Increasing levels of LGBT/community organization, social mobilization, and political activism can be observed in different parts of the continent.
“The reluctance in Western queer academic and activist circles to engage with religion is deeply problematic.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Adriaan van Klinken. van Klinken is Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds. His book is Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Adriaan van Klinken: There exists a widespread perception that homophobia is rife on the African continent. This idea of course echoes older discourses in which Africa is seen as “backward,” “conservative” and “traditional,” in comparison to the “modern,” “progressive” and “liberal” West. Part of this narrative is also the idea that religion is a key factor driving homophobia in African countries, and the notion that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people are largely victims in this socio-political climate.
I could have written a book that aims to provide insight into the politics of homophobia in contemporary Africa, or that deconstructs the Western narratives about it. Instead, Kenyan, Christian, Queer interrogates popular perceptions, and complicates the picture, by drawing attention to the other side of contemporary dynamics. Alongside waves of homophobia, but less well documented in Western media and scholarship, increasing levels of LGBT/ community organization, social mobilization, and political activism can be observed in different parts of the continent. And interestingly, grassroots African LGBT activism often engages, in creative ways, with religious language and symbols.
My book explores this side of the coin, with a specific focus on Kenya, a country that in recent years has witnessed rising levels of LGBT visibility and some encouraging steps towards social and political change (although there have been setbacks, too). Through four in-depth case studies, the reader gets a sense of the diverse and innovative ways in which LGBT communities in Kenya engage in what I call “queer arts of resistance,” and how religion, in this case specifically Christianity, is reclaimed as an empowering resource.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
So much attention has been paid to “African homophobes” – political leaders such as former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, who began with popular anti-gay rhetoric in the mid-1990s, and religious leaders such as pastor Martin Ssempa who from 2009 led the campaign for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda. The subtext has often been that LGBT people in Africa are vulnerable, if not powerless victims vis-à-vis these powerful figures in the social, political and religious domain. Interrogating this depiction, my book foregrounds the agency, resilience, and creativity of LGBT communities, and it reconstructs the ways in which they challenge popular representations and develop alternative notions of African, religious, and queer identity. Moreover, the book also draws attention to the way in which Christianity is a site, not only of conservative politics, but also of progressive socio-political critique and imagination.
“My book foregrounds the agency, resilience, and creativity of LGBT communities.”
What I hope readers will take away from the book is a sense of inspiration, by the creative ways in which Kenyan LGBT community members navigate their lives, negotiate their identities, claim public visibility, and construct new narratives. My reading of Kenyan LGBT activism through the lenses of African, Christian, and queer arts of resistance demonstrates the multiplicity of queer lives and the many forms that queer politics can take, which hopefully gives the reader food for thought, and for new imagination.
For those activists and community organizers in Kenya who happen to read my book, I also hope that they will recognize themselves in it, that they feel the book does justice to their experiences, and is a genuine and meaningful attempt of engaging with their work.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
My book has a strong focus on religion, specifically Christian traditions of thought and practice. I’ve been surprised by the responses I sometimes received, especially from academics work in the field of queer studies, but also from some LGBT activists, who would tell me that engaging with religion in any constructive way was a useless endeavor. Of course, I appreciate the pain and struggle that many queer people – myself included – have experienced with organized religion, in particular the church, and I understand that this can be a reason why many queer folk have given up on religion altogether. However, one of the key arguments I develop in this book is that the reluctance in Western queer academic and activist circles to engage with religion is deeply problematic. It excludes many queer people, especially (but not only) in Africa and other parts of the “global South,” for whom religious belief, ritual and practice is a vital part of their lives and identities, who have developed ways to negotiate their sexuality, gender identity and faith, and who engage with religion as a site of affirmation and empowerment. If any reader shares some of the bias against religion, and maybe specifically against Christianity, I hope that this book will un-learn any monolithic ideas about what religion is and does, and that instead they develop a sense of the multiple ways in which religious traditions can be creatively engaged.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
The real heroes that have inspired my work are many of the amazing LGBT activists and community members that I met in Kenya and in other parts of Africa while researching this book. I’ve learned a lot through my encounters and conversations with them, and I’ve been greatly inspired by the courage, creativity and resilience with which they address their struggles, by their hope and dreams for the future, and by their commitment to fighting for human dignity and justice.
Intellectually, Kenyan, Christian, Queer is indebted to a wide range of traditions of thought. The three epigraphs at the beginning of the book reflect this diverse influence and inspiration: from the Kenyan literary writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, from the Cameroonian critical theorist, Achille Mbembe, and from the Ghanaian feminist theologian, Mercy Oduyoye. These individual thinkers represent the traditions of creative writing and arts, of critical and postcolonial theory, and of African feminist thought, that have shaped my own thinking and writing. Another thinker I’ve been inspired by is the Cuban-American queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz, in particular his book Cruising Utopia. One of the challenges, but also the joys, of writing this book was weaving these rather diverse traditions of thought together in my analysis and argument, in a meaningful and coherent way. As such, the writing process was an exercise in taking the freedom to do something truly transdisciplinary, not only in terms of intellectual traditions but also of the case study material I decided to work with, which ranged from literary writing, social media, life story narratives, a music video, and an ethnography in an LGBT Christian community.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
In the book I quote Muñoz’s notion of the queer aesthetic as being centered on the idea that “art manifest[s] itself in such a way that the political imagination can spark new ways of perceiving and acting on a reality that is itself potentially changeable.” This insight guides my analysis of the case studies as presenting various “arts of resistance,” in the modes of critique, appropriation, and transformation. I also quote Mbembe who has stated that “struggle as a praxis of liberation has always drawn part of its imaginary resources from Christianity,” and building on this I analyze the role of Christian texts, symbols, imagery, and language in Kenyan queer arts of resistance. Hence I reconstruct various emerging Kenyan, Christian and queer imaginations. For instance, in my discussion of the openly gay Kenyan literary writer Binyavanga Wainaina, I frame his critique of religiously inspired homophobia as a form of “queer prophecy.” Yet I also highlight that Wainaina’s critique is inspired by African American prophetic traditions, such as represented by Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin, through which Wainaina himself appropriates the radical black Jesus. In my discussion of the Nairobi LGBT church where I conducted fieldwork, I present an ethnographic vignette of a drag queen contest taking place in a church service. The gospel song preceding the contest, in my interpretation, makes a theological claim, that it is God who dresses queer folk as beautiful queens; hence I argue that the drag performance is an anticipation of a world where God dresses all LGBT people as queens, and where society treats and values them as such.
My own writing in this book has also been an exercise in imagining a new world. I decided to address one of the major problems in Africanist scholarship – the ongoing “othering” of Africa through a Euro-centric gaze – by doing something rather experimental: including autobiographical and auto-ethnographic interludes, in between each of the four main chapters of the book. Basically, these interludes are attempts at self-reflexivity, as I seek to account for and reflect upon my own positionality, subjectivity and embodiment, in a very honest way. Through these pieces of writing, in which I make myself rather vulnerable, I have tried to imagine the possibility of queer solidarity across boundaries of race, social location, and economic privilege.
Roberto Sirvent is a teacher living in California.
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