Whispers from a Safe Place, Perhaps a Closet

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:

Section 45.

(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.

5 thoughts on “Whispers from a Safe Place, Perhaps a Closet

  1. “first consider our particulars, then maybe a second can follow with yours”
    the very beginning of something is everything. one cannot simply devoted their
    entire livelihood to something or someone that views them as useless; only useful
    in doing what is told of them; a doorknob.

    oh it hurts my soul, to see a multitude of gay men, become something
    of listless, desireless, prisoners that have guilty pleasures. to actually view
    themselves as “people trying to create peace by accepting heterosexuality, and
    hetero-politics” … what about the gaybies?

    arguably, the reason, this country is so numb to homosexual love in history
    is because of this so called giving in to becoming heterosexual, then reducing
    male to male love to some kind of sick devilish secret.

    … The tomb discovered a few decades ago,
    revealed Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, their rooms side by side
    with inscriptions of how they would be forever in eternity.
    paintings in the tomb showed their families accompanying them
    on this journey of love beside each other them. very powerful drawing.

  2. There’s a dangerous seduction to the “big picture” idea. Kenyan activists tell me that the new constitution offers “some room” to challenge anti-sodomy laws. But that room really feels like a space in the corner.

    I recently confessed to a friend that I am tired of looking for small concessions, and I understand the search for them as in, some way, tied to the “nchi ya kitu kidogo”: even our dreams are small. They need to be bolder, stronger, deeper, more ambitious, more far reaching. Dare I say, revolutionary.

  3. if we (gay) own the closets, that’s going to be who we are. and all we have to offer
    other men. it is going to limit our sense of contribution because of how we view
    ourselves and our abilities,—i think we (gay) have a psychological problem that needs to be delved into and deeply investigated, and nursed, because we seem to be OK with being in the (gay) closet. I wouldn’t want to bring (gay) pride to Kampala, but it is entirely different when you have people that could potentially inspire so many, being married and with children and in the closet.

    listening to this radio DJ called Banji on Sanyu FM everyday after school was a light
    to my days. I only discovered he was gay when he died last year. I am thinking of how wonderful it would have been for me, to have known, and to accept what it was
    we shared in common. and to express it.

    it seems the only way we want to express ourselves is in backyard bars and so forth. that is living so far away from being evolved in (gay) spirituality, and (gay) attributes, that are potentially invaluable to society.

  4. If only the change we yearn to see could come earlier. I guess Kenyan gay activists need more strength and endurance to do more. I hope that whatever efforts out there are bearing, or going to bear real juicy fruit.

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