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Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives assertion is that same sex practices have existed in Africa for centuries. This is not an import from the "depraved" West (pg 17). Ruth Morgan and Saskia Wieringa's anthropological study based on first person interviews attempts to prove this. It also hopes to create more regional networks to give African lesbians a sense of belonging and identity so they would not feel like outcasts. As stated in the book, in Namibia and Tanzania there were organized groups to support lesbians, offer legal advice, and mobilize and educate women to their rights.
The study trained women to interview lesbians in their native country. Each "author" talked with 3-5 women, but none were able to keep any of the audiotapes they may have used because of the fear their subjects had of discovery, so most of the interviews quoted were from memory.
There were quite a few common themes that emerged. Most of the countries in the study outlawed homosexuality but did not specifically mention lesbians. If a country did not consider it a crime, it still used legal discrimination and sometimes used religion to shame lesbians for their "immoral" behavior. Namibia and South Africa were the exceptions. Both countries have legal rights barring some form of discrimination based on sexual orientation. While most of the women in the study had these feelings from grade school, they were closeted. Sometimes they were involved with men to cover up their sexuality or to get pregnant.
All of the countries represented had male-dominated societies with some giving no rights, land and inheritance to women. But even within these societies, some women challenged stereotypical female roles. Ovambo women, the ruling ethnic class in Namibia, could live independently and earn a living. Tommy Boys, Lesbian men (Both terms used to describe male- identified women) and male-identified females took on male dress and behavior. Some abused drinking; some also beat their "wives", adopting the male culture of that country. Others fell into butch-femme roles or the traditional responsibilities of husband and wife. In South Africa and Damara Namibia, their families accepted these positions.
While I found the book groundbreaking, enlightening and relevant, the writing was often disorganized and dry. Some of the authors were light on the respondents' comments, but heavy on conclusions. Other chapters flowed with interview comments, but did not tie in the conclusions well. However several chapters are the exception. Chapter four on Ovambo Namibia included a good mix of interviews and conclusions. The respondents' comments backed up the author's conclusions clearly. Chapter six on Johannesburg, South Africa was also well written, using the interviews to present the author's points. She also let the subjects conclude the chapter with their dreams of the future.
After the collection of author interviews, Morgan and Wieringa finish the book with two chapters, one on historical reflections and the other on the study's conclusions. Chapter nine on historical reflections shed light on the differences between this study and others. After reading it, I wondered if this chapter would have been better placed in the beginning of the book. It pointed out that the other studies used indirect observation. It also quoted studies that were twenty years or older. One study was over 60 years old. Either there were not any recent studies, or the authors chose not to compare them to their study.
Morgan and Wieringa's conclusions were strong and concise. They precisely stated what they believed they had accomplished. And while the importance of this book is not to be understated, better editing would have made Tommy Boys, Lesbian Men and Ancestral Wives an easier read.