Same-sex erotic behaviour is virtually universal in human societies. Few societies that have been carefully studied have been found to yield no evidence of same-sex eroticism. One survey found that in forty-nine out of the seventy-six societies it examined, some form of same-sex sexual behaviour was socially acceptable.footnote1 But just what forms of sexuality exist and are considered acceptable varies enormously from one society to the next. Since the Stonewall rebellion in 1969, gay–lesbian movements have been rising up everywhere—including the Third World. Particularly since the 1980s, lesbians and gay men have declared their existence and formed organizations in Third World countries. Many of these people have shown extraordinary courage in being open about their lives and demanding their rights in the face of hatred and violence. Sometimes their struggle to live freely has even seemed to be directed against their own cultures and peoples, as when Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe banned the Zimbabwe Gay and Lesbian Association from an international book fair in August 1995, condemning gays as immoral and un-African.

Mugabe did an injustice to the burgeoning lesbian and gay communities and movements of southern Africa, as well as to the traditions of Zimbabwe’s majority Shona people. In general, those who repress Third World lesbians and gay men are one-sidedly selecting from and manipulating indigenous traditions. Anti-gay attitudes do not help to free Third World peoples from outside domination. Rather, they are a single aspect of their more general suffering under the ‘New World Order’ and the current global economic crisis. Newly arising gay and lesbian movements are an aspect of Third World peoples’ efforts to reclaim and redefine their nations and cultures.footnote2

There are various reasons why it is difficult to create an analysis and strategy for gay–lesbian liberation in the Third World. When compared to the history of homosexuality in the West, same-sex eroticism in the Third World has been little studied, and many of the studies which do exist, mostly dating from the past decade or so, have been by Europeans, North Americans and Australians. Much data, particularly from old ethnographic studies, is tainted by racial and sexual prejudice. Even present-day activists and scholars in the Third World have sometimes translated European and North American gay–lesbian writings rather than theorize from their own research and experience. Another problem is the enormous diversity of both Third World social formations and cultures, and of sexualities in different classes or milieus even within a single country. Virtually the only thing that unites Third World countries, after all, is domination by imperialism which has had a fairly strong unifying effect on their economic structures, a somewhat lesser impact on other aspects of their social structures, and perhaps the most diverse and varying effects on their cultures, including their sexuality.

The starting points for Third World same-sex eroticism were the very varied indigenous sexualities of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Many indigenous kinship-based cultures of Africa and the Americas had same-sex eroticism of a ‘transgenderal’ type, in which certain people took on the social roles and characteristics of a different gender. By contrast, Islamic West and Central Asia and North Africa, where slaves and city dwellers were often cut off from their original communities and kin, had same-sex sexualities that were largely age- and class-defined: male youths and slaves in these cultures sometimes took on ‘passive’, ‘feminine’ sexual roles. In the past five centuries, however, Third World sexual cultures have been overlaid by European and North American conquest and domination. Indigenous sexualities have often been suppressed or reshaped; different European and North American sexualities have been imposed or imported; and new, unique sexualities have emerged.

Two forms of same-sex eroticism that developed in Europe, North America and Australasia from the fourteenth century onwards, and which can be termed ‘commodified transgenderal’ sexuality and ‘reciprocal gay–lesbian sexuality’, were different from any of the Third World’s indigenous sexualities. European commodified transgenderal sexuality, which was notably brought to Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese from the fifteenth century onwards, resembled traditional, kinship-based transgenderal sexuality in that it involved certain people taking on social roles and characteristics of another gender. But it differed from any traditional transgenderal sexuality in that it was largely urban, largely detached from rather than integrated into traditional kinship networks, more or less associated with prostitution for money rather than any kind of socially sanctioned marriage, and at odds with instead of sanctioned by the dominant religion. This type of sexuality put down deep roots in Latin America. Aspects of it seem to have been taken on by indigenous Southeast Asian transgenderal sexualities.