From Keguro Macharia – “Listening to African Queers”
A few weeks ago, I broke a longstanding personal rule and left a comment on a mainstream, very popular, award-winning U.S. gay blog. A long string of comments by mostly gay men (if web identities count for anything) supported the U.K.’s decision to consider sexual rights in granting aid. Many of the commentators condemned not simply homophobia and transphobia in Africa, but African governments and African citizens, the former explicitly the latter implicitly. “My tax dollars should not fund homophobia,” was a typical comment.
Against these certainties about African governments and African citizens, I pointed out the wealth of blogs and articles by African queers on the state of sexuality and rights in Africa and suggested that it would make sense if those pronouncing on Africa engaged with these sources. I also directed readers to the recent statement produced by African queer activists and organizations about aid conditionality. (But also see David Kuria’s dissent from this statement.) My attempt to suggest that African voices are worth listening to was ignored for the most part by those who considered themselves to be, variously, authorities on Africa, authorities on gay rights, defenders of gay rights, and defenders of aid conditionality.
At this particular table, there was no room for an African guest.
And because such online encounters are more common than not, this particular African guest returned to his online conversations with fellow African queers, musing about the futility of conversations with queers in the Global North who already know too much, want to save Africans but don’t want to listen to Africans, and want to cling to the (imperial) illusion that the Global North leads the way in gay rights—one wants to point out that, at least legislatively, South Africa is way ahead of the U.S. But let me not cloud the issue with facts.
I recount what is by now a tedious, too-familiar story, and adopt the position of the African in this particular story rather disingenuously. I am, after all, as much a product of the Global North as I am of the Global South. In a few short years, I will have spent as much time in one space as I have in the other. My education, my frameworks, my labor are in the Global North. And I am, for many, an unlikely person to speak for Africans or even to speak as an African. I know all too well that were my English less fluent, were my manners more diffident, were I more reliant on the salvific goodness of helpful foreigners, I would be more palatable to certain kinds of philanthropists who want stories about the awfulness of Africa and the chance to save another African.
Alas: I read Fanon at a formative moment.
Following the U.K.’s example, the U.S. has bought into aid conditionality tied to so-called sexual rights. It’s not yet clear what this will mean. But it is worrying.
Multiple blog posts from the U.S. have celebrated this “victory” for gay rights, this assertion that gay rights are human rights, universal rights: the U.S. is now on board with gay activism.
I am not celebrating.
In fact, I am disheartened by what feels like myopic celebrations that confirm, or suggest, that what is at stake in such a decision has nothing to do with helping African queers and everything to do with domestic U.S. feeling and neo-imperial machinations. I have no problem with U.S. queers celebrating this decision as an advance for U.S queer struggles; but let’s not confuse the issue and claim this decision has anything to do with African queers. Or that African queers were in any way consulted—not that we need to be, of course: knights in shining armor rarely ask whether the maiden and the dragon are engaged in an inter-species romance.
I am not suggesting that some African queers might not support aid conditionality. I am suggesting that such decisions can often accomplish more harm than good. While I am not interested in repeating tedious blather that Africans are “communal” while “westerners” are “individualistic,” I do want to emphasize that we all live deeply embedded lives. Aid conditionality based on sexual rights, and, really, gay rights, risks marginalizing the many kin-based, friend-based, and neighborhood-based networks inhabited by African queers. For the most part, African queers do not live in gay enclaves: cutting off major arteries to save tiny capillaries does not work. It simply cannot work.
More to the point, and to repeat something I’ve written before: positioning African queers as economic threats or as economic competition to other local, regional, and national projects renders us more vulnerable. In a country like Kenya where money is King, telling government agencies that money will not show up for a government project because queers are not treated well will most probably not result in better legislation or, more practically, better living conditions for queers. (Given Kenya’s strategic importance in the region and that we are happily killing Somalis for the Americans, I think our aid is safe.)
I realize that aid conditionality often has nothing to do with those populations deemed to be at risk. Or, rather, is based on information provided by “experts” who have “conducted studies” to “determine what is needed” and rarely, if ever, takes into consideration local needs and local situations, except as these are filtered through really fucked up lenses. I have sat through multiple presentations where so-called “experts” diagnosed Africans—yes, such collective terms are used too often—and heard myself described in ways I found utterly bewildering, reduced to a helpless, clueless child. When one speaks up at such meetings, one is told that one is an exception; no doubt, my U.S. education helped me grow toward civilization.
These too-frequent encounters (and once a year is too frequent for my taste) cost too much psychically for me to engage them. Thus, I skip most Africa-focused forums advertised in DC and most talks advertised by “well-known” Africanists—these are, strangely, also in short supply.
After all, how can I remain a happy African when others are so determined to infuriate me?
Who is listening to African queers? Who is listening to those who traverse local and international spaces, who understand local needs not because they spent 2 weeks on a grant-funded trip, but because they receive phone calls at 3 in the morning and spend countless hours making sure that queers find safe housing? Who is listening to those who through years of activism and study have developed methods for how to engage with political leaders?
Are efforts to save African queers ever really about African queers?