“We Have Chosen To Be Gay”

An anonymous African gay man says,

We have chosen to be gay, that is what we want, and that is what we like. That is what we have chosen and we want to display it.

What does it mean to “choose to be gay”? What does it mean for an African man to “choose to be gay”? I am not interested in claiming that “gay” is a “Western” term so I can privilege alternative terms—kuchu, basha, and so on. Instead, I am interested in “gay” as an object of desire and as choice and as spectacle: “we want to display it.” Because, arguably, what is at stake in most anti-gay legislation is precisely the relationship between choice and spectacle: the making public of what Foucault terms “a way of life.”

Some old ground: In Facing Mount Kenya, Kenyatta claims there was no homosexuality among the Gikuyu. I have wrestled with this statement for a long time. Was he simply homophobic? Was he so removed from the Gikuyu that his statement carries no weight? (Kenyatta left his rural home at 9 years of age and never “returned” to it.) Was he responding to theories of sexuality in anthropology? (For answers to these, wait for the book, where I address them in complete sentences.) In more generous moments, I have absolved Kenyatta of homophobia and considered his statement a comment on homosexuality in the U.K. Re-framed in this way, it would read, there is no homosexuality among the Gikuyu as exists among the English in 1930s England. This is, perhaps, too generous, but it allows a necessary way of thinking about the geo-histories of homo-sentiment.

All the African anti-homosexuality legislation I have seen and the various reports I have followed focuses on homosexuality as public spectacle: the problem of chinkhoswe for Stephen and Tiwonge; the circulation of queer-friendly material in the form of pamphlets, film, books, posters, music; the public appearance of queer intimacies—same-sex individuals holding hands, kissing, displaying affection. Implicitly, anti-homosexuality campaigns are, more precisely, campaigns against public homosexuality. (I set aside, for the moment, the question of whether homosexuality can exist as private.)

Indeed, Kenya’s minister of justice, Mutula Kilonzo, has followed a Lawrence v. Texas paradigm by arguing that the state has no business monitoring same-sex consensual acts performed in private. In other words, be a gay on your own time, away from innocent African publics.

Practically, we know this doesn’t work. Rowdy homophobes break down doors, invade private residences and rented hotel rooms, leave nasty facebook and email messages, scrawl trollish blog comments (I don’t get this, and if I figured out why, I might offer advice to those who do). The public always breaks through to the private: and one might argue that at least since Oscar Wilde’s trial, homosexuality has been constituted as the making public (through humiliation) of the private.

To “choose to be gay” is not the same thing as “coming out,” even though they both intervene into a public. Here, I use a Foucauldian distinction. Today, coming out is understood as an expression of identity, an “I am this.” And it is troubling, as Samuel Delany explains:

The rhetoric of singular discovery, of revelation, of definition is one of the conceptual tools by which dominant discourses repeatedly suggest that there is no broad and ranging field of events informing the marginal. This is true of science fiction versus the pervasive field of literature; art as compared to social labor; blacks as a marginal social group to a central field of whites; and gay sexuality as marginal to a heterosexual norm. That rhetoric becomes part of the way the marginal is trivialized, distorted, and finally oppressed. For what is wrong with all these seemingly innocent questions—which include, alas, “When did you come out?”—is that each tends to assume that the individual’s subjective field is one with the field of social statistics.

Sexual interests, concerns, and observations form a broad and pervasive field within every personality, as broad a field in me as it is in you, as broad within the straight man as it is in the gay woman. When we speak of burgeoning sexuality, that’s the internal field we speak of—not the social field defined by what percent of us are gay or straight, male or female. The discourse behind that same rhetoric of singularity is, of course, the discourse which stabilizes the belief that a single homosexual event can make an otherwise straight person gay—or that the proper heterosexual experience can “cure” someone gay and turn him or her straight. (“Coming/Out”)

To “choose to be gay” is to contest the singularity of definition, to engage and re-organize the social. It is to shift the air, to pluck at vibrations, to unsettle the low hum of heteronormativity. To bring attention to the silence that passes for normativity by exposing its fiction, disrupting what Elizabeth Freeman terms its “chrononormativities”: the middle-aged gay man who goes out dancing and drinking and fucking instead of staying at home with the wife and kids or cheating on his wife with his mistress. The unattached who trouble our belief in adult heteronormative attachments with their illegible and promiscuous attachments to objects, animals, friends, fictive kin.

To choose to be gay is to contest dominant narratives about life trajectories: school, work, marriage, children, grandchildren death. One acquires, instead, and perhaps, tricks, lovers, cum-encrusted souvenir jock straps, an STI or two, dildos, cockrings, massive porn collections, open relationships, a houseful of cats, poetry. One accumulates a narrative that requires narrating, complicating the unspoken scripts prepared for us to follow.

One notes, to the state’s consternation, that the unspoken script is damaged: soaked in floods, rubbed through mud, eaten by termites. Words are illegible, the language foreign, the instructions unfathomable. That to live is to innovate, to practice what John Stuart Mill called “experiments in living.” Such experiments trouble the ostensible stability envisioned by the state and privileged by tradition. They trouble the narrow trajectories that manage “population.” They trouble the quotidian heteronormative, heterocetera interactions that lubricate the social. They make “trouble.”

Those who “choose to be gay” offer the disturbing possibility that attachments and affiliations can be chosen outside of state-sanctioned norms. That there are ways of living not envisioned in school textbooks. That how we choose to live matters just as much, if not more, than how we are supposed to live.

To choose what one “likes” over one’s “duty.”
So much depends on the latter.
Too much.

8 thoughts on ““We Have Chosen To Be Gay”

  1. Brilliant – thanks! I am reminded of the movement last year, in part reacting to Lady Gaga, that asserted I was not “born this way” (since this statement implicitly presumes that if I’d had a chance to go against my biological destiny I could, would or should). Being “gay by choice, not chance” is a positive, public – and personally intimate – reaffirmation that all life is indeed open to possibility and imaginative configuration… (as you more eloquently put it “That there are ways of living not envisioned in school textbooks. That how we *choose* to live matters just as much, if not more, than how we are *supposed* to live.”)

  2. Part of the current book tracks the role of “duty” in Afro-diasporic discussions of intimacy. Those who insist on “duty” insist that it doesn’t matter how one desires, whether it’s inborn or acquired. (Take that, Lady Gaga!) What matters is “duty.”

    There’s space in “duty” for other interests–one can sleep around with anyone after duty is done (marriage and reproduction to secure kinship lines and property rights), but duty matters most.

    This is powerful stuff as it’s taken up by Afro-diasporic intellectuals–they insist that hetero-reproduction is a foundations of black identity. Two related narratives emerge: black families are breaking down and black families are templates for all families. In fact, the panic over family dissolution buttresses the idea that Afro-diaspora is kinship, is family, is heteronormative attachment, even and perhaps especially when it fails.

    Choosing “to be gay” jiggles the funny bone of heteronormative attachment. I like Martha Nussbaum’s thinking on this: that ethical orientations require imagination. Still working through this idea. It’s striking how often invocations of tradition rely on arresting the imagination. Very striking.

    1. “Duty” is an intriguing concept to invoke in an age of rights (a thought for another day)… Marriage and reproduction do indeed establish kinship (and rights), but – however much the conservatives might protest – “black kinship” is not based exclusively on “black families” (at least not in the hetero-reproductive sense). One doesn’t need to trawl too far in the anthropological literature to see that “choosing to be kin” is an important way to at least bend the heteronormative templates to suit a range of real-life possibilities, albeit typically in ways that reinforce or extend patriarchy rather than truly subverting it (viz. Ifi Amadiume, Murray & Roscoe, J.C.Wood).

  3. Keguro thanks for this brilliant piece which reminded me of an essay I read recently by Roberto Ponce Cordero “Coming out as coming in? On the constitution of a homosexual subject” in which he considers “coming out” in a historical and cultural context. What I found most thought provoking was the idea that “coming out” was a way of “coming in”. A kind of homonationalist strategy – to declare oneself out then in, almost but not entirely erases the “out”. I am sure their is a mathematical equation for this. Just thinking.

  4. This reminds of a very flawed arguments that homosexuality was introduced in African American communities to destroy them. The duty of to reproduce, multiply and fill the earth is still important for a lot of people, christians and non christians. It’s all about the numbers. what would the world look like if homosexuality was the norm? is the fear that rises in heterosexual men and yes I can’t imagine.

  5. If I remember anything from the biological sciences, it’s that one man can inseminate many women. Or, more precisely, were all the sperm from one ejaculation used for procreation, we’d never have any of these debates about “numbers.” Very practically, a “homosexual norm” would in no way “reduce” populations. We might have to be somewhat creative, but reproduction is never threatened.

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