The legacy of European colonialism and Christian missionaries has created challenges for same-sex relationships in the Global South. In former German colonies Namibia, Tanzania, and Cameroon during the 1980s, anti-LGBTQ attitudes still prevailed. Jacqueline Wilson tells the story of a pioneering queer tourism project that challenged the colonial narrative
Before European colonisation, many African and Asian cultures had more relaxed attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity. But colonial administrators and Christian missionaries imposed conservative views on sexuality, spreading fundamentalist Christian attitudes and anti-LGBT laws.
In 1980, queer women in Germany initiated a pioneering project, partnering with gay women in the former German colonies of Namibia, Tanzania and Cameroon. The partnership marked a historic moment in the fight against heteronormativity, and towards sexual freedom. Its interracial character challenged the dominant white Northern same-sex narrative.
The project was significant in promoting equality and breaking down various forms of discrimination. The tourists made a significant impact on the visibility of same-sex relationships. However, we should see their contributions in the context of colonialism, which shapes the narratives and experiences of queer women in these regions.
In the 1980s, the gay movement was far more visible in Europe than in Africa. Yet the German visitors remained sensitive to local culture, and respectful of local customs. They empathised with local queer women's struggles for acceptance of their sexuality.
Queer travel history reflects the intersection of sexuality and colonialism. There was a significant increase in queer tourism in the 1980s, especially among gay men. The gay community was gaining visibility, and the travel industry in general was also expanding rapidly.
In the burgeoning queer travel industry, women were often marginalised
Queer travel agencies and organisations emerged to cater for queer travellers' specific needs. But in this burgeoning industry, queer women were often marginalised. Many travel companies focused primarily on gay men. Options for gay women were limited, and tended to concentrate on traditional destinations.
This lack of representation led to the creation of gay women's travel groups. One such is the collective Lesbian Summer, which organised trips to former German colonies in Africa.
Germany's colonial ambitions were shaped by its desire for economic and political power, and by its belief in Aryan superiority. Many African countries struggle with poverty, inequality and political instability. For queer German women, travelling to these former colonies was an opportunity to confront the uncomfortable facts of colonial history, and to learn about the experiences of marginalised communities. It also enabled them to challenge the dominant narrative of colonialism that often obliterates the experiences of women and queer people.
Critics contended that the Germans were exploiting their experiences in marginalised communities for their own ends
But the Lesbian Summer trip was not without controversy. Some critics contended that the Germans were simply engaging in 'neocolonialism'; exploiting their experiences in marginalised communities for their own ends. But Lesbian Summer's supporters countered that the mere presence of European gay women in Africa challenged the patriarchal, heteronormative structures that continue to oppress homosexuals worldwide.
Despite these controversies, Lesbian Summer travel continued throughout the 1980s. Their trips offered a space for gay women to mingle and explore the world beyond traditional tourist destinations.
The trips also offered queer African women the opportunity to explore their sexuality. White German women struck up interracial same-sex relationships with locals. The Germans were drawn to Africa's vibrant, diverse cultures. They saw these countries as havens in which they could be themselves without fear of persecution.
Namibia was the most popular destination for queer women in the 1980s, then under South African rule. Namibia's German and African background made it an ideal destination for women wanting to explore both their German heritage and their interest in African culture.
In 1980s Namibia, lesbian bars and clubs sprang up, providing gay women with a safe space to socialise and exchange ideas. They attracted queer women from countries worldwide, and helped foster a sense of community among lesbians in Namibia.
The arrival of European lesbians offered the local queer women the opportunity to explore their sexuality
Another 1980s destination for queer women was Tanzania, then under socialist rule. Tanzania has a history of political activism and is known for its progressive attitudes towards gender and sexuality. The country is an attractive destination for queer women interested in exploring their sexuality in a political and social context.
Tanzania also offers diverse cultural experiences, from the city of Dar es Salaam to the natural wonders of Mount Kilimanjaro. Queer women visitors frequently engaged in cultural exchanges, and engaged with local activists to share queer-movement struggles.
1980s queer female tourism in Germany's former colonies shaped the gender and sexuality of that era's queer transnationality. These women sought destinations where they could express their sexuality in a safe, accepting environment while immersing themselves in a country's culture and history. Despite the taboo and danger, German queer women in 1980s Africa joined with local women to express their sexuality and their shared political activism.