Take Me to Your Queers!

On Saturday, December 1, I was part of a roundtable discussing African Same-sex stuff at the African Studies Association conference (#ASA2012—yes, American Studies, we will fight over this hashtag) held in Philadelphia. I’m going to weave in and out of what I wrote and also reflect, a little, on the session, beginning not from what the panelists said, but from what the audience seemed to want. During question time, an older gentleman who identified himself as Kenyan cautioned us that people around his area (the Rift Valley, Nandi) did not talk about sex or sexuality. He warned us to be very careful about what we were doing. This desire for respectful silence contrasted with another strong desire in the room to find the African homosexual. Repeatedly, the roundtable panel heard variations of, “was there homosexuality in pre-colonial African? Does the word homosexual appear in African languages? Where is the African homosexual?” In contrast to silence, a desire to know, to mark, to tag (think wildlife conservation).

In part, this desire to know and tag is about method: simply, the African homosexual has become an object of knowledge, the subject of an ever-proliferating number of books, articles, documentaries, reports, interventions, and is as much a creation of these forms as an object to be discovered. In a later session, Kathleen O’Mara from SUNY Oneonta pointed out how NGO funding strategies and reporting requirements (“we will fund transgender and lesbian activists,” for instance) provide categories for African subjects to assume. I bracket, for the moment, the global circulation of knowledge, practice, and culture that provides strategies for legibility and self-consciousness for a group I call, fuzzily, African queers.

Fuzziness matters.

Here’s some of what I wrote:

One: What is the relationship between the history of homosexuality and the history of the queer African? Phrased otherwise, what is the relationship between the Foucault-inspired project we have come to call the history of homosexuality, which takes religious, medical, and juridical discourses and practices as its points of departure, and the long histories of gendered and engendering, bodied and embodying encounters, within Africa and between Africa and other spaces, that situate African bodies, practices, and lives as, variously, normal and abnormal, proper and improper, legible and illegible?

Two: What is the relationship between Queer studies and African studies? Over the past decade, scholarship on Africa has appeared within Queer studies and, albeit to a lesser extent, scholarship on the Queer has appeared within African studies. Yet, both fields have approached each other timidly, afraid to ask how their engagement might fundamentally reshape assumptions foundational to both fields. How are Africa and the African produced and understood in African studies and in Queer studies? Are we ever talking about the same figures, bodies, geographies, or practices?

Breaking the frame:

My second question stems from how scholars who work on Africa from a “queer” perspective fail to engage the rich body of scholarship by African feminists that tracks contingent and unstable gender:sex:sexuality formations. I return, as always, to Amadiume, Oyewumi, Kanogo, White, and Nzegwu (many other names can be added here), all of whom track the changing meanings and practices of “womanhood” in African histories. These scholars do not give us “homosexuals” and “heterosexuals.” Instead, they track women who moved across space and time and emerged as different kinds of gendered:sexed:sexualized subjects under the regime of colonial modernity. I am interested in these moments of subject-making and subject-unmaking.

Philip Brian Harper reminds me why I moved toward queer studies:

The great promise of queerness . . . lies in its potential to conceive and mobilize modes of social subjectivity not accounted for in advance by the structures entailed in ideological narratives—that is, to render effectively negotiable the “open” of the public arena, not by simply conceiving the latter as a site for the free play of multiplicitous subjectivities but by consciously deploying it as a constitutive element within subjective identification itself. (“Gay Male Identities, Personal, Private, and Relations of Public Exchange”)

Harper was on my mind as I moved toward the third question of my presentation.

Re-enter Frame:

Three: What is the relationship between Queer theory, especially its attention to modes of precarious and emergent being, and Queer African studies, which, at the moment, is sustained by an empirico-historical fantasy in which researchers show up “somewhere in Africa,” intone, “Take Me To Your Queers,” and subsequently write up their results.

Break Frame:

In moving to “”Queer theory” in this final section, away from “Queer studies,” I wanted to shift the intellectual terrain of my talk. Over the years, I have told my students that Queer theory can go places that Queer activism can not. This allows me to engage with Edelman’s No Future, Bersani’s Homos, Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, and Berlant’s The Queen of America Goes to Washington City without asking that these books act as guides to living and acting. This seeming distinction between “thought” and “action” is unsustainable: “theory” is action in a different register. I wanted to enter this “different register” to ask about how we construct our objects of knowledge and how we pursue those objects and to what end.

Re-enter Frame:

The still-nascent field of “Queer African studies” suffers from two tendencies: the first tendency is empirical. The African queer registers as a variation on a type already conceptually organized through a Euro-American, and, more specifically, U.S.-based theoretical imagination. The questions posed of the African queer rarely, if ever, extend to asking how a notion of queerness in Africa complicates assumptions that govern U.S.-based categories. While scholars will offer some new, “local term,” say something about whether or not African queers live in some version of a queer ghetto, the assumption is that the African queer is an always legible variation on a type. This legible type fulfills a liberal ahistorical fantasy that “we are everywhere” and suggests that there is nothing new or strange to be encountered in Africa, nothing that has not already been thought about before.

This empirical problem is compounded by how Queer theory travels to Africa. I suggested that Queer theory attends to emergent and precarious being: when the queer lens turns to Africa, it is often more focused on precarity than emergence. In a long-repeated trope, the queer African incarnates that which requires intervention, care, protection. Here, the language of conservation meets that of human rights, and the queer African is further queered as a spectacle in the zoo of human sexuality. I do not want to suggest that we should abandon precarity as a lens through which to approach the problem of queerness; indeed, doing so would compromise, if not damage, the intellectual and political stakes of any queer (African) project. However, the disproportionate attention paid to precarity effaces the equally important role of emergent being that is central to queer theorizing.

Let me attempt to specify what I mean by emergent being. I am interested in those figures, bodies, lives, and practices produced at the seams of time, when forms of collectivity shift under new social, political, cultural, and economic changes. When, for instance, ethnic groups assume new configurations under the regime of colonial modernity or when new socio-cultural collectives emerge through religious conversion or through modes of socio-political domination or mixing. At such moments, certain figures, bodies, lives, and practices become, variously, illegible or unabsorbed, unaccounted for by terms such as “family,” “household,” “man,” “woman,” “African,” or “human.”
I went on to suggest, briefly, that the figure of the loner in African texts and contexts might provide a different way to think about queer African studies and, indeed, African studies in general. I am interested in thinking beyond claims central to how we conceive African societies as “communal” and “social” by asking how such designations and claims produce practices inimical to certain bodies, lives, practices, and desires. Queer is a placeholder for such illegible, invisible, and disavowed figures, even as I want to insist that sex:gender:sexuality form the inter-articulated nodes around which recognition is granted and withheld. I have also been thinking about the “refugee” and the “IDP” as particular figures who slip in and out of recognition and illegibility—I would never term these figures “queer,” but they form part of my ongoing critical archive. Indeed, a project that thought through the Kenyan queer, the Kenyan refugee, and the Kenyan IDP would be richly productive. (Perhaps this is where I have been heading all along over the past few years.)

Also, because I’m trained as a literary scholar, I am interested in representation and figuration, in thinking through fantasy and imagination and desire. Learning from Foucault, I want to resist the “African homosexual” as an empirical figure waiting to be discovered or, through NGO and international interventions, to be created and saved.

To repeat something I’ve claimed before: we know very little about African sex and sexuality. Very little. And premature injections of “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “bisexual,” and so on into discussions of African sex and sexuality foreclose the possible kinds of knowledge we might gain.

I would not give this paper within a more explicitly activist context. I understand my participation within activist spaces differently: I am there to learn and to plan, to ask what can be done in the present to advance a particular project, to create or imagine a livable future. I want to emphasize this point because portions of my presentation seemed to slam scholar-activists interested in advancing African sexual rights causes. We need such scholarship. I also think we need a kind of scholarship that works more explicitly in a figurative and theoretical register, scholarship that troubles the empirical register that dominates in African studies.