Having recently lived and worked in West Africa for several years, I was intrigued to learn of a new book entitled Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa by Dr Adriaan van Klinken. Was this simply another anthropological study of the locals by a white liberal from Europe? Would this book be something I might want to read? There were too many unanswered questions that the PR blurb and reviews did not address. Contacting the author directly, I decided to put him on the spot with a few choice questions. He kindly responded and here’s the trust of our little chat.
Can you introduce yourself and Kenyan, Christian, Queer to our readers, explaining why you wrote the book, and are best qualified to tackle religion, activism, and homosexuality in Africa today?
My name is Adriaan van Klinken. I’m originally from the Netherlands, but I’ve been living in the UK for the past eight years. I’m an academic, working at the University of Leeds, where I teach and do research in the field of religion in contemporary Africa. My specific interest and expertise are in issues of religion, gender and sexuality in an African context, and I’ve written quite extensively in that field.
I’ve been working for some time on religion, homosexuality and LGBT rights in Africa, initially focusing on the role of religious beliefs and religious leaders in fuelling homophobia in African societies. Together with my colleague, Ezra Chitando from Zimbabwe, I edited two book volumes on that topic. I considered making this subject the focus of my book but quickly realised that as a gay person myself, I did not want to continue exposing myself to discourses on religious homophobia. I had had enough of that at an earlier stage in my life.
Fascinated by the fact that many LGBT people I met in Zambia, and elsewhere in Africa, were themselves deeply religious, and noticing that they were able to find ways to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, I decided to make this observation the focus of my book project, Kenyan, Christian, Queer. For various reasons, Zambia was not the right environment to pursue that interest, and I ended up focusing on Kenya instead.
Kenya has recently witnessed a growing visibility in LGBT activists and communities, and I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of observing and studying those dynamics for over four years. I don’t think I’m necessarily the best qualified to tackle the complex topic of religion, activism and homosexuality in Africa today – many other people may be better positioned than I am. However, I do believe that Kenyan, Christian, Queer offers a unique insight both into the subject and into my journey in studying it.
- Kenyan, Christian, Queer does not so much focus on conventional forms of activism, but on creative and artistic forms of LGBT visibility, such as literary writing, social media, music video, storytelling and worship practices.
- The text explores the critical and creative ways in which Kenyan LGBT actors engage with religion.
- It weaves together not only a wide range of different sources and materials, but also a variety of different academic disciplines and perspectives, ranging from anthropology to Christian theology, and from queer theory to African studies.
- In addition to four case study chapters, Kenyan, Christian, Queer includes four personal interludes in which I share and reflect on some personal and intimate experiences I have had in the process of researching and writing the book.
In an attempt to give an honest and vulnerable account of myself as the author, I have also tried to address the problem of “otherness” – me being a white European gay academic writing about black African queer subjects – by reflecting on the embodied and relational dynamics in the process of my research, drawing attention to my own bodily, sexual and religious selves, and foregrounding shared human existence.
In one of the interludes, for example, I disclose my HIV status and reflect on how it connects me to the history of HIV in Africa, and the bodies of queer African people living with HIV specifically.
What evidence is there that Christianity brings any real value to the lives of gay and bisexual men and women in African societies when all the signs suggest churches benefit from spewing homophobia just as governments criminalise same-sex relationships and LGBT rights in the name of religion using antiquated laws inherited from their colonial masters?
Obviously, churches and Christian leaders have often been at the forefront of fuelling homophobia and campaigning against LGBT human rights. My book does not deny that reality at all. It focuses on the other side of the coin: the fact that, in spite of religious queer-phobia, many African queer people identify as religious, uphold religious belief, and participate in religious practice.
As the case studies in my book demonstrate, queer activists and communities in Kenya frequently make use of religious language and symbols, to critique established religious institutions, to appropriate religious discourses for the affirmation of their identities and rights, and to transform religious narratives in a progressive way. This process reflects what I call religion as a site for African queer “arts of resistance”.
Thus, the evidence that Christianity brings any value to the lives of African LGBT people speaks from the pages of Stories of Our Lives, a collection of Kenyan LGBT life stories that I discuss in one of the chapters in my book. Many of these stories include references to belief in God and to the significance of faith, and they reflect “narrative theologies.”
Further evidence is the Same Love music video, which makes up another case study in my book. The video concludes with a long quotation from the Bible, reclaiming the biblical text as an African queer text. In yet another case study, of an LGBT Christian church in Nairobi, I explore how the worship and preaching in this church creates an affirmative and empowering space for its members.
Even the Kenyan gay literary writer Binyavanga Wainaina (who passed away earlier this year), who was rather critical of Christianity as a colonial religion in Africa, at the same time developed a narrative of black, progressive religious thought, inspired by people like Martin Luther King and James Baldwin.
In these various case studies, I show how Christianity is reclaimed as a site of resistance and affirmation, constructing a space of African queer possibility.
How does your book equip LGBT men and women with the means to effect change in society as opposed to leaving it all up to God?
The four case studies in Kenyan, Christian, Queer give a very detailed account of how LGBT people in Kenya are effecting change in society – the various strategies they use, the narratives they develop, the language and symbols they create. If anything, the book demonstrates that they are far from powerless victims of queer-phobia, but instead engage in a struggle for equality, freedom and justice with great courage, creativity and resilience. Reading and learning about this can be inspiring and empowering to LGBT folk elsewhere, as we are part of a global movement of change.
Is there a correlation between anti-gay legislation and the HIV-related stigma that fuels the health crisis in countries like Kenya, and what is the role of Christianity in campaigning for social change?
The criminalisation of same-sex relationships obviously hinders effective HIV prevention and treatment for people in high-risk groups, such as men who have sex with men. And the stigma around being gay reinforces the stigma that is still associated with HIV, meaning that people experience double stigmatisation.
The idea of HIV and AIDS as a punishment from God, that was prevalent in the early years of the epidemic, has been critiqued and has slowly faded away. Yet this association is still latently present, especially in relation to those who are seen as sexually immoral and sinful, such as gay people and sex workers, which is clearly fuelled by certain religious teachings.
At the same time, many countries including Kenya have made significant efforts to focus on HIV prevention and treatment campaigns in high-risk populations. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that public health strategies may be more effective to bring about social change for sexual minorities than strategies primarily based on human rights discourses, given that the “human rights agenda” is frequently seen as part of Western imperialism.
Some people will accuse you of promoting western homosexual practices in Africa through the back door. What do you say to them?
I’ll kindly ask them to go and read Kenyan, Christian, Queer carefully and with an open mind. The major thing I promote and hopefully practice in the book is an attitude of attending carefully to how LGBT people in Kenya themselves understand and express their sexuality in ways that make sense to them.
They do so by invoking indigenous African traditions of sexual diversity, engaging with globalised, Western-inspired expressions of gay culture, practising their Christian faith, and claiming a Kenyan and African identity.
They creatively weave these strands together in their lives as Kenyan queer people in the 21st century, in ways similar to how most other people in Kenya, Africa, and indeed globally, construe their lives and identities in complex, creative and hybrid ways.
Why should African Americans, Black Brits and other LGBT communities in the Caribbean read Kenyan, Christian, Queer, and what will they gain from it?
For black queer audiences in the US, the UK and the Caribbean, the book introduces them to the struggle of their fellow black queer brothers and sisters in Kenya, of which they may know little. One of the themes running through the book is how a narrative of black pan-African queer identity is constructed in the case studies of Kenyan LGBT activism.
The struggle for sexual rights in Africa today is seen as in continuity with the struggle for civil rights in the US, for instance. The legacy of civil rights activist Martin Luther King and the thought of black literary writer James Baldwin is claimed as an inspiration for the current struggle for gay and lesbian rights in Africa.
Analysing these and other references, the book foregrounds an emerging sense of black African queer identity and pride, through which my Kenyan research participants counter the popular claim that their sexuality makes them somehow “less African.” This theme in Kenyan, Christian, Queer may be particularly appealing to black queer folk elsewhere, as it invites them to reflect on questions of black and African queer identity and solidarity.