Recent news that Kenyans are being outed online has me thinking about outing as context, and how one comes to occupy the political.
Within the context of outing, one’s individual wishes and political stance are subsumed by another narrative. One is positioned as a homosexual, hailed as such, and must respond within the structure so created, a structure in which non-response is not possible. One need not respond to one’s accusers, but one responds to those who know one: family, friends, even to the email that offers information and sympathy.
Those who have been placed within the context of outing are now, for better or worse, the faces, names, and lives affiliated with homosexuality. Being outed—and, here, the “fact” of one’s actual sexuality does not matter—colors one’s past and present, rewrites histories of friendship and intimacy, and changes, as well, the meaning of space. One’s convenient “local” might become a “gay friendly” space in some re-tellings.
At the same time, one’s friends, acquaintances, and family come under renewed scrutiny. I am told, for instance, that whispers about me continue to circulate—all the more, I suspect, when I am in Nairobi. I am paranoid enough to believe this.
Once outed, one is drawn into a political space one might not have wanted to occupy. It is not only the space created by what one says or wants to say, but also the space created by those who wrestle over one. Those who agree, those who disagree, those who propose, those who oppose. One is caught in tangles not of one’s making.
One becomes co-opted. One is marked as a “queer” Kenyan or a “gay” Kenyan or a “lesbian” Kenyan, and then asked to speak for that collectively imagined identity. Dear X, what do gay Kenyans think about y? Some of us have accepted this position, others of us have viewed it skeptically, yet one’s words, particularly if one writes, can always be taken as “evidence” of widely held sentiments. One can start feeling responsible to others.
In fact, rather than outing telling the “truth” about a person, it creates a context around a person, a space-place-time that is suffused with multiple forms of desires. A very drunk neighbor who had never really paid attention to me once made a clumsy pass when he discovered I was “that way.” It was, I suspect, less my charms that overwhelmed him and more the chance for him to tell another kind of story about himself. (I must say that his clumsiness made me wonder about all the women he supposedly “bagged.” Was this how he “tuned” them? Or was this yet another example of how gay men don’t need “tuning” because we are “more direct”? Seduction still happens in bathhouses and bookstores.)
It is this cluster of desires around one that I term “the political,” borrowing from Lauren Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism. To be outed in a country that provides no official spaces or languages for recognizing outing is to become subject to a host of desires, some friendly, some not, some lustful, some not. One becomes marked. Many years ago, when I first came out, my mother composed a grand narrative of my life that, in retrospect, sounds like something from Austin Powers. I was a mad party animal bottom. Her terms, not mine. When I asked how I found time to study as a mad party animal bottom, she replied, quite rationally, that I was a mad party animal bottom from Friday through Sunday. (In truth, I went out Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and was relatively asexual, which I made up for in that glorious year I turned 24. Ahhh, 24!) (A confession, happy now?)
It is, of course, a very different thing to be a relatively anonymous blogger (though I use my real name) writing from the states (though I visit Kenya) when one has not lived in Kenya for many years (14 this year!). I do not have the webs of affiliation that run through Nairobi, the people met through work and clubs, the people who know people who know people, and thus my being “out” remains abstract, and will probably do so until I get booked on a tv show in Nairobi to talk about being queer. Interesting prospect. Will never happen.
In contrast, those who have been outed are embedded within Nairobi (I presume), are known enough that their names being made public begins to realign spaces around them, begins to rearrange desires around them. Desires from those who now malign them, those who now desire them, even to desire more about them, desires that move erratically, creating a field we might term “the political.” Now, it’s really quite irrelevant whether those “outed” had already been out before. As any queer who has done queer 101 knows, one is always being placed in a situation to come out—my mother’s friends are asking to see my wife. This I take as a joke. And one struggles to navigate attachment and obligation. What will it cost to “out” myself? What will it cost my mother? Even as she knows and disavows. That’s another narrative.
One is drawn into a political in which one’s presence, one’s life, serves as “evidence,” not least to international allies. At such moments, one realizes that one is haunted by afterlives.
It has been necessary, here, to construct a “one,” to defer the (auto)biographical that would become intrusively and unnecessarily pedagogical. The politics of outing are never simple, never uncomplicated, and never easily resolved. It is less a single, singular process than an ongoing negotiation in which one negotiates others’ wishes, desires, fears, hopes, and expectations.
I confess this post feels belated—the “outing” took place weeks ago, and so far I have learned nothing new, but I have also not been looking. To track “outing” as anticipation is impossible—I have not yet learned to see around corners.
I have written, previously, about the dangers of homophobic discourse within a space that does not have any homosexual discourse. In such a space, outing becomes impossible as an affirmative gesture. Yet, isn’t it precisely in such impossible spaces that we have become possible?
Samuel Delaney writes that “coming out” used to mean coming out into a homosexual community, not as a performance of truth to gazing heterosexuals. I do not use the word community much, and do not trust it. But it can be a powerful thing to imagine, and wonderful to belong.
Such belonging might be one necessary, useful, and pleasurable afterlife.