Queering the Olympic Charter: Media Representations of Gay and Lesbian Athletes in West Africa and the Diaspora

Curator's Note

With 21 (and counting) openly gay and lesbian athletes competing at the 2012 London Summer Olympics, questions about how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should respond to countries that criminalize homosexuality are currently being asked—and answered—in a way that tends to stigmatize Africa and the Middle East, strengthening regional stereotypes. However, in West Africa in particular, local modes of media production are presenting celebratory accounts of iconic gay and lesbian athletes, countering conventional, Western-authored assumptions. 

Citations of West Africa’s gay rights violations are currently central to public, Olympic-themed discussions of the region in its diaspora, including and especially the United Kingdom. However, what is lost in the Western furor over the official African and Middle Eastern criminalization of homosexuality is the fact of, at the very least, West African media industries’ interest in the personal histories and political causes of gay and lesbian athletes. In early 2012, for instance, Ghanamma TV, Ghana’s most popular website, offered live streaming coverage of American Olympian Johnny Weir’s marriage to Viktor Voronov—a marriage that was, significantly, described as such on the site. Similarly, Globacom, a Nigerian telecommunications company with cable links to Nouakchott, Mauritania, has provided coverage of Australian diver Matthew Mitcham (who, like Weir, is openly gay).  

These and other examples attest to the recent and ongoing diversification of West African media industries—a diversification both of form and of content that operates as a crucial counterbalance to Western denunciations of Africa’s anti-gay laws. As absolutely necessary and as multifaceted as it may be, the fight for gay rights in Africa threatens, in its diasporic articulations, to ignore the tentatively tolerant efforts of West African media producers. Paying attention to these efforts can help both to extricate West Africa from the stereotypes that continue to envelop it and to bring it closer to the goals of Olympafrica, an organization started in Senegal whose mission is to promote Olympic ideals throughout the continent. As recent IOC-authored media coverage of Olympafrica suggests, these deeply humanist ideals are hardly at odds with gay rights advocacy—a point that is often lost in the calls to ban African countries from competing at the Olympics.

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