and get them to apply inclusive policies in their own areas of work. Four years ago, when I started working in this field, many lgbt groups were already set up to work on AIDS issues. Many of them found it very difficult to start welcoming heterosexual Black people. This has changed nowadays — mainly because of the changing epidemic, and the increased numbers of diagnosed cases among Black Africans.
At present, lgbt people fighting HIV have become more accepting of the need to work with African communities. At the same time, it would help if African communities also went further towards accepting lgbt people within their own community to start with. As I’ve said before, many Africans still perceive homosexuality as a “white disease.”
My experience is that Africans and many black people can tolerate homosexuals as long as they are white. They find it a lot more difficult to deal with homosexuality when it’s in their midst. If it wasn’t for HIV, these two communities would probably never have had to work together. And to be honest; the two cultures know very little about each other. Perhaps the only common ground is the shared experience of prejudice and discrimination.
In the future, I would like to see more Black leaders openly challenging homophobia in the Black community. I would like to see people who claim that homosexuality was an import from the West to realize how stupid this statement is. And I would also like to see more gay rights activists speak out about racism within gay communities.
In “Part 2: Creating Community In Exile,” Traoré talks about the gay Black community in London, dealing with racism, and his struggle to “invent this notion of being gay and African.”
Useful website for LGBT Africa: http://www.mask.org.za/