Some emerging thoughts on the future directions of research on African Urban Sexualities

As outlined in the introduction to this Special Issue, we can see potential for future scholarship on non-heteronormative sexualities that engages with new theoretical languages and techniques (or retooling existing theoretical approaches to the realities of the African continent), addresses the still very significant empirical research gaps on African sexualities in urban environments, and which spread beyond the social sciences, potentially into the humanities and further afield.

In terms of theoretical tools, contributors to the Special Issue have shown the very significant potential to create and explore new languages to help articulate the multiple linkages between sexuality and African urban spaces. African cities have been shown as sites where various sexual subjects are able to devise very diverse strategies of liveability, sociability, and socio-sexual interaction, despite oftentimes severe sexuality-based discrimination (both social and legal). In various interventions, cities both large and small have not simply been backdrops to wider social processes, but instead have been deeply implicated in the opportunities and constraints faced by various communities. Future research may wish to engage further with the particularities of African urbanisation, often marked by rapid growth and significant forms of informality, and how these unique factors reflect and enable other forms of liveability, sociability, and socio-sexual interaction in ways potentially very different from scholarship and theoretical languages which dominate in the urban North. Approaches that explore new ways of coming to understand, conceptualise and theorise African urban sexualities may then add substantively to existing scholarship from within southern (African) urbanism. Topics that may prove especially important to consider include scholarship on the ‘urban everyday’, the ‘urban hustle’, or scholarship which has considered people as forms of infrastructure to address development challenges (Pieterse, 2011; Simone, 2010, 2021; Thieme, 2018). Equally such new approaches may chart new ways in which we come to understand how non-heteronormative subjects interface with numerous and under-theorised spaces, a topic already that is starting to be covered within sexualities scholarship on northern sites (see for example, Halberstam, 2005; Podmore & Bain, 2020).

In terms of very significant research gaps, numerous contributors to this Special Issue have highlighted areas where future empirical work is pressingly needed (and also started to show ways of undertaking such work). Perhaps most directly, we can see this in the continued skew towards South Africa and South African cities as sites of analysis (see also below). While research in this Special Issue also focused in part on Nairobi and other African cities, there remain very significant and key knowledge gaps both about cities across the wider continent and the ways in which non-heteronormative communities have engaged with them. How might (sometimes) different pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial histories across the continent shape the relationships between sexualities and urban spaces? How might such different histories potentially present different opportunities (or constraints) for communities to address forms of stigma and discrimination, to make the city their own? How might we wish to start potentially seeing similarities across African cities which may go towards informing wider theoretical languages and approaches that do not take as their starting point potentially parochial theorisations from the North? How might we try and understand how and why there are not similarities, but rather forms of difference, with regard to the relationships between sexuality and space across the breadth of the continent? What might such forms of difference mean for the possibility of wider theorisations? We cannot even begin to answer such (admittedly, very big) questions without far greater empirical work on sexuality and specifically non-heteronormative sexualities in African cities.

In terms of appreciating diverse writing that extends beyond the social sciences, we may want to consider more directly and engage more forcibly with approaches that have in varying ways engaged with the relationship between sexualities and African urban spaces from a far wider array of disciplines and a wider array of writings. While two of the interventions in this Special Issue pointed towards the importance of embracing the humanities and journalistic writing, we may also want to consider embracing and engaging with other modalities as well. This may be important to help highlight and help situate the centrality of diverse urban dynamics within existing work on sexuality in Africa (for example, the large literatures that already exists from a public health perspective, or the wide-ranging work from disciplines such as anthropology). This may also be important to bring into discussion with social science academics forms of writing which may help constitute archives of local knowledge that can go to enrich and inform academic studies. For example, blogs, Facebook pages, and web-forums already exist among and for non-heteronormative communities in a range of cities across the continent. Scholars may want to consider how to engage with such resources ethically and collaboratively in ways which help support local communities and which shed light on local urban dynamics to help chart new research directions.

Collectively, the sheer scope of research opportunities can help us to appreciate why we may wish to consider future research on the topic of African urban sexualities something still of an ‘open field’. Scholarship that addresses such an open field therefore may both add to existing literatures on urban non-heteronormative sexualities (which as outlined in the introduction remains still largely tethered to sites of relative privileged in the urban North) while also taking forward in radically new directions an exploration of potentially unique social, cultural, political constellations occurring in cities in Africa from a southern perspective. Put more plainly, a study of African urban sexualities may both enrich existing northern scholarship and enrich the growing body of scholarship on southern epistemologies that especially related to the fast-growing topic of southern urbanism.

Yet beyond simply the utility of complimenting and extending existing scholarship, we can also read the preceding interventions as a set of cautionary warnings for what might happen if we do not engage more with this research area. As many of the interventions in this Special Issue pointed out, there are very real risks that can emerge if urban dynamics related to non-heteronormative sexualities on the continent are overlooked. For example, not exploring the urban as a key site of study in relation to African sexualities runs to risk of skewing perspectives and analytical foci towards wider scales (for example transnational cross-border migration) rather than the urban everyday as experienced by different communities and groups. Indeed, here we might also want to consider how a very great deal of scholarship related to sexuality and sexuality-based justice on the continent remains overtly or implicitly related to human rights struggles (due, understandably, to often-times severe forms of sexuality-based discrimination), which can nevertheless lead to a focus on the national, rather than the municipal scale (Tucker, 2020). Yet, it often remains the case that the organisations which are pushing for legal and social change are based within—and conducting activism within—primary and secondary cities (ibid.). Furthermore, as several of the interventions in the Special Issue also pointed out, it is important to consider the relational dynamics between cities and wider geographic scales. Simply focusing on national or transnational structures, risks losing sight of the ways cities themselves may be feeding into processes at wider scales, including both the wider regions around cities and also (potentially) into national or transnational dynamics and policy processes.

Furthermore, not engaging in research into the lives of non-heteronormative communities in cities runs the risk of overlooking the strategies by which forms of liveability and negotiations with diverse forms of heteronormativity highlight the pragmatic agencies of various subjects. Here we can also risk losing sight of the importance of urban environments—and the way they are harnessed by individuals and communities—both for varying forms of anonymity and for varying forms of visibility. As wider scholarship on sexuality on the global South has highlighted, there remains a risk that subjects in the South remain framed as needing ‘saving’ by actors and policy processes in the North, undermining the existence of strategic and pragmatic forms of agency of subjects and groups in the South (Brown & Browne, 2016; Kollman & Waites, 2009). Appreciating the agencies of the local communities as they navigate urban environments, make such environments their home, and engage with diverse spaces may help counter regressive discourses regarding the positioning of global South actors in relation to global North actors and policy processes.

Yet while, as outlined above, there are a range of key impetuses for wanting to undertake research on African urban sexualities, it would be remiss in an article such as this not to acknowledge also the significant challenges that can remain at being able to undertake research of this type. This is the focus of the final section of this article.

Challenges at being able to undertake research on African Urban Sexualities

As noted, both in the introduction to this Special Issue and again here, it is noticeable—and not at all surprising—that the majority of scholarship on the topic of African Urban Sexualities still emanates from South Africa. The reason is clear: South Africa is the country on the continent with the most liberal and progressive laws regarding sexuality, as a direct result of the new Constitution adopted after the end of Apartheid. For the vast majority of states across the continent, non-heteronormative sexualities remain either severally stigmatised or illegal. Even scholarship in this Special Issue that was undertaken elsewhere on the continent was conducted by scholars whose university or other affiliation was in South Africa. This presents key challenges that are necessary to acknowledge and look towards addressing.

A key challenge to acknowledge is that of safety, and directly linked to that, the issue of ethics. Being able to undertake research on communities who are in many cases clandestine or semi-clandestine presents very real risks for scholars and equally potentially very real and severe risks for research participants. This is especially the case for research which wishes to explore, ethnographically, the lives of communities who in many instances may be deemed illegal by the laws of their country. There is also, clearly, no easy fix to this issue. It is, however, an issue that—in part—may be addressed in several ways. For example, scholars could continue to build relationships with various NGOs and community groups who support the needs of LGBTQ groups, both to learn from them and to support them despite the challenges they face with various forms of stigma and discrimination. As southern urban scholarship more broadly has already outlined, this is not simply to help enable access to marginalised communities. Instead, and just as importantly, it is to make sure that research is co-designed in the most context-appropriate ways with those most in need of more information and more data about those they are tasked to assist (Parnell & Pieterse, 2015). There is, in other words, the need for forefront forms of solidarity between scholars and communities and between scholars and organisations to help guide research to make sure it is not only safe and ethical but also that it speaks to and hopefully addresses gaps in knowledge most important to communities and organisations (Tucker, 2023).

Furthermore, it may be prudent to consider how the relationships between sexuality and the urban may themselves speak to wider concerns, which can provide additional ‘logics’ to enable access to urban communities otherwise deemed illegal or socially stigmatised. Such ‘logics’ should not be seen to be undermining, or indeed eliding or hiding, the central importance of exploring and coming to understand the relationships between sexuality and urbanisation in Africa. Rather such additional ‘logics’ may help situate such relationships within broader discourses or policy processes which have already gained or are the process of gaining traction—and just as importantly, have impact on diverse communities themselves. A clear potential example presently is the drive to address climate change, with scholars highlighting the need to consider sexuality as part of adaptation/mitigation frameworks (Cannon et al., 2023). This is due to the clear potential that in particular contexts LGBTQ groups may suffer increased rates of unemployment and insecure housing (tied to experiences of stigma and discrimination) which in turn may make them especially vulnerable to climate risks (ibid.). Within Africa, there is also growing awareness that any ‘Just Transition’ to address climate change will have an overt urban inflection and impact (PCC, 2022). We might therefore wish to consider important opportunities to overlay and relate research on African urban sexualities to broader debates that are already at the forefront of current political and popular discourses.

Of course, such approaches, that draw on wider ‘logics’ will require time and resources to develop to be implemented effectively. In the context of emergent research on African urban sexualities, we may nevertheless see benefit in devoting time and resources to such links, especially since there already exist implicit connections between urban sexuality questions and wider debates or ‘logics’. For example, we have already seen in this Special Issue how broader issues and concerns that are playing out directly on the African continent, such as cross-border migration and refugee crises, do have direct applicability to African urban sexualities research. Taken to an extreme, it could well be argued that it would be myopic not to spend time exploring the connections between urban sexualities in Africa and wider discourses or ‘logics’. What is patently clear, however, is that such research—as with potential future solidarities between researchers and communities outlined earlier—is conducted in ways which forefront the needs of local communities.

We must also, in addition, acknowledge a further challenge for research on Africa urban sexualities that may exist and find most clear expression within universities located throughout the continent. While scholars are understandably wary of overtly and formally documenting such challenges, and I am also wary here of relying solely on word-of-mouth examples to highlight a point, it does nonetheless bear mentioning that there can exist challenges faced by scholars researching topics in university or other higher education environments where wider society or the state is discriminatory towards certain sexualities. Here I am especially reminded of the points made by author and activist Cary Alan Johnson (2007), then Senior Specialist for Africa at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC)Footnote 1, over 15 years ago, who documented a range of reasons as to why there remained, generally, a lack of scholarship on non-heteronormative sexualities on the continent at the time. As Johnson outlined, these reasons can include experiences of discrimination by researchers themselves wishing to undertake research on topics that are socially stigmatised and potentially illegal; institutional unwillingness of otherwise rigorous research review panels to approve certain types of research; and a denial of behaviours such as same-sex acts on the continent. While it would be hoped that such challenges have lessened in the proceeding decade and a half, my own and other scholars experience would suggest that especially emergent researchers have to sometimes remain cautious in certain instances when wanting to undertake research on topics related to African urban sexualities. Again, we can see a potential reason why scholarship in this area remains still heavily skewed towards South Africa, where discrimination on the basis of sexuality is expressly prohibited in the country’s constitution.

Here, it is also worth noting that a cursory look at the biographies of several of the contributors to this Special Issue highlights how a significant cohort are more senior academics and writers, who are all deeply enmeshed into wider sexuality-based academic networks in the global North. These networks, such as the Queer and Trans Geographies Specialty Group (QTGSG) within the American Association of Geographers society and the Space, Sexualities and Queer Research Group (SSQRG) at the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers professional body, have clearly helped to transform the position of sexualities scholarship and its relationship to urban scholarship over the past thirty years. While located in the global North, they have nonetheless proved helpful and vital spaces to share not only ideas but also the experience of conducting research on topics that remains to varying degrees stigmatised in many parts of the world. Yet as research on African urban sexualities may start to gain greater purchase on the continent, there is, perhaps, the need for similar networks and support structures to be put in place for academics working and living on the continent whose work may at times push at the boundaries of existing scholarly endeavours. Such networks, and the future research that may in part emerge as a result of them, remain key avenues to place more firmly, and with the necessary legitimacy, validity and urgency, African urban sexualities research within the academy, and beyond.


As outlined at the beginning of this Special Issue, a core question which animated the desire to put this collection of interventions together was simply: What does it mean—and why is it important—to study or examine African urban sexualities (and specifically non-heteronormative sexualities) today? Hopefully, the Special Issue itself has highlighted that, while the question itself may appear simple, the answer—or rather answers—are indeed a lot more complex.

Yet, if one were to attempt to summarise the variety of ways in which the various contributors to this Special Issue have each in their own way attempted to answer this question across a variety of urban spaces, it becomes possible to suggest that there is efficacy and utility in attempting to understand relationships between sexuality and urban space in Africa that so far remain largely unknown. Equally, there is an opportunity to find and explore diverse ways of presenting and relaying a very wide array of new and important information about urban groups and communities who have largely remained ‘off the academic map’. And perhaps, most importantly, there is an ethical and human necessity to find ways of understanding and documenting the agency of, and collaboratively finding ways of supporting the needs of, those who may face forms of discrimination and violence far more severe to those of relative privilege within the academy.