Queer Paresthesia

A question in the Sunday Nation asks whether “Kenyans” have a “right” to “condemn the gay couple.” As phrased, the question posits “Kenyan-ness” as a relation to “rights,” to “morality,” and to “gay-ness.” I say relation, but perhaps the better word is “attitude.” To be Kenyan is to have an “attitude,” an “opinion,” an “orientation” toward “gay-ness.” Not simply gayness, of course, but “gay couples” who choose to get married, gay couples “from” Kenya. This “from” is important, because it posits a kind of severed relationship (even though, we learn, one of the couple “built his parents” a house). To “be from” and to “be of” are quite distinct, or at least not the same thing. And this question, phrased as it is, makes that distinction meaningful.

We are told, in the article, that the men “are of Kenyan origin.” It remains unclear whether either or both still hold Kenyan passports, still claim Kenyan citizenship. This fuzziness over where the men “belong” is crucial to the process of deracinating them, uprooting them on the basis of sexuality. On the one side “Kenyans” who may or may not have “the right” to “condemn” the couple and on the other hand the couple whose Kenyan-ness is fuzzy, whose sexuality makes their Kenyan-ness fuzzy, indistinct, unclear.

We have, in this instance, an excellent example of how sexuality is used to scission different modes of belonging based on performances of intimacy. It is not simply that these men are “gay,” but that they flaunt that gayness abroad and through a wedding, that they perform their gayness, that it leaks out and touches those who know them and are related to them.

Too, the shame that the couple is composed of “Kenyans.” Another article mentions that one partner in the couple had a previous husband, a white man, a European, a non-Kenyan. And this relationship gets a pass. Why this is so I will let others parse. But when two Kenyans, two black Kenyans, and, dare I add, two black Kenyans from the same ethnic group perform gayness, then much is at stake, too much.

The crisis provoked requires that distinctions be made between the performing couple and Kenyan-ness, that Kenyan-ness become a position from which judgment can be passed on the performing gay couple.

This is not, I hasten to add, a claim that “Kenyans are homophobic,” but a claim that Kenyan-ness today (and temporality is very important) is being produced as a relation to sexual practices, as an orientation toward, as a set of attitudes. By no means are these attitudes and orientations uniform, of course. But they do agglutinate in certain ways.

I note, for instance, that few, indeed, almost none of those commenting on the question “out” themselves. That the question is phrased to prevent such “outing” might be a strategy or a mistake; whichever it is, it has the unfortunate effect of allowing “Kenyans” to write for or against the gay couple, without ever putting the signifier “Kenya” into crisis. Citizenship and belonging are managed, affirmed. We bleed into each other’s wounds, and clot together.

In clotting together, we affirm that we have a “right” as wounded individuals—those wounded by homophobia and homophilia—to pronounce upon “the” gay couple. The clotted, agglutinated mass that is Kenyan-ness becomes so and remains so as it proclaims something about the “gay couple” who are detached from the mass, surgically excised by the cruelty of syntax.

In this context, “right” becomes detached from the human rights framework within which queer Kenyan activists would like to frame this debate. The “right to condemn.” Where does this “right” come from? Who bestows it? Where is it practiced? And by whom? These questions are not incidental, for they suggest that the question is not, properly speaking, a legal one, not one accounted for by the laws that ostensibly bind us together as citizens, It is, rather, a question of which injuries we count as sufficient cause to create our own laws, our own methods of acting. I gesture obliquely, and without subtlety, to the rule of mob justice, the “right to condemn.”

How, given the cruelty of syntax, can one claim affiliation with this “gay couple,” these deracinated Kenyans, “of Kenyan origin”? How, in other words, might one have to de-form language itself, un-do the logic of grammar to make a claim, to stake a position, to choose a mode of belonging not offered by the original question?

One can, of course, choose to stand outside the question, to forgo “Kenyan-ness” and answer whether “Kenyans” have a “right” to “condemn” this group. To speak, that is, in a foreign tongue, from a foreign position, to become an exile in language and affect to speak “at home” and “to home.” To be in such a position is, of course, to be impossible: the deracinated can have no claim to “home,” let alone a “right” to speak “at home.”

And those “at home” can always claim that telephone lines are unclear, letters not delivered, telegrams stolen, emails censored, that “nothing” comes through. And that what “comes through” is indecipherable, written in an “alien” tongue, the inarticulate rantings of those who have forgotten how to speak and do so in alien accents.

What rights can the inarticulate, the deracinated, the alien claim? And in what space can these claims be made and before what body? These questions continue to trouble me. Yet they are not the most important. I am missing something more fundamental—that I cannot yet see it or name it must be described as a symptom, perhaps the necessary paresthesia of the un-homed.

What is the position of those who cannot agglutinate, who cannot clot into an ongoing woundedness termed “Kenyan-ness”? What happens to stray blood drops that fall on dirty pavements during rainstorms? To those whose blood can never be accepted for transfusion? To those whose modes of affiliation fracture under the weight of a deracinating “Kenyan-ness” and an equally deracinating “gayness”? What modes of affiliation remain available and need to be created?

I end with the cruelty of syntax because it feels easier to manage than other kinds of cruelties.

2 thoughts on “Queer Paresthesia

Comments are closed.