Escaping Heteronormativity and the Masculinity Trap: Thoughts of a Malawian “Male”

Gule Wamkulu or Nyau: In this photo, Males are inhabited by and manifesting Female Ancestral Spirits attesting to a Gender Fluidity which remains unacknowledged in African cultures. It is important to note that Nyau is a Male “society” among the Chewa people. Source and credits: The Zambia Observer

Heteronormativity remains a very serious problem on our continent. It continues to command the resources by which moral assertions about life are made such as religion, tradition and culture, and are sustained, such as the social organization of economic activity and politics. Even in a society like South Africa where there are greater formal spaces for difference, heteronormative prescriptions and their underlying systems of violence, institutional and others, persist.

Heteronormativity entails a gendered regime whose surface is romanticized through the heterosexual couple with a masculine provider and a feminine caregiver as the normal paradigm. But underneath this are subsequent social, cultural, political and economic arrangements which generate that romanticized image and sustain it. So that in truth, the struggle against heteronormativity is not motivated by a petty envy of the status enjoyed by the heterosexual couple necessarily but rather, the prescriptions derived from such a norm which police and coerce the lives of those who fall outside of its definitions.

Allegations therefore that there is a war on the traditional family are misguided in so far as they suggest that non-heterosexuals and we, their allies, seek to merely undermine heterosexual relations. To the contrary, we seek to challenge the policing moralism which accompanies such heterosexuality, and to the extent that heterosexuality cannot persist without its inherent policing, then it finds itself under attack. But this delineation must be kept in mind, even as it is kept in mind in other spheres of activism and struggle: that is, to the extent the identity imbibed by many if not most men (masculinity) cannot persist without the subordination of women who must by necessity acquire a derivative of such an identity, then masculinity is indeed under attack. Similarly, those who see themselves as white only in relation to the subordination of those they see as black or non-white find anti-racism activism as an attack on whites. Those who have to live under such heteronormative, patriarchal or racial hegemony must not be made to wait in order to attend to the sensibilities of identities constructed and sustained upon systems of control, policing and domination.

And this brings me to my core argument. My thoughts on how to escape the masculinity trap have arisen out of questions about how I, an heterosexual Malawian male, might play my part in undermining the policing regimes of heteronormativity while also checking the learned attitudes and patterns of behavior and entitlement from which I have drawn my identity as an African, Malawian heterosexual male. The answer, I think, is in interrogating the persistent and taken-for-granted notion that heterosexuality is ontological, or even a type of materialist sexuality: That is to say, there is a salient assumption that heterosexuality is a kind of sexuality that flows automatically from a biological basis which presumes an inherent physiological compatibility between human beings designated as male and human beings designated as female. Additionally, they are so designated as males or females out of the functions of their reproductive systems and the supposed complementarity of their genitalia: from there, extrapolations about temperament and characteristics attributed to maleness and femaleness are furnished to finally construct entire orders of gender. And then, quite conveniently, specificities which characterize heterosexual activities such as courtship games and preference forming dynamics both personal and social such as body type, voice texture, sense of humor, socioeconomic status or class, spatial and cultural locality, racial and ethnic legacies, and other factors which all militate the accessibility of heterosexual persons, one to another, are swept away. What remains is the absurd assumption that heterosexual persons are universally compatible across all personal preferences, social and cultural environments, economic and political dispensations and so on.

Clearly, this universalism obtains erroneously from implicit ontological assumptions about reproductive functions and the supposed complementarity of their genitalia which also obtains from the same basis of reproductive function. This has the pernicious effect of eliminating specificity within heterosexual sexuality for purposes of reproducing an heteronormative order. Finally, it thus renders all of us who so happen to experience our sexuality within a predefined heterosexual format as accomplices of heteronormativity.

Masculinity as a type of heterosexual orientation particularly illustrates this. In my own country of Malawi for example, where I have written elsewhere that a rape culture is rife, males find themselves under tremendous pressure from within themselves and without requiring them to show themselves as men through sexual prowess to the extent that, for example, the Chichewa word for “a sexually loose person” almost exclusively applies for purposes of policing the sexuality of women. And yet, as I am here contending, if heterosexuality can be located within specificity and context, people who are termed heterosexuals such as myself can espouse and express a sexuality which escapes ontological suppositions embedded in dichotomies of maleness and femaleness, by focusing on the persons themselves as actual persons rather than elements within a category for whom we have a sexual attraction.

To put it concretely, I am not sexually attracted to all people classified biologically as female: rather, I am attracted to persons who look a certain way, who wear their natural hair a certain way, who move a certain way, think a certain way, who have a certain intellectual attitude about human and especially African history, who dress a certain way projecting a certain image of political subversion, who have a certain ring to their voice, and have certain physiological features.

This preference structure pertains and alludes both to personal sexual agency on my part and the socioeconomic, political and cultural affordances, contexts and realities which constitute my living environment. This, mind you, is a fluid image as well which evolves over time as I evolve and grow as a person, as I meet more people and as my social spaces change, transform or shift. But, and this is crucial: outside of this temporal specificity, I would not likely be attracted to someone or to pursue them sexually merely because of an ontological fallacy about the complementarity of our genitalia.

And to go further, not all genitalial organs and their reproductive systems reproduce in heterosexual arrangements due to a myriad of reasons such as choice, age, medical reasons, economic factors, preferring to adopt etc. Would these limitations of reproduction thus render such couples gay heterosexuals or lesbian heterosexuals? Or are they fake or abnormal or subnormal heterosexuals? The reproductive argument is a truncating argument of convenience built on fallacy. (Additionally, it provides permission for those who see themselves as men in this heteronormative order to rove around almost as predators, entitled to see those classified as women as a natural prey for their masculine sexuality.)

This is by no means controversial: gays and lesbians are neither attracted to nor sexual towards all gays and lesbians either. But in so far as masculinity as a heterosexual orientation depends on the designation of large sections of the population as female, and especially as an opposite sex and as a consequence an opposite gender of itself, then implicitly those designated as female are cast as universally accessible to those designated as males: it is this generalizing notion which needs to be challenged, because it is a major mechanism by which heteronormativity as a regime is sustained along with its policing infrastructure and its implicit violence.

In this photo: two Males, one in their non-spirit form and other in spirit form enact seduction, desire and flirtatious behavior. In terms of sex binaries, these two people are male, but in spirit form, the sexuality of the one on the right manifests the inhabiting female ancestral spirit. This is an instance of sexual and gender fluidity. Source and credits: World Folklore Photographers Association

In conclusion, some African wisdom on this matter: a friend and colleague of mine from Zimbabwe pointed me to an article written by a Nigerian-American author. In that piece, the writer raises questions about ontological notions about biological sex and the ways in which this ontology which concretizes sexuality between the two dichotomized categories of male and female becomes problematic in light of certain forms of African spirituality: Ancestral spirit inhabitation, for example, does not enforce such concrete sex boundaries. Female people can be inhabited by spirits of male ancestors, and male people can be inhabited by spirits of female ancestors, to the extent that those inhabited manifest the characteristics of ancestral people in presently living bodies.

In those situations, what then is the fundamental basis for sexual identity when an inhabited person sees, feels, thinks, walks and experiences the world through the spirit of another sex, while being perceived and experienced by onlookers and other participants as authentically inhabited by and revealing the attributes of that deceased person? When manifesting the ancestors’ attributes, has the inhabited person not transcended the restrictions which operate on the uninhabited Male or Female body along with its gendered stipulations? This argument further shatters the attribution of fixed, unchanging and binary heteronormative categories as being rooted in African tradition: I attribute — as I will discuss in a future piece — fixed sexes, their gender constructs and their attendant sexualities to postcolonial respectability bio-politics which has its own social and political epistemology as well as its postcolonial functions. But the point here is this, the matter about African sexuality is clearly much more complicated and complex.

In this photo, Nyau manifests in dance an Ancestral Spirit who could be, or may have had interaction with, an European woman. The dress code conforms to Chitenje-dress which is common among women in Malawi, Zambia and other countries as far as Ghana — but the hair and face mask reveals gender, sexual and even racial fluidity. Source and credits: News Day Zimbabwe

I dare say once more, when devolved to the domain of the specific, biological designations become incidental within a wider landscape of sexual orientation so that those of us who continue to be labeled as heterosexuals can find a way out of culpability with heteronormativity as a sexual regime along with its attendant violence. At the level of the specific, I disavow masculinity in general and emphasize my preferences within social contexts for another person who just so happens to possess a biological configuration which has traditionally (and in a grave error) been cast as my opposite. Surely, this too allows me to love who I may love and to be loved by whoever may love me due to forms which are also very specific to me and within the contexts and environments within which I live or find myself. In this way, we too can activate a type of politics which challenges heteronormativity in its generality as a sexual regime along with its policing technologies and infrastructures.

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