I did not know David, but our networks intersect.
Most recently, David was one of three Ugandans who successfully sued Rolling Stone and forced it to shut down its hateful operations.
How should we read David’s death? How should we measure his loss?
A quick look at his facebook page tells one story. Early this morning, messages from January 3 and 4 congratulated David on the win against the Ugandan Rolling Stone. Just above them, expressions of loss and solidarity, of love and courage, of mourning. This juxtaposition enacts a certain kind of work to which I hope to return in this edit.
From what I know, which is to say, from the available evidence, it is not clear that a direct line can be traced from David’s activism to his murder. I write this not to be contrary, but because I think it’s important to be judicious, to be contextual. Simultaneously, and just as importantly, there is no evidence that his murder was not a result of his activism. For now, his death remains something that can be used in any number of ways.
The infamous Ugandan Rolling Stone, for instance, has expressed its condolences for his death, but stands by its decision to call for homosexuals to be killed. This once-obscure publication is using the occasion of David’s death to advance its homo-killing agenda, one that includes silencing LGBTIQ activists. Its very implicit message to LGBTIQ activists: You Are Not Safe. It is, of course, maddening that its campaign has worked, to the extent that it has been featured in the international press expressing its “opinion” about David’s death.
We also need to be very clear about this tabloid’s role. The judgement against it was material. It was ordered to pay damages to the three activists who sued it. It was also forbidden from continuing what was, no doubt, a very profitable series. Certainly, its publishing of the series turned it into a “spectacle,” if not a success, though it’s difficult to draw the line between the two.
What we can say for sure is that David was vulnerable, that his activism made him public, a target in a way that others might not be. And I think it’s very important to underline that the kind of publicness I am discussing is distinct from the closet/non-closet paradigm–the choice was not between being “out and proud” and being “ashamed and silenced,” a binary that only works in certain geo-cultural contexts.
At this point, what is threatened is that publicness.
And not simply in Uganda, but also in Kenya.
Over the past few years, Ugandan LGBTIQ activists have won significant legislative victories. Despite and given the vitriolic anti-queer rhetoric in the country, they have been more successful in grounding their claims within legal frames than have Kenyan activists. (A recent case on intersex rights notwithstanding.) While it would be naive to presume that legal victories should provide safety, it is disheartening to imagine that they involve trading different kinds of safety–legal protection at the loss of personal safety, as strange as that sounds.
That last sentence returns me to the juxtaposition of congratulation and mourning on David’s facebook page–the question, even now, of who can mourn publicly on that page, the cluster of associations that surround mourning his death, the risk of being public. When I looked at it earlier this morning, for instance, the “international” of the messages spoke not only to David’s reach and impact, but, more broadly, to the kinds of publics available and willing to be visible in and around African queer issues.