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Angola’s untold history: archive project explores LGBTIQ+ lives and struggles

AS I write these lines, I mourn the passing of Carlos Fernandes, a leading queer activist and organiser in Angola. Carlos was found dead in his home earlier this year under circumstances that are still being investigated.

For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people everywhere, there has commonly been a profound connection between remembrance and mourning. It’s not a coincidence, for example, that queer archives flourished in the 1980s and 1990s at a time when the HIV epidemic brought with it the lived experience of loss.

Since then, there have been a growing number of institutions committed to preserving the history of LGBTIQ+ people. In South Africa, the GALA Queer Archive was created in 1997. In 2013, Carlos became a co-founder of Angola’s first queer organisation, Associação Íris Angola. Back then, as now, remembering the past can be an act of building community and healing.

In 2019, Angola reformed its colonial-era penal code. The country decriminalised same-sex relations and made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. But despite this progress, economic exclusion, stigma and discrimination remain common experiences for many queer Angolans. This is especially true for transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

A couple of years ago, Carlos was an interlocutor in an oral history project on queer activism in Angola. This was a collaboration between GALA Queer Archive and the Arquivo de Identidade Angolano (Angolan Identity Archive), a women-led queer organisation. Led by myself, the research aimed to compile an archive of queer life in Angola.

Our main findings, published in a paper in Portuguese, shed light on the bodies, experiences and desires of people excluded from national history due to their sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Based on life history interviews and archival research, indicates that there is a place for sexual and gender diversity in Angola’s history. In doing so, it adds to the work already being done by activists and organisations, to whom this history belongs.

Before colonialism

Anti-queer discourse in Africa today tends to argue that homosexuality has no roots in the continent, that it was introduced by Europeans. As elsewhere, our research in Angola shows the precise opposite.

In the writings of missionaries, for instance, one finds references to Queen Nzinga (1583-1663). She resisted early Portuguese colonisation and was described as defying European gender roles and dress codes.

In another example, as early as 1591, Francisco “Xica” Manicongo faced trial in Brazil for practising sodomy and refusing to dress like a man. Originally from Angola and trafficked to the Americas as a slave, Manicongo is today celebrated as one of the first queer icons of the South Atlantic.

Colonialism

Angola was colonised by Portugal from the late 1500s. At different points in time, the Portuguese introduced measures that imposed a binary gender system and regulated sexuality. This included anti-sodomy laws, a medical system that considered homosexuality a disease, and the censorship of materials considered “immoral”.

Colonial school textbooks used in Angola in the 1960s, for instance, worked to propagate gender roles. The ideal African girl was defined by the virtues of domesticity, such as completing house chores and caring for the family. A health pamphlet dating from 1965 identified “homosexualism” as a vector of venereal diseases. These materials set gender nonconformity and same-sex desire as “deviant” and harmful to society.

Independence, civil war and democracy

Angola became independent in 1975. The country quickly fell into a civil war between the ruling party and the opposition. In 2002, the end of the conflict opened a path to national reconciliation and multiparty democracy.

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Much has been written about the political and economic opening up of Angola in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet, LGBTIQ+ people have been largely left out of this history. This is not to say, of course, that they did not exist.

Transgender pop star Titica.

In the late 1990s, in fact, a queer presence grew in the world of culture and entertainment. The Miss Angola beauty pageant, for example, relied heavily on the expertise of openly gay professionals such as hairdressers, make-up artists and fashion designers. For many, the late 2000s and early 2010s brought about a significant change in visibility and social life. Queer content and celebrities, such as the singer Titica, made it onto TV. Queer parties began to be held periodically in Luanda. This was, indeed, a “revolutionary phase” according to transgender activist Imanni da Silva.

LGBTIQ+ activism today

In southern Africa, the HIV and AIDS crisis directed unprecedented amounts of funding and public attention to matters of sexuality. This opened new opportunities for LGBTIQ+ activism, which developed a more structured outlook. Activists and their organisations gained the ability to enter into dialogue with the state and other strategic partners.

Queer activism in Angola has grown significantly in the last few years, embracing a multitude of areas of intervention. This includes various activities in support of visibility and community building, such as the iconic Festíris. Held for the first time in 2016, this LGBTIQ+ cultural festival celebrates the community and its allies by hosting social gatherings, cultural events and public discussions.

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Various collectives are today advancing particular goals. Some have a specific focus on trans people (Movimento Eu Sou Trans and Movimento T), queer men (Diversidade Masculina), lesbian and bisexual women (Lesbianidade Consciente and Angolan Identity Archive) and queer media (Queer People) to name just a few.

Remembering the future

Created in 2017, Angolan Identity Archive is one of the organisations in Angola actively working on queer memory. As artivist Pamina Sebastião explained, going back to history allows us to make a more informed intervention in the present, but also helps shape a desired future:

The archive is the future … it is about being able to say that we exist.

An archive makes us remember. By remembering, we forge a path. By the time of his passing, Carlos Fernandes was working on a documentary to celebrate 10 years of LGBTIQ+ activism in Angola. I don’t know when the film will come out, but the need to remember remains strong. As Líria de Castro, current director of the Angolan Identity Archive, says:

We need to create our own history … to learn where we were, where we are, where we want to go.

CAIO SIMÕES DE ARAÚJO, Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

By CAIO SIMÕES DE ARAÚJO

Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, Centre for Humanities Research, University of the Western Cape

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