Queer : Again (Kenya)

If we are to understand the cultural construction of African homosexuality, it must be from within the prison. Once we understand sodomy as a tool of political repression, or, more precisely, as being intertwined with political repression, then we can understand, if not condone, why otherwise progressive Africans may find the idea of homosexual rights repugnant. In part, this meditation attempts to move away from the tradition vs. modernity and religion vs. secularism stalemates by locating contemporary ideas of homosexuality within, arguably, indigenous contexts. That is, insofar as the African prison may be considered indigenous. Elsewhere, and in quite embarrassing detail, I have outlined my coming to homosexuality in America. This might be considered a supplement to that account, grounded in a previous and accompanying history.

Perhaps the most appropriate place to begin might be Dennis Brutus’s widely circulated and highly regarded collection, Letters to Martha. It is difficult, if not impossible, to overstate the importance of Letters to Martha. Read in the twilight of Moi’s reign and against the background of Mandela’s recent release (high school being ‘90-93), it offered a view into the infamous prisons and torture houses where political prisoners (dangerous dissidents in the language of the day) were “processed.” As an aside, I should note that Moi’s reign provided an education in euphemism that continues to serve me well.

What follows is less a meditation on poetry and prose, and more an opportunity to reconstruct a certain historical moment and feeling, my coming to politics, sexuality, and masculinity. Brutus serves, then, as a touchstone, a background beat that, every so often, will take center stage.

Reading Brutus, I was struck by the feeling, the sensation of sodomy. Section 7 of “Letters to Martha” reads, in full,

Perhaps most terrible are those who beg for it,
who beg for sexual assault.

To what desperate limits are they driven
and what fierce agonies they have endured
that this, which they have resisted,
should seem to them preferable,
even desirable.

It is regarded as the depths
of absolute and ludicrous submission.
And so perhaps it is.

But it has seemed to me
one of the most terrible
most rendingly pathetic
of all a prisoner’s predicaments.

If the historical and political moment provided one frame, my all-male high school provided the other. Others have written on the hypermasculine culture that pervades the all-male school. Masculinity is often an over-stated performance that revels in its performativity, always anticipating its next encounter with embodied (often sexed, but not always) femininity. Put otherwise, high school boys incessantly recount their heterosexual encounters, revel, when they can, in group demonstrations of hetero-sex (how else to explain the packs of men-boys who would run off to the nearby brothel?), and pepper their conversations with excessive references to hetero-sex. I do not diagnose any of this as pathological or perverse. I simply point to its excessive content and performance as one way that heterosexuality polices itself.

Within this environment, in which rugby was king, Brutus’s language of assault and submission was all the more palpable. We had learned, in that infamous first year where we were “nothing,” that submission was a rite to be endured, but only for a season. In turn, we were to enforce submission on subsequent generations. It was a ritual of masculinity, of homosociality, not homosexuality. Inevitably, of course, it slid into homosexuality; rumors proliferated about this senior and that freshman and strange cabals of men from “those” parts of the country. Those “strange” men were exotic, perhaps, but more often recoded as pathetic. Here, less the language of psychic perversity and more the language of hierarchy.

How, then, to think about homosexuality as submission within a male environment that prized competition above all else? For, while rugby may have been king, everything was up for grabs. One’s fraught sense of masculinity was ensured by performing well in the choir, by acting well, by dancing well, being well shaped, being smart. Masculinity was read as achievement, no matter the arena. One could be humiliated, beaten, even tortured (though we called it bullying, a useful euphemism), but one was never to beg, never to become pathetic. And we detested and humiliated those who proved themselves pathetic.

While I was saved from the worst excesses of masculine idiocy by my involvement with Christianity, which prized gentleness, even there I could not escape the demands of masculinity. Ongoing power struggles over the form of worship and style of Christianity, full-out Pentecostal vs. a more, and arguably bourgeois, Presbyterian-tinged restraint, enacted similar struggles over masculinity as achievement. Prayer was a competition: who could pray longest, fast longest, quote more biblical passages, attend more conventions, speak in tongues, tithe the most. One could submit to God, but never to man. I approach hyperbole here, but only barely.

When I first read Eve Sedgwick’s explanation about the tenuous boundary between homosociality and homosexuality, and especially about the use of homophobia to police that line, I experienced a moment of Aha!

* * *
In the early twentieth century, Havelock Ellis, the most renowned sexologist of his time, posited there were two kinds of homosexuality: congenital and acquired. The first developed independent of environment, was tied to the psyche or soul or spirit in some way. The second referred to practices found in boarding schools and prisons and military facilities, especially where men were isolated from women for extended periods (there’s a reason the Village People sang “In the Navy”).

Queer studies, especially in the wake of Foucault and in the psychoanalytic work of Leo Bersani and Tim Dean, has argued that a turn away from identity to practice, a focus on desire and pleasure, disturbs this congenital/acquired model by abolishing the homosexual as a discrete subject. Put otherwise, the congenital/acquired model, while convenient, cannot account for the complex ways we experience and understand desire and pleasure, many times quite detached from a narrative of “I am.”

Sometimes, a blowjob is really just a blowjob.

* * *
And now the writing, and my task, becomes more difficult.

The conditions that prisoners in Kenya endure are extremely barbaric. Every morning at 5 a.m., male prisoners are ordered out of the cells stark naked for internal body searches. The guards search their mouths and armpits, ears and nostrils. They pull, twist, and squeeze their genitals. They order the prisoners to face the walls with their legs spread apart to examine their anuses for concealed weapons, money and other contraband. They use sharp sticks to probe the prisoners’ rectums. In a sense, the guards are more interested in prisoners’ buttocks than in the search. They make sexual remarks: “Look at this one, his buttocks are two mountains, it is difficult to mount him . . . and look at this one, his arsehole is shaped like a woman’s cunt . . . This one has a soft arse like his mother . . .” This monstrous drama is repeated every morning. It is a humiliating and degrading experience. (Maina wa Kĩnyattĩ, Kenya: A Prison Notebook)

Sunday 8 August 1982: [M]y sexual desire continues to rise. I don’t know what to do. I know I will do anything to resist any attempt to reduce me to a vegetable, to make me abandon my conscience, but I don’t know how I am going to handle my sexual needs. In prison there are only two sexual outlets: masturbation and anal sex. I am not willing to be forced to choose either of these two options. I have to protect my dignity as a political prisoner. (30)

Friday 19 August 1982: This morning there was a case of rape. Last night three prisoners repeatedly raped a young mentally ill inmate. When the victim tried to resist, the sodomites beat him. This was reported to the corporal in charge of the block by the night guard, and this made him furious. He took the three rapists to the disciplinary office and now they are in the hole. Sodomy or rape among the inmates is considered a normal activity by the prison authorities, therefore it is not a serious crime. It means only three to seven days in the hole. (34)

Thursday 1 December 1982: I watched a prison drama this morning. Two men were caught in the toilet having an affair. They were paraded in front of us, naked. I felt sad. Both of them looked miserable and defenseless. But I don’t understand why the guards are making an issue about it since they encourage sodomy in prison. In fact, some of them take part in the act; They offer sexual favors to prisoners to make extra money. (57)

Friday 9 November 1984: A corporal was caught having sex with a convict. When both men were taken to the disciplinary office, the corporal was acquitted and congratulated by his superior for disciplining the prisoner with his penis. The prisoner was severely beaten and thrown into a punishment cell for seven days with a penal diet. He had blood all over his face and clothes.

In Kamĩtĩ Prison, the guards receive the following instructions from their superiors:

“When the club fails to discipline a prisoner, beat his arsehole with your penis – screw him until he begs for mercy.”

Prison is a world of its own. (97)

* * *
I cite Kĩnyattĩ because, to the best of my knowledge, he has the most extensive description of homo-sex in the corpus of Kenyan literature. In addition to the brief excerpts I have posted, Kenya: A Prison Notebook also has a glossary of terms that describe sexual identities in prison. Arguably, a discussion of homosexuality in Kenya cannot sidestep his important work.

Prison may be “a world of its own,” but discourse takes on a life beyond the space and time of its origins. Now, it might be argued that Kĩnyattĩ details prison life, discusses practices bound to an unnatural setting. One might claim sodomy, queer sex, queer lives as practiced outside the prison have little to do with the horrors he describes. But that seems a little too convenient. I am not fond of convenience.

How, then, do we make sense of his statements on sodomy? Do categories such as heteronormativity or homophobia make sense in this conceptual universe? For instance, one might argue the first excerpt, taken from his preface, uses tropes of homophobia to decimate the prison guards. Such a reading would presuppose that his audience understand the guards’ desire as essentially perverse, “the guards are more interested in prisoners’ buttocks than in the search.” But is this shameful transaction—the prisoners’ shame and Kĩnyattĩ’s attempt to shame the guards—conceptually related to a term such as homophobia? Might the idea of shame be more useful?

Indeed, do any of Kĩnyattĩ’s descriptions have anything to do with homosexuality or queerness or might they be read as discourses of torture and dehumanization, shifted away from the concerns of queer thought and activism? I am tempted. So very tempted.

A few closing notes to an ongoing project.

I have been arguing for some time that we cannot read African homosexuality outside of its time. We cannot say, for instance, that x or y group practiced homosexuality, avoid the disruptions and reformulations of gender and sexuality caused by colonialism and nationalism, and simply reclaim a “pure” practice from the past. We have to find smarter ways to work through history to get to the present.

While nationalist practices and rhetorics provide one vital space for imagining national sexualities, institutions such as prisons produce languages and practices that we must engage (the argument is Foucauldian). As Kĩnyattĩ’s work and Thiong’o’s Detained make abundantly clear, the Kenyan prison has been, due to repression, one of the most vital arenas for the production of political discourse. Sexuality has been vital in such endeavors.

We cannot, I think, underestimate the role of prison discourse in contemporary understandings of Kenyan homosexuality. Especially, we cannot avoid the links Kĩnyattĩ makes between prison guards and colonial home guards, between sexual humiliation and dehumanization, and between sodomy and scum. He tells us, for instance, that active partners are referred to as mende (cockroaches).

I don’t think there’s any easy way to disentangle sexual abuse and humiliation from sodomy and homophobia. Kenya: A Prison Notebook articulates a conceptually difficult project. My prevarications here, my frustrated sense of trying and failing to make any compelling arguments, register my struggles with this incredibly powerful work.

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