I cannot help thinking of these two figures together, to ask what it means to “incite” a movement, to be understood as “representative.” And representative of what.
By now, the stories are familiar. And, I want to suggest, equally random.
Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December, a symbol of protest against a life of attrition. His act inspired similar ones, ushering in a series of transregional revolutions. It is too soon to describe the reach and scale of these actions. Even as it is impossible not to be caught up in them.
David Kato, Ugandan kuchu and LGBTIQ activist, was murdered, following a turbulent period of homophobic opposition and legal success. Thus far, his death has been understood, regionally, as a “homosexual affair,” and, internationally, as a “homophobic affair,” whether that homophobia is understood as “Ugandan,” “African,” “far-right U.S.,” “religious,” or some elaborate concoction of all of these.
In juxtaposing these two figures, I hope to extend a line of tentative, raw thinking—the kind that one writes to “hit” an already-missed deadline—about the politics of representation. Here is the raw bit:
In the past few weeks, Tunisian Bouazizi Mohamed has become a rallying point for protests and activism, a spark igniting action across Tunisia and spilling over into other countries. I wonder if David Kato’s death will similarly mobilise action in East Africa. Doing so would require understanding sexual minority activism not as claims for special rights, but as fundamental to the cause of expanding social, cultural, and political freedoms in the region.
I am interested in which lives and bodies can “embody” and “represent” collectivities; which lives and bodies are understood to be affectively bound to and affectively representative of collectivities; which lives and bodies and deaths can become “sparks” in the dry tinder. I am interested, as well, in how an ongoing binary between the public and the private and the insistent privatization of intimate lives forecloses possibilities for a politics of intimacy.
To clarify a point: in describing Mohamed and David’s deaths as “random,” I do not mean to suggest that they had no contexts, but rather to say they were “moments” that could be “seized upon” in particular ways. To be sure, Mohamed’s public self-immolation was spatially distinct from David’s beating in his home. Yet, Mohamed’s death was taken as a public act and mobilized publics to act whereas David’s death has been seen as “privatized,” if not capricious—the act of random burglars in one story and the action of a jealous love in another.
One might ask what might have happened if Mohamed was, in good U.S. fashion, simply dismissed as having “mental problems.” Indeed, the “uses” to which Mohamed’s actions have been put implicitly and powerfully critique the psychologization of structural problems in the U.S.—the too-convenient alibi of the “damaged” individual.
Regrettably, a similar logic (and, at times, rhetoric) of the “damaged” individual has surfaced in the “uses” to which David is being put. Even in sympathetic accounts, he emerges as a “renegade,” a person whose “lifestyle” put him at risk. This “lifestyle” argument privatizes what could be made public, not only in the sense that David becomes responsible for what happened to him, but also in the sense that it becomes an affair for “the sexual minorities” and “for activists,” not for Ugandans, not for East Africans, and not for Africans.
And when David’s death becomes “internationalized,” the focus turns to “right-wing” forces in the U.S. who support “campaigns of hate” abroad. Erased from view—the multiple years of organizing and activism by Uganda’s sexual minorities. The uses to which David’s death are being put should be cause for concern.
To ask that David, like Mohamed, represent the “spirit” of a moment requires taking seriously the nature of David’s political demands, demands placed on Uganda, on East Africa, and on Africa. It would require seeing the decriminalization of homosexuality not as an end in itself, but as an opening to other futures, in concert with other actions dedicated to creating more livable worlds.
It is dangerous to privatize David’s death as a “homosexual affair.” Just as it is troubling that Tunisia and Egypt are being understood, in East Africa, as part of the “Middle East,” not really African. The relationship between these forms of domestication requires thought.