In African Women’s Soccer, Homophobia Remains an Obstacle
Eucharia Uche, Nigerian women’s soccer coach, called the presence of lesbians on the national team a “worrisome experience.”
By JERÉ LONGMAN
Published: June 21, 2011
Franz Neumayr for The New York Times
The Nigerian national squad is participating in its sixth Women’s World Cup.
Over the past two years, as Nigeria progressed toward the Women’s World Cup, which begins Sunday in Germany, Uche said that she has used religion in an attempt to rid her team of homosexual behavior, which she termed a “dirty issue,” and “spiritually, morally very wrong.”
FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, states as part of its mission a desire to use the game in “overcoming social and cultural obstacles for women with the ultimate aim of improving women’s standing in society.” But the story of Nigeria’s Super Falcons illustrates the cultural obstacles that remain for many African women who play soccer decades after more assertive efforts at inclusivity occurred in places like the United States, Germany, Norway, Sweden and more recently in Brazil.
Uche said she had never witnessed her own players participating in homosexual activity. Instead, she said that she had relied on rumors, speculation and news media accounts to form her belief that lesbian behavior had been common in the Nigerian team.
“When rumors are strong, you are bound to believe it is happening,” Uche, 38, said in a telephone interview from Nigeria’s World Cup training camp in Saalfelden, Austria.
In March, Uche made similar remarks to The Daily Sun newspaper of Nigeria. The newspaper also quoted a former technical assistant for the country’s soccer federation, James Peters, saying that he had removed some players from Nigeria’s women’s team last year, “not because they were not good players, but because they were lesbians.”
That was not her style, Uche said from Austria. Instead, she said, she had regularly brought in Pentecostal ministers to pray with and counsel her players. Her players routinely read the Bible and sometimes prayed together, Uche said.
“The issue of lesbianism is common,” said Uche, who previously played in the World Cup for Nigeria and described herself as a Christian who is married and a mother of two children. “I came to realize it is not a physical battle; we need divine intervention in order to control and curb it. I tell you it worked for us. This is a thing of the past. It is never mentioned.”
On a continent where homosexual behavior is widely considered immoral, lesbians are sometimes ostracized and subjected to beatings. In countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, some women are rapedin a so-called corrective treatment for homosexual behavior.
In one high-profile case in South Africa, a top female soccer player and lesbian activist, Eudy Simelane, 31, was murdered in 2008. Although one of her attackers testified that robbery was the motive in the stabbing death, Simelane’s death became the focus of a campaign to draw attention to violence against gays and lesbians.
Last year, Nigeria, which is making its sixth appearance in the World Cup, accused Equatorial Guinea, another Cup participant, of using at least one and perhaps two male players on its team because of their supposed masculine appearance. Soccer officials from Equatorial Guinea called the charge unfounded, saying it stemmed from an “inferiority complex” among rival African teams.
The case was dismissed by the Confederation of African Football, the continent’s governing body, according to a spokesman for the Nigerian soccer federation. Uche said, “Until it is proved, no one can say a player is a man or a woman.”
The treatment of lesbians in sport is not a matter restricted to women in Africa. Some women on previous United States national soccer teams have been reluctant to live openly gay lifestyles for fear of repercussions. And despite all the advances of gender equity in sport, lesbianism remains a sensitive matter in recruiting in college basketball.
But homosexuality remains a particularly taboo subject and carries a significant social stigma in many parts of Africa. Nigeria is divided between a Muslim north and Christian south. Homosexual acts are prohibited and those who are openly gay or lesbian risk harassment and blackmail, experts said. In Nigeria’s north, gay men can face death by stoning for sodomy.
“It’s sad because a lot of Nigerians look at homosexuality almost as a disease,” said Unoma Azuah, a Nigerian-born novelist who teaches literature at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn., and has written extensively about the treatment of lesbians and bisexuals in Africa’s most populous nation. “It’s a very harsh environment.”
As economies have stagnated in countries like Nigeria and Uganda and many people have lost faith in progress, they have increasingly turned to conservative interpretations of Christianity and Islam, said Marc Epprecht, a historian who is the acting head of the department of global development studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and has researched gender and sexuality in Africa.
“Homophobia is an easy way to simplify the message of these churches,” Epprecht said. “ ‘Our church is more moral than that one. Come join us. You can have a good life on earth if you follow strict, simple beliefs.’ ”
Joanie Evans of England, who is a co-president of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association, said her group was “appalled” by the Nigeria situation.
“Women in sport are seen as a poor relation as it is,” Evans said. “To discriminate against women again because of their sexuality is really damaging.”
Evans criticized FIFA for not being as forceful in fighting against homophobia as it has been trying to counter racism in soccer. FIFA said that gender discrimination was strictly prohibited and that violations could result in suspensions or expulsions, but that it could not comment on the Nigeria case because it had received no official information or complaints.
In South Africa, one soccer team has challenged homophobia on the continent. It is an openly lesbian team of black players in Johannesburg called the Chosen Few. Still, participation carried its risks, players told The New York Times in interviews for a video made during the 2010 men’s World Cup.
One player, Tumi Mkhuma, said she had been raped and left pregnant by the attack. After losing her baby, she said she twice tried to kill herself. The Chosen Few was a second family, she said, and while playing, “I feel free to be who I am.” Still, Mkhuma continued to be pained by the assault.
“Sometimes, I wish I was dead,” she said.
In Nigeria, it seems unlikely that any lesbian players would live so openly as to challenge Uche, the coach, and risk losing a spot on the national team and a chance to play professionally in Europe or the United States, said Azuah, the Nigerian writer.
“I don’t see any choice they have,” Azuah said. “I know a lot of homosexuals who have found a way to survive, to pretend. Maybe some of them have felt a spiritual transformation. Who knows? The most important thing is to be empowered and have a career, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them.”
When asked about her coach’s position, Precious Dede, Nigeria’s captain and goalkeeper, said in a telephone interview from Austria that she was not in position to answer such a question. “I don’t know anything about it,” she said. “Anything she tells you is the fact.”
June 15, 2011 | 8:48 pm
James Franco Q & A: His Film on Tortured Gay Poet Hart Crane
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
A mustachioed Franco portrays Crane (1899-1932), who emerged on the scene with his Brooklyn-bridge epic, “The Bridge” yet agonized over ever written word—even as he ferociously chased sailors, and was “incredibly comfortable with his sexuality,” Franco said by phone. But booze, brawls and depression took its toll on the poet, whose last work, “The Broken Tower,” chronicles his single heterosexual affair. Not long thereafter, when Hart was 32 – just a year younger than Franco – he jumped from a boat into the Gulf of Mexico and drowned.
Franco’s black-and-white film captures Hart’s brief, burning life in 12 “voyages,” or chapters, that merge verbal and visual imagery. It’s a stream-of-consciousness telling of Hart’s early years as the rebellious son of a wealthy Cleveland businessman; his sojourns through New York, Cuba and Paris; his torrid affair with a ship’s purser named Emil Opffer (Michael Shannon); his manic highs and suicidal lows and of course, his unapologetic love of men. The sex scenes, are, accordingly, explicit, with Franco-as-Hart ebulliently performing fellatio on what appears to be an impressive phallus, or ecstatic as he is topped during anal sex.
The idea for the film began as Franco was reading Paul Mariani’s biography of Crane, also titled “The Broken Tower,” on the set of the 2002 film, “Sonny” (Franco played a male prostitute who was pimped out by his mother). “I suppose it was that he had the quintessential tortured artist’s life,” Franco said of why he was drawn to the material. “Crane was trying to write in a way that was atypical for his time; he was not understood by most of his peers; he was struggling both with his financial circumstances and within himself to produce his work. He drank, he had lots of sex, he had one great, if short-lived, love. And so I thought, ‘That’s a story that lends itself to a film, easier than a story about someone like James Joyce, [who] wasn’t as readily dramatic or tragic. Although it could be done, it’s not quite the same kind of tortured life.”
Franco began the film as his masters degree thesis at New York University’s film school, and eventually decided to star in it himself. “He has made a film about Hart Cane, the visionary, but also about the hard life of Hart Crane, as a gay man, not just gay, but a wolf, really, going after sailors,” Mariani told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “And also his heavy drinking, despondency and proneness to suicide.”
The graphic gay sex scenes will no doubt be fodder for those who love to speculate as to Franco’s sexuality, given that he has also played the lover of congressman Harvey Milk in “Milk” and the Jewish beat poet Allen Ginsberg in “Howl.” He’ll release a vinyl album in July with his frequent collaborator, the drag queen Kalup Lindsay, and he once famously teased a reporter, “Maybe I’m just gay.”
Franco, who reportedly has had the same girlfriend, the actress Ahna O’Reilly, since 2006, appears to enjoy provocative intellectual fare as much as playing the provocateur.
Here are excerpts from the rest of our interview:
NPM: What was it like for Crane as a homosexual in the 1920s?
JF: He didn’t seem to have ever been troubled by gay at a time when it must’ve been much more difficult to come out. But aside from not telling his parents, I think he was pretty open about it among his friends. So that didn’t seem to be a big issue, although he had that strange, unique-for-him, heterosexual relationship with Peggy Crowley, while he was in Mexico. But for me that didn’t feel like it was Crane renouncing the way he had lived before or that he had been struggling with being straight his whole life. Somehow he just came together with Peggy at a time when he was very emotionally needy. She was someone he felt really close to, and so it was more just coming together with a person; it wasn’t really about being troubled over being gay.
NPM: Why do you think Crane jumped from that boat?
JF: In the film, I tried to show a lot of the different contributing factors that might have led to his suicide. Who really knows what the one trigger was, but there were a list of possibilities: His parents sounded like they had a really horrible marriage; he was a teenager when he tried to kill himself for the first time, and had a history of suicide attempts from a very young age. While I (again) don’t think he was troubled over being gay, his whole life he had trouble with drinking and he was probably an alcoholic. Then his father was a millionaire from selling chocolate, but he never really gave Hart any support. I think that Crane had been waiting his whole life, first to inherit money from his grandmother, and then from his father, and when that didn’t happen it was probably a big blow.
In addition, it was so difficult for him to write—I mean it just took years and years and YEARS—and his friends had turned on him with [negative reviews]. So there he was going back to a New York that had just fallen into the Depression; he felt like he couldn’t write anymore—he had been trying to write some epic about the history of Mexico; he had just written a poem that nobody cared about; he had no money and no inheritance; he was going to have to find a job in advertising again, which to an extremely sensitive person like him was just hell. And maybe he wouldn’t even get that kind of job because it was the Depression. So he was just going back to a place where he really had nothing to look forward to but misery.
NPM: Are there ways in which you identify with Crane, as an artist and a person?
JF: I suppose there are things that I both admire and, in some ways, think he maybe went too far with. He was an autodidact; he didn’t go to college, but he was always searching, and his letters are famous for engaging in these very pure and intense dialogues about his work. But he went too far in that he was very stubborn. He knew his work was difficult, and that he was going to turn off most readers. But he felt that if he had six good readers that was enough for him. I am in a business where that’s harder to do, because movies cost more money, so you need more than six viewers to make the money back, or nobody is going to invest in your movies anymore. So I guess I admire his attitude, but when I’m dealing with something like a film, I try – depending on the subject – to walk a middle ground. The film, “The Broken Tower” is not going to be a blockbuster, but I’ve made it for not a ton of money – I made it for a very responsible amount of money, because I know what it is. But I’ve also tried to be true my subject and not water down or try and make it more entertaining just for entertaining’s sake.
NPM: Speaking of popular entertainment, you’re starring as a (human) scientist in the “Planet of the Apes” prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (to hit theaters on Aug. 5). Do you view the original “Planet of the Apes” films as an allegory of race relations in America? And was the fact that these films transcend their science fiction genre part of the draw for you?
JF: Yes, it was. I wasn’t a “Planet of the Apes” aficionado but I went back and looked at the older movies. The setup for the original films was extremely well done because the apes were great figures to compare ourselves to. They look different but are as intelligent as humans, so the underlying premise is that these two cultures are not very different at all, yet they are fighting and each thinks it’s superior to the other.
Our film doesn’t really delve into race relations, because it’s an origin story, so the apes are only starting to grow into their intelligent versions. They’re in the transition stage, so the dynamic between the apes and the humans is very different than in any of the older films. I really don’t think there’s a strong racial bent in our film; it’s more about the dangers of experimentation and the relationship between human and animals than anything else.
NPM: The last time I spoke with you, you mentioned you’d like to have a bar mitzvah when you have the time. [Franco’s mother, Betsy Franco, is Jewish; his father is not.]
JF: Yes, I would [still] like to. I would have appreciated having gone to Hebrew school and having that history, just because I love learning and I had so many friends who were going to Hebrew school and having bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs when I was growing up. At the time, I didn’t envy them, because none of them seemed to really enjoy it; it was a chore. [laughs] My parents were all over the map in terms of religion, but maybe it was good that nothing was imposed on me too strongly because there were so many different influences. But I am very interested in learning more about my Jewish heritage.
For information about “A Conversation With James Franco” at the Los Angeles Film Festival (a screening of “The Broken Tower” plus discussion afterwards), visit http://www.lafilmfest.com/2
Wow I am so disappointed in Halle Berry she just continues to choose the wrong projects! The trailer for Dark Tide is boring there is no suspense or action! Halle Berry has really fallen off in the last couple of years. The media are more obsessed about Halle and her co star Olivier Martinez falling in love than Dark Tide LOL! The trailer has no excitement the acting is really bad. I just feel this movie is not going to do well. According to Box Office Mojo, Halle Berry last film Frankie & Alice only made $10,000 dollars!
THE ROAD TO THE “GAY GIRL IN DAMASCUS”
I really felt, a number of years ago, that in discussions on Middle East issues while living in the U.S., it was often—finding that when I presented real facts and opinions, that the immediate reaction to someone with my name was, you know, why are you anti-American, why are you anti-Jewish? Which, both are completely false…
Getting that kind of reaction was distracting from the real focus. So I invented a name to talk under that would keep the focus on the actual issues.
So he thought that he, Tom MacMaster, had an identity interesting enough to prove to be a distraction, to the extent that it needed to be hidden behind one that was suitably abstract and invisible, and that “Amina” fit the bill? There are insults wrapped in insults in this story. After all, MacMaster is not claiming that he invented Amina because she was compelling enough to get the attention he couldn’t—which she was, and that is bad enough—but that she could be enough of a cipher to allow his fascinating insights to shine through. Amina was, by his account, designed not as a muse or an idol but as an amanuensis.
Given his methods, he couldn’t accomplish even what he said that he wanted. And he may have endangered people who let down their guard trying to help Amina, as well as those who actually try to be heard. In one of his posts, Amina is saved from the secret police when her father yells at them. Who was MacMaster instructing or reproaching with that one? His confession, and partial apology, posted on his blog yesterday, was gapingly inadequate, culminating in these lines:
This experience has sadly only confirmed my feelings regarding the often superficial coverage of the Middle East and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism.
However, I have been deeply touched by the reactions of readers.
It is not charming to hear someone who has emotionally manipulated any number of people—not just readers of the blog, but correspondents he deceived and allowed to confide in him over the course of years—to go on about the shallowness of others. Should we feel better because we have moved him? In a followup, posted today, he begins by making some of the proper apologetic gestures, but then veers into a self-indulgent stream of discussions about his literary ambitions, how great his mother is, his fake Internet dating profiles, and how, while he “enjoyed ‘puppeting’ this woman who never was,” fake blogging “was a terrible time suck.” Girls are such trouble.
Is this an indictment of the Internet? He couldn’t have pulled precisely this hoax without it—but we’ve had hoaxes for ages. Some of the writers of anti-Catholic nun abduction stories in past centuries (also involving fanciful lesbians) might have made similarly spurious claims about the importance of their message. And the Web, when roused, was remarkably efficient at exposing MacMaster, from alerting the woman in London whose pictures he used to tell-tale Picasa accounts and I.P. addresses. Most of all, there was a stubborn belief that, if Amina did exist, she, or someone who knew her personally, must be findable via social media. That is a remarkable place to have arrived at. We assume that a gay girl in Damascus wouldn’t be alone, or unreachable. But MacMaster may have made her harder to recognize, and her situation more precarious than it needed to be.