Last spring, Dr. Xavier Livermon, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, debuted the university’s first African Queer Studies course that examines LGBT life in contemporary sub-Saharan Africa—a region where anti-gay sentiment and persecution is rife.
We caught up with Livermon to learn more about the political intolerance in Africa—and how academic activists can effectively combat anti-gay legislation in nations around the globe.
An understudied realm of political science…I was always interested in the ways in which I experienced culture as an unacknowledged or understudied site of politics. As an undergraduate political science major I became increasingly dissatisfied with the ways in which political science as a discipline often overlooked culture as a key site of political struggle.
The power of pop culture… Growing up, I saw how hip-hop had impacted my own life and way of thinking. After studying abroad in Ghana as an undergraduate, I became interested in thinking about how powerful popular culture could be as a voice for people who, because of age or lack of resources, could have only minimal influence in electoral politics. My interest in gender and sexuality and its relationship to the popular was an extension of these concerns since I began to think about how the politics of liberation or the politics of freedom for people of African descent often re-inscribed particularly hierarchies of gender and sexuality. I began to see how for women and for LGBT populations popular culture was an important site to push against restrictive modes of gender and sexuality.
Getting to the root of the problem…I think that students should consider that anti-gay legislation is often about a constellation of issues that in fact extend beyond simply the regulation of gender and sexuality and get into larger questions about sovereignty. I often tell my students that for many developing countries, the regulation of gender and sexuality is one of the few spaces where these states can demonstrate forms of sovereignty given that the current global political and economic system often imposes severe restraints on economic and political sovereignty. These laws are often popular in their home countries and can be enacted at little cost to the economic and political elite of these countries.
On gay rights, still more work to be done in the United States…I also want students to be aware that there is much anti-gay legislation still here in the United States (the recent passage of marriage equality notwithstanding) and that some African states have legislation that is far more progressive than federal protections that currently exist in the United States. It is important not to represent the United States (or other Western countries) as the arbiter of freedom and non-western countries (especially African ones) as the site of oppression. We also need to be mindful that in a number of African countries there has been a great deal of activism around these issues and that international intervention into LGBT issues on the African continent should not bypass local activism. Mozambique for example, is the latest African country to decriminalize consensual same sex relations.
Finding a sanctuary from the storm…I’m planning short research trip to South Africa during the fall. There I will be working on a research project that investigates the ways that Black LGBT South Africans use culture and cultural practices to create spaces of belonging for themselves. Part of this research is aimed at thinking through the ways that Black LGBT South Africans attempt to create forms of safety and security for themselves in their communities that do not rely solely on formal political processes or the criminal justice system.
Burnt Orange Bound…My main reason for coming to UT Austin was my excitement over the new Department of African and African Diaspora Studies, the first to offer a Ph.D. in the Southern United States in Black Studies. The vision of the program, which from its inception is activist, feminist and queer (LGBT) friendly was something unique in the United States academy and an opportunity that I could not forego. In particular, I was drawn to the department by the unique group of scholars who were working on issues salient to the global Black experience.
The rewards of teaching…The interaction with the students is by far the most enjoyable aspect of teaching. Particularly when students are grappling with new concepts or new ways of thinking and you as the instructor can provide them with a set of tools to help them consider a new perspective or re-imagine or rethink a concept, idea, or experience anew. This is always the most rewarding part of the teaching experience, equipping students with a set of critical thinking skills that can serve them well throughout life regardless of what specific careers they choose to pursue post graduation.
New opportunities for African studies scholars…Students who are interested in learning more about contemporary African issues around gender, sexuality and popular culture should consider registering for my Spring 2016 classes in African Queer Studies and Contemporary African Popular Culture. I also would encourage students interested in learning more about Africa to consider earning the new Certificate in African Studies that the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies now offers. There is a great deal of breadth in the kinds of courses that we offer and there is something for students considering a variety of careers including development, law, public policy, business and economics.