BOLDLY QUEER: Comments at the East African Launch at the Best Western Hotel, Nairobi.
20 August 2015
Neo Sinoxolo Musangi
When I got the invitation to speak at this book launch I was hopeful that I would find something clever and profound to say about not only this particular book but also about the status of Queer Scholarship on the continent or in Kenya— if we must. I also thought I would find something aptly bold to say about the politics of the kinds of knowledge being produced by the NGO and academic homosexuality industry. On all these accounts, I have failed and failed miserably. Perhaps this was because in my thinking through the book we are launching tonight and the composition of the event itself, I insisted on manufacturing a ‘we’: a collective being that can be willed into existence in the performance of an event. I failed mostly because I was tired of a return: the constant returning to a ‘past’ that we are forever shaping, reshaping and simplifying in the search for credibility and acknowledgement. I also failed because I could not find a tense in which to speak: my mind’s rejection of a past tense, availed, albeit momentarily, the potential for a present or even future tense in which I might be able to articulate —meaningfully— something coherent.
But then José Esteban Muñoz compels me to not only imagine, but also to, in fact, cruise utopia because queerness is not even here yet and it’s only in utopia where I might find the ‘there’ and ‘then’ of a queer futurity. I might be queer in the future. I might— in fact— even stay alive in the future in this city, in this country, on this continent and, indeed in the world. In saying this, you might have noticed, men, women and gender outlaws, that I have already fallen out of a collective ‘we’. But then I might just be a closeted narcissist now performing a ritualistic ‘coming out’. This is not at all to say that this utopia is mine; that I will live in a utopia as the sole surviving queer. This is a failure of my mind that politically barely says anything about what being queer might mean. It is a failure that, I acknowledge, very quickly turns our utopias into dystopic apathies: A state of constant whinging about pain and highly individualized and depoliticized processes of meaning-making. But this is not what I want to speak to. This is not why we are here.
Perhaps my anxieties emanate from my sense of non-belonging in spaces. I have never been to this hotel, I might never come back here. This place, and in deed this space, is meant for a particular kind of person. A particular kind of person that might not be me. A person who inarguably embodies social capital and a purchasing power that guarantees access. But then I can’t even claim poverty here. I might be able to afford a cup of black tea here but there are a lot of other people who, even a perpetual claim to Kenyanness guarantees them only bareness. There are spaces very similar to this that are not meant for me, for you, for us but that we insist on occupying. So, yes, I am nervous. I am nervous around security guards. I am nervous about the police. I am nervous about being profiled and invasively asked whether I am a man or a woman. I am nervous about watching guards debate on whether I will be searched by a male or female guard because, of course guards in this country can never be queer, guards are not in the class of people that could even be remotely gender non-conforming, transgender, or intersex. All the guards in Kenya are heterosexual labourers performing an agreed-upon national notion of gender. These are that class of Kenyans who, of course, will never be seen as gay or lesbian. They are not part of our national conversations on ‘gayism’ and ‘lesbianism’.
So, here, by way of closing, I will return to the book we are launching and I want to specifically say something about Daniel Lyons’ photographs of a few African LGBTI (that acronym that can never be sufficiently problematized) persons. I want to speak about these photographs as a different kind of text that allows for multiple interpretations. The photograph as a composition that frames and the camera as a tool that uses the militarized language of ‘point and shoot’. Some of the persons in these photographs have names, others don’t. What is clear, however is that these persons, even the ones without names, are supposedly citizens of the various countries, which makes them subjects of some State. I am in these photographs in a pose that conceals my face but that in the photographer’s framing, easily translates into an anonymity. A fake anonymity for some of us. A concealed name that generates a sense of risk, a sense of danger to the body of the person but that perfectly fits into the way we speak of, and to, a strand of state violence specific to Africa.
Perhaps this is, for me, a desperate call for an imagination, an imagination of another world, a world located somewhere in the future where queerness will be possible. Where queerness might make future collectivity possible.
Here, I will welcome you, please come, be queer with me.