Listening to African Queers

A few weeks ago, I broke a longstanding personal rule and left a comment on a mainstream, very popular, award-winning U.S. gay blog. A long string of comments by mostly gay men (if web identities count for anything) supported the U.K.’s decision to consider sexual rights in granting aid. Many of the commentators condemned not simply homophobia and transphobia in Africa, but African governments and African citizens, the former explicitly the latter implicitly. “My tax dollars should not fund homophobia,” was a typical comment.

Against these certainties about African governments and African citizens, I pointed out the wealth of blogs and articles by African queers on the state of sexuality and rights in Africa and suggested that it would make sense if those pronouncing on Africa engaged with these sources. I also directed readers to the recent statement produced by African queer activists and organizations about aid conditionality. (But also see David Kuria’s dissent from this statement.) My attempt to suggest that African voices are worth listening to was ignored for the most part by those who considered themselves to be, variously, authorities on Africa, authorities on gay rights, defenders of gay rights, and defenders of aid conditionality.

At this particular table, there was no room for an African guest.

And because such online encounters are more common than not, this particular African guest returned to his online conversations with fellow African queers, musing about the futility of conversations with queers in the Global North who already know too much, want to save Africans but don’t want to listen to Africans, and want to cling to the (imperial) illusion that the Global North leads the way in gay rights—one wants to point out that, at least legislatively, South Africa is way ahead of the U.S. But let me not cloud the issue with facts.

I recount what is by now a tedious, too-familiar story, and adopt the position of the African in this particular story rather disingenuously. I am, after all, as much a product of the Global North as I am of the Global South. In a few short years, I will have spent as much time in one space as I have in the other. My education, my frameworks, my labor are in the Global North. And I am, for many, an unlikely person to speak for Africans or even to speak as an African. I know all too well that were my English less fluent, were my manners more diffident, were I more reliant on the salvific goodness of helpful foreigners, I would be more palatable to certain kinds of philanthropists who want stories about the awfulness of Africa and the chance to save another African.

Alas: I read Fanon at a formative moment.

Following the U.K.’s example, the U.S. has bought into aid conditionality tied to so-called sexual rights. It’s not yet clear what this will mean. But it is worrying.

Multiple blog posts from the U.S. have celebrated this “victory” for gay rights, this assertion that gay rights are human rights, universal rights: the U.S. is now on board with gay activism.

I am not celebrating.

In fact, I am disheartened by what feels like myopic celebrations that confirm, or suggest, that what is at stake in such a decision has nothing to do with helping African queers and everything to do with domestic U.S. feeling and neo-imperial machinations. I have no problem with U.S. queers celebrating this decision as an advance for U.S queer struggles; but let’s not confuse the issue and claim this decision has anything to do with African queers. Or that African queers were in any way consulted—not that we need to be, of course: knights in shining armor rarely ask whether the maiden and the dragon are engaged in an inter-species romance.

I am not suggesting that some African queers might not support aid conditionality. I am suggesting that such decisions can often accomplish more harm than good. While I am not interested in repeating tedious blather that Africans are “communal” while “westerners” are “individualistic,” I do want to emphasize that we all live deeply embedded lives. Aid conditionality based on sexual rights, and, really, gay rights, risks marginalizing the many kin-based, friend-based, and neighborhood-based networks inhabited by African queers. For the most part, African queers do not live in gay enclaves: cutting off major arteries to save tiny capillaries does not work. It simply cannot work.

More to the point, and to repeat something I’ve written before: positioning African queers as economic threats or as economic competition to other local, regional, and national projects renders us more vulnerable. In a country like Kenya where money is King, telling government agencies that money will not show up for a government project because queers are not treated well will most probably not result in better legislation or, more practically, better living conditions for queers. (Given Kenya’s strategic importance in the region and that we are happily killing Somalis for the Americans, I think our aid is safe.)

I realize that aid conditionality often has nothing to do with those populations deemed to be at risk. Or, rather, is based on information provided by “experts” who have “conducted studies” to “determine what is needed” and rarely, if ever, takes into consideration local needs and local situations, except as these are filtered through really fucked up lenses. I have sat through multiple presentations where so-called “experts” diagnosed Africans—yes, such collective terms are used too often—and heard myself described in ways I found utterly bewildering, reduced to a helpless, clueless child. When one speaks up at such meetings, one is told that one is an exception; no doubt, my U.S. education helped me grow toward civilization.

These too-frequent encounters (and once a year is too frequent for my taste) cost too much psychically for me to engage them. Thus, I skip most Africa-focused forums advertised in DC and most talks advertised by “well-known” Africanists—these are, strangely, also in short supply.

After all, how can I remain a happy African when others are so determined to infuriate me?

Who is listening to African queers? Who is listening to those who traverse local and international spaces, who understand local needs not because they spent 2 weeks on a grant-funded trip, but because they receive phone calls at 3 in the morning and spend countless hours making sure that queers find safe housing? Who is listening to those who through years of activism and study have developed methods for how to engage with political leaders?

Are efforts to save African queers ever really about African queers?

11 thoughts on “Listening to African Queers

  1. At the risk of infuriating you, as I know I’ve got a big set of fucked-up lenses, oh well and fit too much with the white American stereotype, I’ll comment.

    My first online encounter with someone in Africa who identifies (identified) as gay was something of a fluke. He was involved in activism for sexual minorities, but reading the description of the group I wasn’t sure that’s what the group was about. When we first chatted online he asked me if I understood the group. I said I wasn’t sure but thought it might be about fostering better relationships among ethnic groups. No! Then rather sheepishly offered the group was about gay rights. Bingo!

    I was very interested and keen to help in my way. But as events progressed I felt at a loss to imagine any way to help. One thing I certainly didn’t want to do is to inadvertently out people online. But I did try to advocate. At one point Sokari said to me, I’m paraphrasing but it’s pretty close, “Shut up and listen would you!” That hurt to hear, but also felt she’d offered me a great gift, just in taking me seriously enough to bother.

    Listening obviously is engagement, not a passive activity.

    I’ve tried to encourage people I know to take a little time to engage with Africans, African writing, news and arts in general. I was stupid and still am, but my ignorance seems unfortunate and correctable.

    What’s been puzzling to me is when I’ve tried to encourage others two sorts of reactions have befuddled me. The first is after mentioning some particular conflict or political reality, an apparent presumption that I know something about every political conflict on the continent. The second reaction is that they already know.

    Just yesterday I read an article by Elliott Prasse-Freeman in “The New Inquiry” entitled “Be Aware: Nick Kristof’s Anti-Politics” which gave me a glimmer of understanding of this second reaction. It’s a nuanced argument, but Prasse-Freeman talks about “short-circuited awareness.” A light bulb went on in my head.

    The strange thing is how it seems easier for people who are really up on the news seem to fall into the short-circuited awareness trap.

    Listening isn’t only a skill the well educated have. The good news is that engagement isn’t hard, there are so many enjoyable ways to listen and to engage with real people. And it seems more people are engaging, but maybe that’s only because I’m looking where I never looked before.

  2. Keguro,
    Today more than ever I feel the indignation in your words. Cameron and Obama may just have endangered the lives of LGBTI on the continent more—as if corrective rapes and casual murder wasn’t already enough.

    I’ve seen a significant response from the African (if I can lump them together) LGBTI community, particularly the community online, that has quickly identified how tying aid conditionality to gay rights is, as you point out, a displaced effort that might drive the wedge even deeper in communities.

    And yet, as a student of international development, I am not at all surprised by this—what shall we call it?—indifference of the Global North towards those (development subjects) whom they’re claiming to help.

    I agree with you that our (Kenya’s) aid is secure because we’re fighting that proxy war for Massa in East Africa, but what worries me all the same is that even though we will receive that aid it will mostly go toward “defense” and the military and the continuing inflation will fuel anti-gay right sentiment that is already overwhelmingly high.

    Someone tell me I’m worrying too much, because I know I damn sure ain’t.

  3. Keguro, what I find problematic about this posting (the same problem I have with the statement from African queers and and queer organizations) is the absence of a critical lens on ‘aid’ itself. Both that statement and your posting perpetuate the long-disproved myths of aid as:

    1) A one-way flow from the global North to the global South
    2) A flow that is beneficial to African countries and societies
    3) A flow that all African countries are dependent on to the extent that conditionality has direct adverse impact on local populations.

    Taking each of these individually:

    1) The process of financial globalization over the last three decades has resulted in what Paul Romer refers to as “capital flowing uphill”. The net flow from the capital poor to the capital rich, from the global South to the North, was over US$700 billion in 2008.

    2) There’s no shortage of excellent analysis on who the aid industry actually serves and benefits – and it’s not Africans. Two good resources:

    http://www.tni.org/publications

    http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/publications

    3) Aid is less than 10% of Kenya’s GDP. Angola is a donor of capital to its former colonial master, Portugal. And so on. A review of national economies of African continents throws all the popular assumptions about ‘aid’ out the window.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/world/africa/portugals-financial-crisis-leads-it-back-to-angola.html

    Aid conditionality is a non-issue. It distracts from the most urgent issue threatening the survival of every queer on the African continent – every person on the African continent – climate crisis. And takes our energy away from the vital struggle for climate justice.

    http://climate-debt.org/

  4. Correction to my comment above.

    “A review of national economies of African continents throws all the popular assumptions about ‘aid’ out the window.”

    should read

    “A review of national economies of African COUNTRIES throws all the popular assumptions about ‘aid’ out the window.”

  5. Shailja,

    I am terribly ignorant about money-it’s very sad, but true.

    That said, part of what I’m interested in and part of the reason why this post is labeled under “feeling” is precisely the kind of affective economies at stake. We cannot ignore ideology here.

    Aid may be a non-factor for many African countries. Aid conditionality may be a fiction, albeit a convenient one. But the facts, unfortunately, have little to do with how such statements circulate and are understood. Which is to say: it’s one thing to position queers as moral and cultural threats; something else happens when they are positioned as economic threats, regardless of whether the numbers bear out the accusation. It’s the same way that no matter how much we cite statistics, the dominant image of the pedophile is the strange gay man. It is this territory of the affective/ideological that I’m in.

    That said, thanks for clearing up the numbers issue.

    Plus, Africa is a country. It can also be multiple continents!

  6. This is far more than “a numbers” issue – it’s the driving myth of the affective economies you refer to. Most North Americans and Europeans are deeply clueless about how little their governments spend on foreign aid. A 2010 poll asked Americans what percentage of the US federal budget was spent on foreign aid; the median answer was 25 percent. When asked what an “appropriate” percentage would be, the median answer was 10%. The actual percentage of the US federal budget that goes to foreign aid? 1%. Over half of that is military aid to Israel. Africa receives less than 10% of that 1%. So the most useful rebuttal to: “My tax dollars should not fund homophobia,” is: They don’t. Less than one cent of your tax dollar goes to the African continent. Over half of that one cent is used to buy arms back from the USA. The other half of that one cent buys pharmeceuticals and emergency food supplies from USAID.

    And that’s why I despair of well-meaning activist responses – from the global North as well as the global South – that fail to ask the basic questions you’d expect of an intelligent high-school student.

  7. I think it’s disingenuous to dismiss “well-meaning activist responses” as somehow under-read–unable to “ask the basic questions you’d expect of an intelligent high-school student.”

    Of course, the “myth” of aid deserves further scrutiny. But, again, and to agree completely, the raw numbers and even percentages do not capture the full story of what it means for the “world superpower,” whether or not we like the designation, to withdraw or curtail its responses to particular countries. There are massive economic implications beyond the “aid” to specific government-funded projects: and, again, I mean economics beyond simply numbers. “Aid conditionality” is about more than 1% or even 0.05% of the U.S. budget.

    While I agree that a rebuttal that says, “your tax dollars don’t fund homophobia” might feel satisfying, and even right, I am not sure that numbers and facts solve the ideological problem of listening. In part, I am simply extending many critiques by U.S.-based minority scholars (the stuff I study) into other spaces. As I write, it’s a mistake to conflate “domestic feeling” or the politics of “domestic feeling” with the implications and effects of international policies: these often do not live within the same neighborhoods. And while Clinton’s speech was better than some given by others, I have learned too much from activists against pinkwashing to take it at face value–many of the activists who signed the statement are also engaged in work against pinkwashing. At least one subtext to the bill.

    In their various responses to a similar strategy by the U.K., no African governments that responded brought up raw numbers or percentages: what was brought up was a recalcitrant response to “foreign interference.” Subsequently the Nigerian bill against same-sex marriage was passed. Coincidence, of course. But context merits further thinking. Notably, those who spoke against the U.K.’s conditionality spoke in national if not continental terms: these are important practices of collectivity-making. If we take that collectivity-making act seriously, take its act of hailing (Althusser) seriously, we begin to see how aid conditionality demands queer deracination as a tax exacted on African queers.

    To return to your term: myth. The persistence of the “myth” also participates in the developmental arrogance of those in the Global North: to cite and revise Fanon, there is only one destiny for the Global South and that is to become the Global North. The impossibility of this formulation suggests its ideological and material violence.

    If one takes David Kuria’s remarks seriously, that the African statement was drafted by “elites,” a term that can translate as those with varying degrees of social and cultural capital that permit access to Global North ears and outlets, then the sustained practice of not listening by those in the Global North (I’m deliberately flattening categories) is revealed as ideological violence. A violence that has practical consequences. As I wrote in another blog post, those of us who try to engage often simply learn to keep quiet, pick up our handbags, and leave the room.

  8. “As I wrote in another blog post, those of us who try to engage often simply learn to keep quiet, pick up our handbags, and leave the room.”

    Or start a different conversation. Difficult, but not impossible. It’s what you do on this blog.

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