New article: “Culture Wars, Race, and Sexuality”

Image result for "journal of africana religions"The Journal of Africana Religions has just published my latest article, entitled “Culture Wars, Race, and Sexuality: A Nascent Pan-African LGBT-Affirming Christian Movement and the Future of Christianity“. The article is based on my current research project on LGBT activism and Christianity in Africa, with a focus on Kenya.

In order to challenge and decenter monolithic narratives about Christian-inspired homophobia in Africa, this article draws attention to Christian countermobilizations that seek to affirm the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in Africa. It focuses on the work of an African American organization, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM), to build a Pan-African LGBT-affirming Christian movement. TFAM presents its work as a response to the involvement of American white conservative evangelicals in the spread of homophobia in Africa. Where the latter has been framed as the export of American culture wars, this article discusses TFAM’s work as an attempt to counterbalance the culture wars and to define the future of African Christianity in progressive ways. The article proceeds by discussing one of the fruits of TFAM’s activities, an LGBT church in Nairobi, Kenya, and concludes by examining the overall significance and potential impact of TFAM’s work.

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New article: Ancestors, Embodiment and Sexual Desire

The new journal Body and Religion recently launched its first issue, and I’m excited to be part of it. Together with my colleague and friend Kwame Edwin Otu (University of Virginia, USA), who works in the field of African Queer Studies, I contributed an article entitled:

Ancestors, Embodiment and Sexual Desire: Wild Religion and the Body in the Story of a South African Lesbian Sangoma

Abstract

This article explores the intersections of religion, embodiment and queer sexuality in the autobiographic account of a South African self-identifying ‘lesbian sangoma’, on the basis of the book Black Bull, Ancestors and Me: My Life as a Lesbian Sangoma6294845, by Nkunzi Zandile Nkabinde. The article offers an intertextual reading of this primary text, first vis-à-vis David Chidester’s Wild Religion: Tracking the Sacred in South Africa, and second, vis-à-vis some black lesbian feminist writings, specifically by Audre Lorde, M. Jacqui Alexander, and Gloria Wekker. This intertextual reading foregrounds the embodied and in fact queer nature of the wild forces of indigenous religion in contemporary South Africa, and it illuminates how embodied and erotic experience is grounded in the domain of the sacred. Hence the article concludes by arguing for a decolonising and post-secular move in the field of African queer studies, underlining the need to take the sacred seriously as a site of queer subjectivity.

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Beyond African religious homophobia: How Christianity is a source of African LGBT activism

(This post was originally published on the Religion and the Public Sphere blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science.)

The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Although religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle but have also been appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause. Adriaan van Klinken says we need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia as religion plays multiple and complex roles in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.

In recent years Africa has become widely associated with homophobia. It is even considered ‘the most homophobic continent’ in the world. This image is the result of the anti-gay rhetoric of political leaders such as President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, the introduction of new anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda and Nigeria, and the arrest of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists in countries such as Cameroon and Zambia.

In this piece I’m not concerned with “African homophobia” as such – although I’d like to pose the question whether homophobia is the most useful term to understand the politics around homosexuality and LGBT rights in contemporary African societies. Neither am I concerned with the reasons why  Western media tend to depict “African homophobia” in rather sensationalist ways – although I do wonder whether it has something to do with the deep-rooted perception of Africa as “backward” that allows the West to see itself as “progressive” and “modern”.

My interest here is in the role of religion in African dynamics around homosexuality and LGBT rights. The emergence of anti-homosexuality politics in Africa is often explained with reference to religion. Given the dominance of Christianity in many of the countries in which homophobia seems on the rise, churches in particular are seen as fuelling the repression of African LGBT people. It is easy to find evidence in support of this idea: African Anglican bishops are at the forefront of the crisis over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion; Ugandan evangelical pastors actively campaigned for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill; Nigerian Catholic and Pentecostal leaders enthusiastically welcomed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Bill. Moreover, political leaders in many countries often use explicitly religious arguments against homosexuality, denouncing it not only as “un-African” but also “un-biblical” and “un-Christian”. In the media and among the general public religious beliefs often frame debates about homosexuality – such as in Zambia, where United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was even seen as an agent of the devil after he called upon the country to recognise the human rights of sexual minorities.

There’s enough evidence to argue that religion is a major factor in fuelling homophobia in Africa, and is a key obstacle to moving towards a future in which African LGBT people will be accepted in their communities and societies. Indeed, in my research over the past six years I have critically examined the role of religious leaders, organisations and beliefs in mobilisations against homosexuality and LGBT rights. However, more recently I have become interested in another question: is religion only and inherently an obstacle, or can it also be a source for African LGBT identity, community, and activism? Can religion play a role in (re)building Africa as a continent of diversity including in matters of sexuality?

I don’t buy into the notion, popular among some African theologians, that Africans are “notoriously religious”, as John Mbiti famously put it. Yet it is true that religion in all its varieties is an important aspect of identity and social practice for many Africans, and that it permeates African cultures and societies. If Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar are right when they state that “it is largely through religious ideas that Africans think about the world today, and that religious ideas provide them with a means of becoming social and political actors”, the question can be asked how this applies to LGBT people and their forms of community activism. In my current research project I explore this question in the context of Kenya, specifically in relation to Christianity, through a variety of case studies.

A Kenyan art collective, named The Nest, recently conducted an LGBT life stories project, for which they collected over 250 life stories of LGBT Kenyans in different parts of the country and from different ages and backgrounds. The result was published in an anthology, Stories of Our Lives, which gives a fascinating insight in the lives of LGBT people in an African country today and in their navigation of cultural, social and political complexities. Many of the stories refer to religion, with people telling about their religious upbringing at home, at school and in church. Furthermore, several stories testify of an ongoing religious commitment, an active participation in faith communities, and/or a relentless faith in God. Doing so, they provide insight in the way LGBT Kenyans do negotiate their sexuality and faith, and often find ways of reconciling the two, for instance through narratively claiming the love of God, the idea of being created in the image of God, or the inclusive and welcoming ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Stories of Our Lives project was not inspired by any explicit religious aims. However, the resulting stories demonstrate that for many LGBT Kenyans, Christian faith remains an important source of identity and practice, despite the negative experiences they often have in church. Where these stories reveal how this works on an individual basis, another case study demonstrates how faith becomes the basis for a new Kenyan LGBT Christian community. The case in point is an LGBT church in Nairobi, launched in 2013 by a group of Kenyan activists who wanted to create an affirmative space for LGBT people of faith where they could be nourished spiritually.

These activists received moral, pastoral and financial support from the US-based organisation, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries. This is an African-American organisation that seeks to promote “a theology of radical inclusivity” in the “black church” in the US, and more recently also on the African continent by building a United Coalition of Affirming Africans. What is particularly interesting is not only the pan-African ideology underlying this initiative, but also the way in which it is framed explicitly as a progressive black Christian attempt to combat the influence of American white evangelical Christianity. This puts both race and sexuality at the heart of a contest for the future of Christianity in Africa.

Obviously much is at stake here, which is reflected in some sermons I overheard in the Nairobi church about the theme of “rewriting the Book of Acts”. This trope suggests that just like the early Christian church two thousand years ago, this small LGBT affirming church community is currently figuring out its identity and mission which will be decisive for nothing less than the nature and future of Christianity in Kenya and in Africa at large. Whilst this framing might seem pretentious, or at least ambitious, the church in Nairobi does play a crucial role for community members, including a group of Ugandan LGBT refugees who had to leave their home country due to ostracism but who continue to experience marginalisation and harassment in Kenya.

Through prayer and preaching, worship and pastoral support, but also through sport and recreation activities as well as advocacy and community activism, the church provides an important social and spiritual home for its congregants. In the words of their mission statement, the church “proclaims the unconditional love of God, which embraces all humanity”. Similar initiatives have mushroomed in other African countries in recent years, representing a nascent African Christian LGBT movement.

Beyond the confines of explicitly Christian LGBT activism, it is interesting to see that also other LGBT activist expressions engage Christianity. A case in point is the Same Love music video, released by Kenyan musicians and activists in February 2016 (and soon thereafter banned by the Kenyan authorities). Presented as “a Kenyan song about same sex rights”, the video makes several references to religion. On the one hand, it critically denounces the role of religious beliefs and actors in the demonisation of LGBT people and the hate they experience “in the name of piety”. On the other hand, and perhaps more significant, the video appeals to religion in positive ways.

The line “Uganda … Nigeria Africa … we come from the same God, cut from the same cord, share the same pain and share the same skin” reflects a sense of pan-Africanism where African unity-in-diversity is rooted in a shared sense of being created by God. The song also refers to “the spirit of Martin Luther King”, claiming the Christian-inspired legacy of this famous leader of the African-American civil rights movement to support the struggle for LGBT rights in Africa. Most prominently, the song ends with a long quotation from the Bible – the classic text about love in 1 Corinthians 13 – with the closing statement being “Love is God and God is Love”. This clearly demonstrates that the Bible and the Christian faith are not only sites of struggle where the debate on homosexuality is being fought by homophobic African religious and political leaders, but that the same sites are appropriated by African LGBT activists in support of their cause.

The longer term impact of these various ways in which Christianity is reclaimed to support LGBT identity, community and activism in Africa is still to be seen. Yet these examples do illustrate the need to move beyond a narrow focus on African religious homophobia, and to attend to the multiple and complex roles that religion plays in contemporary dynamics of African sexualities.

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Queer Studies and Religion in Africa

The journal Scholar & Feminist Online has recently published a special issue on the theme Queer/Religion, guest edited by Elizabeth Castelli. I contributed an article entitled, “Queer Studies and Religion in Contemporary Africa: Decolonizing, Post-secular Moves“. Here I explore the intersections of queer studies and religion in African contexts, and I argue that queer studies has to take religion seriously, not only as a source of homo- or queer-phobia, but also as a source of queer agency, subjectivity and politics. As part of its ongoing process of decolonization, this will allow queer studies – which is still firmly rooted in a Western and largely secular paradigm, to make a post-secular move and engage with religion, spirituality and faith in all its complexities.

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New article on Pentecostalism, political masculinity and citizenship in Zambia

A new article of mine has recently been published in Journal of Religion in Africa 46:2-3 (2016), 129-157. It is entitled, “Pentecostalism, Political Masculinity and Citizenship: The Born-Again Male Subject as Key to Zambia’s National Redemption”, and it is the final publication of a project I have been working on since 2008, focusing on Pentecostal masculinity politics in Zambia.

 

Abstract
Africa has become a key site of masculinity politics, that is, of mobilisations and struggles where masculine gender is made a principal theme and subjected to change. Pentecostalism is widely considered to present a particular form of masculinity politics in contemporary African societies. Scholarship on African Pentecostal masculinities has mainly centred around the thesis of the domestication of men, focusing on changes in domestic spheres and in marital and intimate relations. Through an analysis of a sermon series preached by a prominent Zambian Pentecostal pastor, this article demonstrates that Pentecostal discourse on adult, middle- to upper-class masculinity is also highly concerned with men’s roles in sociopolitical spheres. It argues that in this case study the construction of a born-again masculinity is part of the broader Pentecostal political project of national redemption, which in Zambia has particular significance in light of the country constitutionally being a Christian nation. Hence the article examines how this construction of Pentecostal masculinity relates to broader notions of religious, political and gendered citizenship.

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