Best Year Ever?

On October 29, 2011, Salon ran a story by Naomi Abraham that described gay persecution in Africa. For the genre, it was unremarkable and even unobjectionable. On December 26, 2011, Salon ran a story by Irin Carmon that, citing something else, claimed, “It’s hard to disagree that this year was the ‘best year for gays ever.’” One acknowledges the labor of hyperbole, of course. And, to be fair, Carmon is using a comparative framework and is focused on the U.S. Still, I am struck by what is read by whom and how it is used. One might argue that this has not been a particularly good year for gays in Nigeria or Uganda or South Africa. Or, one might argue that folks in these places are really not covered by the term “gay,” which is too U.S.-specific to mean anything in other spaces. Lessons from undergrad stay with me and I am always interested to note how universalizing statements erase others. In the “best year for gays ever” Africans were not “gays.” This is a simple formulation. But one might see how this careless universalist hyperbole becomes complicit with homophobic statements that claim there are no gays in Africa.

Needless to say, picking on Salon for its racial and non-U.S. politics is too simple and perhaps unfair. I read it for Greenwald and try to avoid its incessant navel gazing. Yet this “forgetting” of Africa is not simply a careless lapse by one online journal. It is, in fact, how much knowledge about Africa circulates in the U.S. I use forgetting because Africa is always being remembered, even as the memories are yellowed with age.

A recent article in the Guardian described the “burgeoning” African middle class. The story felt musty, belated. It could have been describing my parents’ generation. As I described to a friend, one might better ask about the children and grandchildren of Africa’s post-independent middle class. In part, I am simply echoing Johannes Fabian’s argument about the persistence of allochronic time in reference to Africa—that place that one remembers to forget, except memory lingers in the folded time of the forgotten understood as a persistent now.

As I’ve written before, I’m quite happy to concede that “homosexuality” is “un-African.” Nothing in the archives I know and in the scholarship I’ve read has demonstrated that nineteenth-century Africa produced a group of sexologists who described an assemblage of bodily, psychic, and social parts as “homosexuality.” On this, I am a strict Foucauldian, if a little stubborn. What, then, does it mean for Africans to “appropriate” “homosexuality” and “gay”? Are African gays Elvis-ing?

Of course, if one takes Carmon seriously, it doesn’t really matter what African gays do—they simply don’t exist in any way that makes a historical and conceptual difference to how sexuality is envisioned as “global” or “universal.” To repeat a polemical point: the gay rights are human rights arguments has a lot of domestic traction in the States, and some African activists try to use it, but it’s not clear to me that it’s done its homework. Elsewhere, I have argued:

The broadest obstacle to embedding LGBTI concerns within human rights frameworks is the suture between African nationalism and human rights discourse, a suture that defines African humanity as heterosexually reproductive. Put otherwise: from at least the early twentieth century, African nationalism has claimed that the African is human based on the African’s hetero-reproductive potential. In defining African humanity as hetero-reproductive, nationalist and human rights rhetorics have effectively excluded LGBTI figures from the sphere of human rights and national concern. LGBTI figures cannot simply be inserted into African human rights frameworks; their very inclusion demands that we re-think the ontology of African-ness.

One could complicate this argument further and ask how the insertion of the African into human rights discourses must change those discourses. And what it means that it hasn’t—as Fanon predicted.

To some extent, these questions of the African gay’s erasure from U.S. discourses are irrelevant.

Yet. Yet. Yet.

These erasures become significant as African gays learn and borrow from U.S. discourses and practices: African sites are now full of twinks and bears and tops and bottoms and “no fats or fems.” A language of desire has traveled along with other practices. Drag by Africans is indistinguishable from that anywhere in the U.S. One can speculate about what might happen when borrowers learn that they don’t exist in the imaginations of those from whom they have borrowed. Perhaps nothing. Or when borrowers learn that they exist as retrievals from musty memory banks. Though I’m not sure that matters at all. And it might be that distance might accomplish something that proximity cannot: make the voiding of one’s existence irrelevant. But I’m not sure that distance can do that. And it’s always difficult to confront oneself as blankness or monstrosity where one sought a different kind of recognition.

Best year ever for gays?

I’m not so sure.