YES, THERE ARE GAYS IN AFRICA!
By Keguro Macharia
Monday, January 03, 2011.
In 2010, the international community “discovered” Queer Africa. The imprisonment of Stephen Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga (main picture) in Malawi stitched together economic interests and human rights; anti-homosexual activism in Uganda and its support from the U.S. religious right was featured in the global press; and, most recently, during U.N. deliberations, African countries were at the forefront of denying that execution due to sexual orientation violated human rights.
While some international attention was predictable, including discussions of “African homophobia” staged by “missionary” figures intent on “saving” Africans, the increased international attention helped African activists and intellectuals to forge important new political and social connections within and beyond Africa. Although queer African transnational activism has been around for some time, in 2010, it emerged forcefully as a rich site for pursuing questions of social rights and human justice.
As Kenyan-born legal scholar Makau Mutua argued, the denial of rights to queer Kenyans threatens everyone’s rights. Mutua’s statement would have been unthinkable at the start of the millennium. That it is thinkable now signals an important historical shift.
South African-born scholar Neville Hoad argues, “homosexuality” is “one of the many imaginary contents, fantasies, or significations . . . that circulate in the production of African sovereignties and identities in their representation by Africans and others.” In 2010, this claim gained in intensity. It became possible to speak of “African homosexuality” and “African homophobia” in unprecedented ways. Debates on the “meaning” of homosexuality circulated in new spaces, extending beyond websites and blogs run and frequented by diasporic Africans to mainstream newspapers and magazines. New discursive spaces opened, and with them new political possibilities.
Yet, what Michel Foucault aptly named the “proliferation” of discourse is complicated. The making public of queers and queer discourses has complicated lives and relationships, leading to increased harassment and new modes of exile. Unfortunately, homophobic figures are now better known outside and within Africa than queer activists—Martin Ssempa and David Bahati have been widely profiled. It matters who gets publicity, and why. Too, the NGO-ization of much queer African activism has given it the status of “something that NGOs do,” that is, specialized and funded and, unfortunately, not public.
It is not yet clear how Africa’s queer internationalisms (Africa and the rest of the world) intersect with African transnationalisms and African nationalisms. In November, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights refused to grant observer status to the Coalition of African Lesbians, and despite international pressure, Ugandan MP David Bahati continues to pursue a draconian anti-homosexuality bill. In fact, Bahati’s bill has become a staging ground for how nationalisms relate to internationalisms; those for the bill position themselves against “Western” imperialism. It would be a mistake to dismiss such claims as merely reactionary. On the other hand, African citizens are staging claims for queer rights within Africa. We have, then, competing and complementary queer nationalisms and internationalisms.
In 2010, queer activism entered African national and international discussions in unprecedented ways. Activists created and embraced emergent socio-political spaces, populating them with new possibilities for action and living. In the process, these activists enlarged our conceptions of freedom.
 On the important role of “the thinkable,” see Michel-Rolph Truillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), esp. Ch. 3.
 Neville Hoad, African Intimacies: Race, Homosexuality, and Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minesota Press, 2007), xvi.
Keguro Macharia is a Kenyan literary critic and theorist, and an Assistant Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Maryland, College Park. He blogs at Gukira.