In tandem with its rise is a response from well-meaning Africans and many of my countrymen whose memory have been splintered, who now say they are defending their “cultures” from the marauders. In this battle of cultures a generation of innovative thinking is in danger of being lost and with it increased economic viability of Africa and its diaspora.
If this is not to be the case, activists in the post-colonial world who are battling homophobia will have to learn to do so now without assuming the cultural assumptions demonstrated by these wonderful images of same sex families and rainbow flags propagated through Western media. The fight must now be re-framed in terms that connect sexuality to the re-generative health and viability of our communities. To do so they will have to more skillfully make the argument that sexuality frees up creative energy and allows the human mind to wonder; to be refreshed for new innovation – a natural resource that is in high demand as western machine culture enters its ascendency.
I say all this at the risk of alienating folks who are doing important work through the courts in challenging colonial sodomy and buggery laws and who are working courageously under often challenging circumstances with those of us affected and infected by HIV. But these are only pieces in an arsenal. We must now begin to critically address the paradigm and tools in which the struggle for these rights take place even if doing so will mean “biting the hand that feeds us.”
The new imperialist though well-intentioned carries the seed of a privileged thinking that wants to go everywhere and have the same privileges as is enjoyed in its own country. This privileged thinking threatens to create a squalid horizon of sameness – a bland reality in which differences are not honored — a monolithic gay heaven.
In a global media culture, in which Africa and its diaspora are just beginning to find its voice, there is little wonder that the people of Africa and the Caribbean are now defending their so-called cultures.
But according to Patrick Gathara a blogger and an award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi, “What [culture] is supposedly being defended [in Africa] is little more than a figment of the Victorian imagination…Thus the historical fact that homosexuality was practiced and tolerated in many traditional African societies is wished away… They [the activist] dare to challenge the right of a small but powerful elite to define what an African is and in doing so pose a direct threat to the systems of control and privilege that have been built around that right. ”
This is the crux of the battle for Africa’s soul – the right and the ability of post-colonial societies to have self-defining conversations between themselves on their own terms. It is a battle that is also being waged at the door of my ancestors in the Caribbean. This struggle for self-definition is a deeply internal struggle and is being conducted on the terms of which the Western world cannot engage, for it is delineated by elements of class mobility, privilege, economics, political power, indigenous strains of pedophilia, violence and blackmail that have local flavor and complexity.
To be clear, Africans and the Caribbean’s same-gender-loving humans aren’t in the same struggle as Americans. Our struggle is about cultural self-definition and a vision for our societies in language that is defined by geography, history and our humanity.
For example, to identify primarily by sexual orientation is new to the African mind. Yet this is the message and language that is sent to culturally different societies through images of rainbow flags and white men raising babies.
In doing battle we have to be careful not to throw-off one form of oppression for another — that of the LGBTQ variety. For it too comes with its own mandates and dictates. Both seek to stultify the black and brown diaspora with a numbing formula that has the smell of the western world’s obsession with commodification – one size fits all.
So the tools and language of our struggle will have to be re-examined. Happily, this re-framing has begun in earnest with the self-outing of Binyavanga Wainaina. Wainaina is one of Africa’s leading literary figures, who has responded to a wave of recent anti-gay laws on the continent by publicly outing himself in a short story. In a series of six videos “Bring Me Your Obedient Children” posted this week on YouTube, he has made the critical link between the fettering of creative imagination – the suppression of difference – and economic viability. Africa and the Caribbean would do well to listen closely to him. This is a connection and argument that is not being made in the current westernized LGBT framework that does not have those concerns. There are still those in Africa who want to have “obedient children” according to Wainaina. They fear imagination and difference and this is the threat that homosexuality poses.
What he proposes as the solution to all this is creativity – an un-fettered imagination of the African variety. This he says is the most political thing one can do.
But for that to happen there must be an excavation of cultural memory that shifts through recently acquired cultural veneers to the original imprint. And this imprint is full of diversity from the 3,000 tribes and languages of Africa. Famously Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
As part of this fight the evangelical right in North America, now flooding governments and churches in those countries with money and their dogma must be placed their rightful historical context. They have seldom encouraged a creative thought, and are relatively new arrivals on the African continent.
So then, where do we go from here?
Artist and thinkers – gay and straight – have to become more vocal about the essential creativity and vitality of the society that is at stake when differences are not included, nay, celebrated. In my own country I have watched as known homosexuals, who make huge academic and artistic contributions to society, are marginalized by dismissing them personally or if not, failing to celebrate them as sexual beings whose sexuality informed their creativity and grand vision.
Western funders can help by finding new ways of incubating dialog, by funding safe spaces in which whole communities can engage each other, learn from each other, and re-member themselves.