Book discussion Kenyan Christian Queer at University of Stellenbosch

On Wednesday 25 March 2020, the Gender Unit of the Beyers Naude Centre, at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, will host a launch and discussion of my recent book Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa (Penn State University Press, 2019). I will be interviewed about the book, my motivation for writing it, and the contribution it makes, by Ashwin Thyssen, who is a postgraduate student in theology at Stellenbosch University. Anyone with an interest in the subject is welcome to attend. For details, see the flyer below.

Book panel Kenyan Christian Queer at University of Johannesburg

On Monday 23 March 2020, the University of Johannesburg in South Africa hosts a book panel discussion about my recent book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa.

The event is organised by the University library, together with the Department of Religion Studies, and is open to anyone with an interest in the subject. The panel, that will be chaired by Dr Elina Hankela (University of Johannesburg), will feature contributions from Dr Siphiwe Dube (Wits University), Dr Danai Mupotsa (Wits University) and Mr Anele Siswana (University of Johannesburg).

Desmond Tutu’s long history of fighting for lesbian and gay rights

Archbishop Desmond Mpilo Tutu is mostly known to the world for his highly prominent role in the campaign against apartheid in South Africa. This role was internationally recognised by the awarding of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.

Tutu continued his activism even after the country’s democratic transition in South Africa in the early 1990s. Among other things, he served as chair of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which sought to deal with the crimes and injustices under apartheid, and to bring about justice, healing and reconciliation in a wounded society. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996.

In more recent years Tutu has become known for his strong advocacy on issues of sexuality, in particular the rights of lesbian and gay people. For instance, in 2013, he made global headlines with the clear and succinct statement, in typical Tutu fashion, that he:

would rather go to hell than to a homophobic heaven.

Tutu is by far the most high-profile African, if not global, religious leader to support lesbian and gay rights. This has added to his international reputation as a progressive thinker and activist, especially in the western world. But his stance has been met with suspicion on the African continent itself. A fellow Anglican bishop, Emmanuel Chukwuma from Nigeria, even declared him to be “spiritually dead”.

For distant observers, Tutu’s advocacy around sexuality might appear to be a recent phenomenon. For his critics, it might be another illustration of how he has tried to be the darling of white liberal audiences in the Western world.

In fact his commitment to defending gay and lesbian rights isn’t a recent development; it dates as far back as the 1970s. In addition, it is very much in continuity with his long-standing resistance against apartheid and his relentless defence of black civil rights in South Africa.

Common thread

Shortly after the end of apartheid in 1994, Tutu wrote that

If the church, after the victory over apartheid, is looking for a worthy moral crusade, then this is it: the fight against homophobia and heterosexism.

Driving both struggles is Tutu’s strong moral and political commitment to defending the human dignity and rights of all people. Theologically, this is rooted in his conviction that every human being is created in the image of God and therefore is worthy of respect.

In the 1980s, Tutu and other Christian leaders had used the concept of ‘heresy’ to denounce apartheid in the strongest theological language. They famously stated that “apartheid is a heresy”, meaning that it is in conflict with the most fundamental Christian teaching.

Tutu also used another strong theological term: blasphemy, meaning an insult of God-self. In 1984, he wrote:

Apartheid’s most blasphemous aspect is … that it can make a child of God doubt that he is a child of God. For that reason alone, it deserves to be condemned as a heresy.

More than a decade later, Tutu used very similar words to denounce homophobia and heterosexism. He wrote that it was “the ultimate blasphemy” to make lesbian and gay people doubt whether they truly were children of God and whether their sexuality was part of how they were created by God.

Tutu’s equation of black civil rights and lesbian and gay rights is part of a broader South African narrative and dates back to the days of the apartheid struggle. Openly gay anti-apartheid activists, such as Simon Nkoli, had actively participated in the liberation movement, and had successfully intertwined the struggles against racism and homophobia.

On the basis of this history, South Africa’s Constitution, adopted in 1996, included a non-discrimination clause that lists sexual orientation, alongside race and other characteristics. It was the first country in the world to do so, and Tutu had actively lobbied for it.

A decade later, South Africa became the sixth country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage.

Reverend Mpho Andrea Tutu and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu attend an award gala in New York City. Thos Robinson/Getty Images/Shared Interest

Attitudes still need work

Arguably, these legal provisions did not automatically translate into a change of social attitudes towards lesbian and gay people at a grassroots level. Homophobia remains widespread in South African society today.

Tutu’s own church, the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, continues to struggle with gay issues. In 2015 his daughter, Mpho Tutu, had to give up her position as an ordained priest after she married a woman. Tutu gave the newly wed couple a blessing anyway.

The question of same-sex relationships and the status of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people continues to be controversial across the world. In this context, Tutu is an influential figure who uses his moral authority to help shape the debates.

His equation of racial and sexual equality is particularly important, as it foregrounds how the struggle for justice, equality and human rights are interconnected: we cannot claim rights for one group of people while denying them to others.

This article is an abbreviated version of a chapter about Desmond Tutu in the book Reimagining Christianity and Sexuality in Africa, co-authored by Adriaan van Klinken and Ezra Chitando, and to be published with Zed Books in London (2021).

This article was originally published by The Conversation, 17 February 2020.

Queering Pan-Africanism

The recent politicization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) identities and rights in many parts of Africa has given rise to a renewed emergence of pan-Africanist thought in two directions. First, there is the well-known narrative of anti-queer pan-Africanism, invoked by many African statesmen, clergy and opinion leaders. It uses sexuality as a key site to defend and preserve African values and identities vis-à-vis perceived foreign imperialism. LGBT sexualities are framed here as “un-African,” and violence against sexual minorities is legitimized in the name of “African pride.” Ugandan human rights lawyer, Adrian Jjuuko, summarizes this as the “rise of a conservative streak of pan-Africanism.” Second, and of greater interest here, LGBT activists and allies across the continent resist this popular narrative through a discursive counter-strategy in which they deploy progressive black and pan-Africanist figures, ideas, and symbols.

One key example of this emerging discourse is the African LGBTI Manifesto, drafted at a meeting in Nairobi in April 2010 by activists from across the continent. It opens with a strong, explicitly pan-Africanist vision: “As Africans, we all have infinite potential. We stand for an African revolution which encompasses the demand for a re-imagination of our lives outside neo-colonial categories of identity and power.” The manifesto then explicitly states its specific concern with sexuality, but linking it to the project of “total liberation” of the African continent and its peoples: “We are specifically committed to the transformation of the politics of sexuality in our contexts. As long as African LGBTI people are oppressed, the whole of Africa is oppressed.”

A similar emphasis on mainstreaming sexuality in a broader project of decolonization is found in the emerging body of literature in African queer studies. For instance, Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas state that “at the root of queer resistance in Africa, is a carrying forward of the struggle for African liberation and self-determination.” African queer politics is a project, not just concerned with LGBT identities and rights, but with the struggle against patriarchy, heteronormativity, homophobia, and neoliberal capitalism. It aims at a comprehensive liberation of African peoples and societies from the multiple structures of domination and oppression.

As much as the queer African project is about the future of the continent, there is a critical sense of retrieving something that has been lost in the course of history, and that can be recovered for contemporary political purposes. In the talk titled “Conversations with Baba,” the late Kenyan literary writer Binyavanga Wainaina uses an inclusive “we” to reclaim Africa as a continent that has always been characterized by diversity, and as such sets an example to the rest of the world: “We, the oldest and the most diverse continent there has been. We, where humanity came from. We, the moral reservoir of human diversity, human aid, human dignity.”

In Wainaina’s commentary, this rich and strong tradition of diversity characterizing African societies was only interrupted by “those people who came from that time of colonization to split us apart, until our splitting apart came from our own hearts.” Thus, he suggests that the interruption came from outside—from the forces of colonialism and missionary Christianity; he further suggests that moral conservatism and rigidity have been adopted and internalized by certain sections of society in postcolonial Africa, in particular conservative religious actors such as Pentecostal Christian pastors.

Vis-à-vis such forces, Wainaina calls for a reclaiming of indigenous African moral traditions that recognize human diversity. In part two of his six-part video, “We Must Free Our Imaginations,” Wainaina describes socio-political and religious homophobia in Africa as “the bankruptcy of a certain kind of imagination.” He urges fellow Africans to engage in creative, liberating, and imaginary thinking, reclaiming the past in order to reimagine the future—a future free from oppressive modes of thought.

In more popularized form, the same narrative is found in the “Same Love” music video. Released in 2016 by the Kenyan band Art Attack under the leadership of the openly gay musician and activist, George Barasa, the video was presented as “a Kenyan song about same sex rights, LGBT struggles, and civil liberties for all sexual orientations.” The lyrics and imagery present a progressive pan-Africanist vision, which unfolds in two steps. First, the video draws critical attention to the recent politics against homosexuality across the continent, showing newspapers with strong and sensationalist anti-gay messages and images of Kenyan anti-gay political protests. This part of the song concludes stating:

Homophobia is the new African culture / Everyone’s the police, Everyone’s a court judge, mob law, street justice / Kill ‘em when you see ‘em / Blame it on the west, never blame it on love, it’s un-African to try and show a brother some love.

In the next part, the lyrics specifically refer to Uganda and Nigeria, the two countries that in 2015 became internationally known for passing new anti-homosexuality legislation. Then the song calls upon Africa as a whole, saying:

Uganda stand strong, Nigeria, Africa, it’s time for new laws, not time for new wars / We come from the same God, cut from the same cord, share the same pain and share the same skin.

A positive pan-Africanist vision is presented here, emphasizing the unity and common history of African peoples. The basis for this vision is a religious one: the idea of African peoples as created by God. This echoes an important tradition of religiously inspired pan-Africanist thought, centering on the belief “that Africa’s destiny is God given.” In the words of Marcus Garvey: “God Almighty created us all to be free.” Originally, this religious notion allowed for resisting racial discrimination and overcoming the inferiority of people of African descent vis-à-vis white superiority. “Same Love” appropriates it to resist sexual discrimination and to overcome divisions that exist today about who counts as truly African.

In its opening statement—”This song goes out to the new slaves, the new blacks”—”Same Love” situates the experience of same-sex-loving people in Africa in a longer history of racial and ethnic oppression. The lyrics suggest continuity between the Civil Rights movements in the US and the contemporary LGBT rights movement in Africa. This is acknowledged later in the video when images of some prominent African queer individuals appear on the screen, while the vocals in the song state that “Luther’s spirit lives on.” The suggestion is that the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. lives on in those Africans campaigning for the human rights of sexual minorities today. This allows the producers of the video to claim a moral high ground, implicitly appropriating King’s prophetic dream of racial liberation in the US and applying it to the struggle for queer freedom in Africa.

Wainaina has also invoked the name of King, and of African American literary writer James Baldwin, as part of his queer pan-Africanist imagination. He referred to Baldwin as a source of inspiration, recognizing him as “black, African, ours,” as a “gay icon of freedom,” and canonizing him as a writer of “new scriptures.” While commenting on the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda, he further stated that the pastor of former US president George W. Bush “has had more influence on the imagination of Africans than Martin Luther King and James Baldwin.” Elaborating on this, Wainaina invoked the tradition of progressive black religious thought, explicitly referring to “the Jesus of James Baldwin and Martin Luther King” which, he critically observes, is “a dead man in Africa.” Describing Jesus as a liberating figure, who is in solidarity with the marginalized, Wainaina criticized the church in Africa for maintaining structures of oppression and exclusion.

The invocation of progressive traditions of black religious thought is particularly significant in the light of popular discourses that denounce homosexuality as both “un-African” and “un-Christian.” The question whether religion, in particular Christianity, can make a constructive contribution to queer pan-Africanist discourse is a debatable one. Many African queer scholars and activists tend to see Christianity as a colonial and conservative religion from which Africa and Africans need to be liberated. This is understandable, but one could ask whether it not also reflects the influence of western queer scholarship and politics with its secular inclination and anti-religious tendencies. Both Wainaina and the “Same Love” video agree with the postcolonial critique of Christianity. Yet they also suggest that progressive traditions of Christian thought can inspire the black African queer imagination. Hence, they invite us to engage creatively and constructively with the resources within religious traditions towards black pan-African queer liberation.


This piece was first published on Africa is a Country, on 30 January 2020.

Christianity and Queer World-making in Kenya

Originally published on Northern Notes (10 December 2019).

“Queer world-making, then, hinges on the possibility to map a world where one is allowed to cast pictures of utopia and to include such pictures in any map of the social.” (Muñoz 2009, 40)

In recent years, African societies have become increasingly associated with social and political homophobia. A 2011 BBC documentary famously dubbed one African country as ‘the world’s worst place to be gay’. In the narrative of the documentary, this country, Uganda, becomes paradigmatic of the African continent as a whole. This, of course, creates a nice contrast to Europe, which is implicitly framed as liberal and progressive on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues. For long, Africa has been Europe’s Other, and it still is.

Homophobia and the politics against homosexuality and LGBT human rights in Africa are often explained with reference to the prevalence of religion on the continent. In contrast to a secularised and enlightened Europe, conservative religion must obviously be the root cause of Africa’s alleged backwardness.

The problem with these representations is that they tend to essentialise “African homophobia”, ignoring the colonial histories and political economies that have produced it, and tend to victimise African LGBT people, depriving them of agency. They also give a one-sided account of the role of religion in African politics of homosexuality, and in African public life more generally. As if religion can only support conservative socio-political agendas. Recognising that religious thought and practice is vital to political mobilisation, shapes personal agency, and is part of public culture in contemporary African societies means that we have to acknowledge the multiple and often complex ways in religion is part of African politics of sexuality.

Researching in this area for the past ten years, I have become increasingly interested in emerging forms of LGBT visibility and mobilisation in African societies. I noticed that many of the LGBT people I met across the continent identified with, and practiced, some form of faith. I also observed that religious belief and practice was creatively engaged by LGBT communities and appropriated as part of grassroots queer politics on the continent.

My recent book Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa, examines these dynamics with specific reference to Christianity in the context of Kenya. It presents four in-depth case studies of creative forms of LGBT activism – or “artivism”, as I call them – ranging from the literary writer Binyavanga Wainaina, the Same Love music video, the Stories of Our Lives project, and an LGBT affirming Nairobi based Christian church. Each of these case studies demonstrate how Christian texts, symbols, rituals and language provide a productive resource through which LGBT people in Kenya affirm their sexuality, claim public space, resist popular discourses, and present alternative imaginations. In other words, Christianity, as much as it fuels the homophobic rhetoric of political and religious leaders, is also part and parcel of Kenyan queer world-making.

For instance, Wainaina, in his critique of homophobic Pentecostal pastors, not only queerly appropriates their prophetic style but also invokes the image of the black Jesus that inspired Martin Luther King and James Baldwin in order to buttress his prophetic vision of a progressive and inclusive future for the African continent. The Same Love video blurs the genres of hip hop and gospel music and includes a quotation from the Bible, concluding with the statement that “Love is God and God is Love”. The queer Kenyans who tell their life story in Stories of Our Lives creatively blend biblical stories and Christian language in order to signify their own lives at the margins of society, while they narratively claim space for themselves. And in Cosmopolitan Affirming Church, queer folks engaged in charismatic worship and powerful preaching, reclaiming faith as an empowering space.

Achille Mbembe, in Critique of Black Reason, has stated that ‘struggle, as a praxis of liberation has always drawn part of its imaginary resources from Christianity’. Indeed, this applies to the history of liberation from slavery, colonialism and apartheid. In a similar way as black Africans have reclaimed Christianity from European missionaries, and African women have reclaimed Christianity from a patriarchal church, LGBT Africans currently add a new chapter to this history as they reclaim Christian faith from an institution deeply involved in homophobic and heteronormative politics.

The Bible and the Christian tradition provide them with narratives that help to imagine a queer utopia. Based on their belief that ‘Love is God and God is Love’, as stated in the lyrics of Same Love, and their hope for ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, as it was preached about in CAC, they engage in acts of resistance and social transformation. For a queer world to come, where loving relationships and embodied personhood in many different forms are recognised and celebrated.