Against: Homophobia, Transphobia, Imperialism

Let’s begin in 2006:

(1) Registration of Gay Clubs, Societies and organizations by whatever name they are called in institutions from Secondary to the tertiary level or other institutions in particular and, in Nigeria generally, by government agencies is hereby prohibited.
(2) Publicity, procession and public show of same sex amorous relationship through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise are prohibited in Nigeria.
(3) Any person who is involved in the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, sustenance, procession or meetings, publicity and public show of same sex amorous relationship directly or indirectly in public and in private is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a term of 5 years imprisonment. (Nigeria Anti Homosexuality Bill, 2006)

Over the past decade, and, it seems, particularly in the past 5 years, anti-homosexual and anti-transsexual laws have been newly activated across Africa. Dusty laws, half-thought remnants of colonialism, have been newly mobilized to create a sense of shared African-ness. From Egypt to Malawi, Nigeria to Uganda, Ghana to Kenya, South Africa to Tanzania, African masculinities and femininities have been newly defined against the gender-bending and sexuality-fracturing specters of the trans and the queer. These are modern developments, for all of their dusty breath, and it’s key to hold on to their new modernity. It is newness as intensification.

Over roughly the same period, European and American modernities have increasingly been defined through same-sex marriage. Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Sweden, Canada, and Iceland have legalized gay marriage, as have some US states. Indeed, proponents of gay marriage have celebrated it as an emblem of ongoing modernity: to be against gay marriage is to be against an expansively defined equal rights and to be against “progress,” to move against the tide of time. As Martin Manalansan has pointed out, these emergent queer modernities define regimes that are ambivalent about and hostile toward queer progress as atavistic, developmentally challenged, an argument also advanced by Neville Hoad in one of my favorite essays.

Here, I simply rehearse things I have written over the years.

I want to indicate the treacherous ground occupied by one who is against homophobia and transphobia and against imperialism in all its guises. This ground has been rendered slightly more treacherous by the UK’s recent, very public decision to withhold or redirect aid to countries it deems homophobic. As I am not an economist, and numbers frighten me, I have no real estimates of what these amounts might be and what projects they might affect. I am also not sure that this initiative, if that’s what it is, has anything to do with the UK’s support for African queer and trans folk: it is too conveniently racist and coercive.

Imperialism’s dusty, half-broken stick is too much in evidence.

While its dangerous to use same-sex marriage to measure a country’s homophobia and transphobia, a snarky part of me wants to point out that same-sex marriage is currently not legal in the UK. This is an aside.

Elsewhere, I have suggested that the economic models that subtend queer and trans activism in Africa might be problematic, to the extent that activism becomes a struggle for resources. Rivalries are inevitable when (even generous) pots are shared in situations of great need.

While economic rivalries between and across queer and trans groups are not good, this newly imposed UK sanction creates an even worse scenario, for it implicitly opposes queer and trans organizing against national projects. In what seems like an absurd but not unlikely scenario, one can envision funds being directed away from a nation-identified project to a queer- and trans-identified one. A new opposition is put in place between the UK-supported queer and trans populations and the ostensibly homophobic and transphobic African nation.

What becomes visible in such a(n unlikely) scenario is the deracination demanded of African queer and trans folk by their peers in Europe and the Americas. One is encouraged to write about African homophobia and transphobia by a global—which is to say, non-African—media that is eager to devour such stories. In writing such stories, one implicitly disidentifies with the homophobic and transphobic Africa one ostensibly represents and enters into the oddly deracinating world of NGO space and time. (I don’t have the mental resources right now to map the odd spatio-temporal contours of NGOs, even as I am interested in their orbital pulls.)

The African queer and trans activist is asked to defend African queer and trans folks against a homophobia and transphobia understood as pervasive and national. Let me be clear, it is necessary to write and speak against homophobia and transphobia; here, I am trying to map the place of the person asked to do such speaking, to think about the grounds on which that person can stand, about, that is, the forms of deracination demanded by such speech.

What happens when the already deracinated queer and trans activist is also understood as an economic rival with the nation? What happens when the UK says it will give money to queer and trans projects but not to governments? What kinds of fractures and fissures are created and how are queer and trans folks newly endangered, now as economic threats to the nation?

What does it mean to have African queer and trans folks re-positioned not simply as threats to morality and tradition, but as impediments to economic resources? What might it mean to save queer and trans folk by insisting on their deracination? How might one engage the coerciveness of newly imposed (if historically familiar) queer modernities?

Let me conclude by moving to 2011.

The portions of the 2006 Nigerian Bill I quoted above are absent from the 2011 Nigerian Bill. Like successful campaigns in the US, the 2011 Bill forbids same-sex marriage, not same-sex association. Implicitly the anti homosexuality bill of 2006 has been transformed into the anti same-sex marriage bill in 2011. One wants to be cautiously optimistic, even as the case of Mtwapa, where rumors of a gay marriage set off a mob, makes one wary.

One turtles or hedgehogs.

At a moment when Africa-based queer and trans folks are trying to create spaces for dialogue with a range of national bodies, this opposition between those populations and the nation is not helpful. Indeed, it is ideologically and materially violent.

In 2008, a young queer activist said to me, “I am Kenyan. I belong here.” The claim unsettled me because I had thought deracination was the only way to be an African queer. I learned differently. I’m hoping those who claim to care about African queer and trans folk can learn to listen to such claims, to understand the utopian grounds on which they are staged.