Despite many years of training myself to write through fear, and to speak anticipating indifference, if not malice, I am, once again, in a too-familiar space: trying to make a case for something dismissed as relatively unimportant, my life.
I cannot trust that such a life has any value in the Kenyan space. Those who love me best warn me to stay away, afraid that what they value in me will be destroyed. Capricious bullets fly. And I continue to fear cutting glances. A notebook full of dreams languishes in a place that still hopes home might be possible. Even as such a possibility slips away.
Even now, I cannot trust that this writing will be read or, if read, will matter beyond my circle of intimates. One traces letters in eroding soil. And hopes whispers travel along red dust.
I cannot sustain this, and cannot even seem to start.
Let me begin from a safe place: my scholarship.
The (mostly) male architects of the black diaspora in the twentieth century agreed on very few things. The Marxists among them, George Padmore being a prime one, could not support the bourgeois dreams of a Jomo Kenyatta; those striving to be cosmopolitan like Peter Abrahams could not get behind the nationalist ambitions of a Kwame Nkrumah; the Africa-focused figures like E.W. Blyden could not support the allegiance felt by African Americans who insisted the U.S. was their home; Marcus Garvey, having imbibed Blyden’s lessons, did not trust the phenotypic variations of those he termed “impure”; and deep fissures emerged between those who sought national independence and those who favored remaining departments of colonial powers—this more in francophone spaces.
Put otherwise, these figures could not agree on the aim of their politics; on whether they shared race; on whether they had the same economic aspirations; or whether they cohered as a “they.” And the histories of their antagonisms (partly told in Carol Polsgrove’s new book) are crucial in understanding the diasporic presents we inhabit.
The one thing most of the major players agreed on: intimate life. Family was important. Heterosexuality was key. Heterosexual marriage, whether monogamous or polygamous, was a steady foundation. Arguably, the foundation “without which not,” to adapt a line from Kenneth Burke.
One influential strand of the black diaspora, arguably the most important, running from Blyden to Fanon, coheres on intimate ground.
It coheres through creating a zone of what Judith Butler terms “abjects,” more simply queers. The queer is the necessary outside to what comes together as “the” black diaspora.
Let me leave the (relatively) safe space.
Attempting to sway the upcoming Referendum, William Ruto has claimed the Proposed Constitution supports gay marriage.
In response, many Kenyans, even progressive Kenyans, have pointed out that the proposed constitution says no such thing.
From the Mars Group:
The Proposed Constitution in section 45 (2) is clear as to what marriages are to be legal in Kenya should it be passed at the Referendum of August 4, 2010. In sum, section 45(2) of the Proposed Constitution of Kenya clearly states that “Every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex, based on the free consent of the parties.”
Embedding this particular section within the Proposed Constitution:
(1) The family is the natural and fundamental unit of society and the necessary basis of social order, and shall enjoy the recognition and protection of the State.
(2) Every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex, based on the free consent of the parties.
(3) Parties to a marriage are entitled to equal rights at the time of the marriage, during the marriage and at the dissolution of the marriage.
(4) Parliament shall enact legislation that recognises—
(a) marriages concluded under any tradition, or system of religious, personal or family law; and
(b) any system of personal and family law under any tradition, or adhered to by persons professing a particular religion,
to the extent that any such marriages or systems of law are consistent with this Constitution.
The Mars Group rightly call out Ruto on his “bigotry.” But against whom precisely is he bigoted? The words homophobia and transphobia appear nowhere in their article.
Following a well-established pattern, one that I can trace over the past century of black diaspora writing (though my book ends in the 1960s), opposing camps come together in supporting an intimate foundation that creates and excludes queers.
Let me be clear: I do not consider gay marriage to be the signal that full parity has been achieved with heterosexuals. Heterosexual privilege is much more diffuse. And while, like my colleague and mentor, Roxie’s typist, I celebrate those who choose to join their lives together in marriage and support their right to do so, I have no interest in hitching my wagon to that particular horse.
This legislation is much more insidious because it anchors sex and gender in hetero-reproduction. Men are men. Women and women. No one else exists. And this sex-gender suturing gains its full meaning within hetero-marriage and hetero-reproduction.
As progressive Kenyans celebrate “catching” Ruto lying, I wonder about that sense of disappointment I feel: their joy is predicated, in part, on a not-so-subtle erasure of “people like me.”
As I watch hopeful Kenyans anticipate a better future should the Proposed Constitution be adopted, I wonder about its hidden costs. I wonder about the queers it needs to disavow to create a “better” Kenya.
A “better” Kenya is one without its queers.
This cuts. Deeply.
It cuts because it is so familiar.
And it cuts because I already know all the arguments: I need to see the “big picture.” A “better” Kenya should not be held up because of my “idiosyncratic” desires. Once we get a “better” Kenya maybe something can be done for “people like me.”
Big picture. Sacrifice. Big Picture. Be Unselfish. Big Picture.
Maybe the artist will paint in a little closet.