Within the Kenyan imagination, gay men come in two flavors: elite and commercial. Elite gay men are wealthy and powerful. Or wealthy or powerful. Either way, they command enough capital—economic, cultural, social—to navigate Kenya. Their capital protects them from hostile crowds. They can pay blackmail, if required. They can travel outside the country to be gay, if they wish. They circulate within crowds liberal enough (albeit, liberal in a Kenyan conservative way) to tolerate, if not endorse, their gayness. And, often, in these liberal crowds, they are “the gay friend.” It is not that their lives are untouched by homophobia. Instead, they have the resources to navigate that homophobia.
Commercial gays—sometimes gay for pay—occupy several different spheres in the Kenyan imagination. Most traditionally, they are associated with sex work and tourism. For them, gay is not an “identity,” or is not perceived to be such. Instead, it is considered what they do “to survive.” Stories focusing on this group of gays routinely emphasize that they have wives or girlfriends. (Because bisexuality is really beyond Kenyan imaginations at this point. Gossip that will get me arrested suppressed.) A more recent variation of “gay for pay” targets human rights activists engaged in sexual minority organizing. They are gay, it goes, to receive donor money.
The idea that gayism, to use a very ugly Kenyan neologism, is economic might be dismissed as homophobic. Or, more precisely, as anti-gay. And often it is. However, it’s silly to dismiss all such arguments.
One of the founding essays of contemporary gay scholarship is John D’Emilio’s “Capitalism and Gay Identity.” D’Emilio argues, convincingly, that modern gay identity and community are bound to shifts in economic structures. In my bastardized version of his argument, the rise of capitalism and the concomitant growth of towns and cities provided new opportunities for the gay-inclined to move from their kin-based, rural homes—and, here, kinship is framed as genealogical and economic, as rural farms and businesses were run by families—to cities, where they could establish different kinds of communities, not bound by the dictates of hetero-kinship, hetero-marriage, and hetero-reproduction. Similar attention has been paid to economic shifts in African studies. The growth of mining towns in Southern Africa, the establishment of prisons across colonial-era Africa, and the creation towns and cities across the continent provided new opportunities for sexual communities to form and thrive.
In Kenya, the ongoing opposition between “professional” gays, who often have a lot of social and cultural capital, and poor(er) gays has been disheartening to watch.
Kenya is neoliberal. The much-praised Vision 2030, the country’s economic and social goal, is a neoliberal nightmare. Regrettably, many gay activists have framed their vision of a good life, a possible life, within the narrow parameters of “national development.” “Gays are good for development,” so the argument goes. Development is often praised as a neutral, public good. Yet, as envisioned in Kenya’s policy documents and as practiced in Kenya, development displaces vulnerable populations, destroys the environment, and makes any sense of ethical collectivity impossible to imagine and realize. I worry when gay activism is hinged to the development train.
During a recent forum, David Kuria emphasized that we—Kenyan queers and allies—should examine the economics of queerness. His (brief) discussion focused on the economic costs of passing homophobic or homophilic laws. What would Kenya gain or lose?
I think I have a different question: what are the economics of being queer in Kenya? How is queerness, following Cathy Cohen, always an economic state or, more precisely, an economic relationship to institutions that queer? What does it mean to take up queer as an economic position? What might it mean to queer Kenyan economics? What would it mean to queer Kenyan development?
I have no real sense that using “queer” displaces the hegemonic force of “gay”: queer does not circulate in Kenya with any real institutional force. Which, some might say, might give queer the fugitive, marronage force that it needs to imagine beyond/beside institutional frameworks.
Though the thickness of livability requires that we navigate institutional and non-institutional spaces and possibilities.
On marronage, I am reminded that it was a possibility before aerial bombing. The British bombed Kenyan resistance fighters out of dense forest ranges.
Which is to say: one might have to be gay-queer or queer-gay, to engage existing economies while fashioning others that make life (more) possible. It’s not yet clear to me that hitching “gay” to already existing economies or even the economies embedded within the development imaginary is useful or even good. While these economies might not be explicitly anti-gay, they are definitely queering economies subtended by discourses and practices of disposability. Put otherwise, I worry when institutional gayness in Kenya embraces development(al) logics that depend on hierarchizing difference and, more precisely, designating which lives are worth living. Put more crudely, the desire for state recognition—we must be practical, and in a Kenya where not having certain basic forms of state-issued ID makes much impossible, one cannot simply reject the state’s demands—should not require one to blindly endorse the state’s actions.
I continue to wonder how to think about Kenya’s gay economies, about Kenya’s gay-queer economies, about Kenya’s queer-gay economies, about Kenya’s queer economies.