I had been invited to participate in an event for International Women’s Day. For reasons that are at once too banal and complex—tokenism, hierarchy, anti-intellectualism—I have withdrawn from the event. But I had written some notes for it, so I’ll post them. I was supposed to be discussing “violence against lgbti East Africans.” Here’s what I came up with.
What do queer people experience?
What do queer people want?
I was asked to say something about violence against lgbti East Africans, and I was intrigued by the question. It seemed to assume
- a) that to be lgbti in East Africa was to experience violence
b) that even if one did not experience violence the expectation of violence dominated one’s existence
c) that activism from the global north was most useful or effective when it addressed the experience or expectation of violence
I must confess that I am also part of the global north. I have lived in the U.S. for 18 years and my undergraduate and graduate training has been located in the U.S. In many ways, East Africa is as foreign to me as it might be to some of you.
It strikes me that we face two related problems.
One is empirical. What do queer people experience?
To answer this question requires time and patience and the ability to listen. If queer people talk about sex, pleasure, clubbing, dating, and fantasy, we need to value those just as much as we value stories of pain, hurt, neglect, abuse, and discrimination.
The second, related problem is one of the imagination.
An empirical problem-solution model dominates global activism. In the brief time I have spent reading activists reports, problems are named, solutions proposed, and action points developed. But the social, as James Baldwin reminds us, is not a problem to be solved. And especially not a problem to be solved through what Audre Lorde terms “uncreative solutions.” So I want to advocate for fantasy and imagination, not as escapes from the social, though an occasional vacation from it is nice, but as crucial tools for survival, as what Kenneth Burke might term “equipment for living.”
If we are to pay attention to “experience,” if we are to listen to queer East Africans, we need to ask about the roles of fantasy, desire, and imagination in creating livable lives, to ask about how lives have been imagined, about how futures are envisioned, about how presents are fantasized, about how pasts are made possible. We need, in other words, to pay attention to the psychic strategies of daily life.
We in the global north, and I include myself here, must question the arrogance that presumes we can provide imaginative solutions–indeed, imaginations–that will “solve” the social problems of over there. I am interested in how we think about the imagination as a resource. We might ask whether how we imagine livability and thriving from the global north necessarily extends to other spaces. More than that, we need to ask how those in the global south imagine their lives, imagine their futures, imagine their daily lives and their activist futures.
We need to listen to the person who craves better and more sex just as much as we do the person who craves help writing a grant proposal, because these are not distinct worlds: they bleed into each other all the time, and to think of the relationship between grant proposals and good sex requires flexibility and inventiveness and patience, a willingness to listen that dominant problem-solution models do not permit.
I think about the violence of imagining that those we want to help in the global south have not imagined ways to address the violence they face. A violence that refuses to grant others the power to imagine or fantasize, and a violence that refuses to believe imagination and fantasy matter in creating livable lives.
And it is, perhaps, appropriate that we in the global north question the fantasies we nurture about ourselves in relation to the global south. Right now we have such powerful fantasies about queer life in the global south that we are incapable of imagining that many queers in the global south develop innovative, creative, supple, and flexible ways of inhabiting the world, as more than simply objects of our benevolence.
As I have been thinking about imaginative labor—the roles of fantasy, desire, longing—I am wondering about the kind of labor necessary to bridge dreamworlds, the kinds of co-thinking and co-dreaming, and co-fantasizing that create more livable lives.