“I am twenty nine. It is 11 July, 2000. I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five. I have never touched a man sexually. I have slept with three women in my life. One woman, successfully. Only once with her. It was amazing. But the next day, I was not able to.”
How does one sleep with another? How does one sleep with another, successfully?
The queer autobiography is (always) confessional. To write about one’s (sexual) life outside heteronormative matrices is to admit a certain kind of failure. One writes/speaks out of feelings of guilt. And shame. Mostly shame. It is to admit, even when one seeks to free themselves, that there is something that is unusual and unacceptable about their being. It is to say, “Look here World, I unlike most, am different and I want you to know that”. It is an admission. Now, whether that admission comes from a place of (self)acceptance or not, it is an admission that calls for a reaction. An admission that requires a response. An action of some sort.
Binyavanga uses the word babi. A lot. Babi calls for an archaeology of a particular kind. A word located in a language of non-babiness. Those who name the world beyond their reach. A quick search for the meaning of the word babi avails a simple English definition: A person who doesn’t speak Sheng, a person from a wealthy background.
Babi is a Sheng word for a person who does not live in a Sheng world. It is a word coined by those not born into Babidom.
Binyavanga is a babi. He calls himself one. But Binyavanga’s babiness is incoherent. He is not a babi homosexual in the ways that most of us envision babi homosexuals. His body refuses to move in a babi way. His speech sits outside babi lexicon. There is nothing babi about mapentecostal and mahistories. Binyavanga’s “Me, I…” does not sit comfortably in Babi World. Still, Binyavanga is a babi; he has achieved babi status through a set of geneologies and method. Babiness signals a beingness in place. To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?” without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”. Binyavanga is Kenya’s token gay. The only gay in the village. Because gay people in Kenyan imagination are a type. John Githongo. Makau Mutua. Maina Kageni. Those who make it in the news are a particular type. A gay kenyan must provoke sufficient anxiety. He –almost always a ‘he’– must have enough social capital to ‘threaten the family unit’ and ‘national values’.
Types serve a particular function in our imagination of non-heterosexual desires and identities. They make it easy for us to stereotype. To articulate. To narrow-down. To oppose. Types allow us the space to denounce. These types work here and elsewhere. A threat to one gay man becomes a threat to an entire community of persons. When Citizen Weekly published its “Top Ten” list, the Kenyan Queer community was threatened. But who exactly was threatened? Were the ‘top ten homosexuals” threatened? But, we cannot afford to think this way. The world (the ‘here’ and the ‘there’) has no space to imagine the many ways of being queer here. The many ways through which queers survive. The many ways through which queerness is navigated. To imagine that would be to negate a single story. It would be an undoing of the political work of “LGBTI”. It would be to interefere with the few boxes that allow a narrative of solidarity. It would be to call for a different kind of politic. Because:
“The world “out there” cannot seem to envision more than one African queer per geography, because that would fracture its attention, make it pay attention to queer diversity, and, everyone knows, those African names are so hard to pronounce. And those countries so difficult to distinguish.”
This is not about Binyavanga. But it is about Binyavanga. I use Binyavanga here by way of introduction to self and an inquiry into place. Into the limits of an acronym. Into the excesses of desire and identities. I use Binyavanga because he has achieved the priviledge of place in the Kenyan mind. He is familiar.
I have never been lesbian. I do not know what it is like to be lesbian. To ‘come out’ as one. To live as one. To be one. I do not know if I ever could be. This is a confession. A confession that works as a negation. A confession that corrects. I have been called lesbian before. I have been seen as lesbian. BUT to be lesbian, one must first be (read as) female; as a woman. But that is not my confession. To be lesbian one must primarily be attracted to other women. One must desire to sleep with other women. Successfully. I have never successfully desired and slept with a woman. I have made out and slept (a few times. Very few times with women) but never successfully. I have been with women who pressed me to be with them. I have been with women who wanted me to be a man without male priviledge. A man who does not come with machoness to bed. I have been with women who had been broken by macho men. But I never desired them. Not in ways that I thought people could (and should) desire others. This is not me attempting a distancing from misgendering. This is me saying that I do not desire women sexually. I do not want to sleep with women. I have heard of lesbian women who call me a ‘snob’ because I am not the type that grips and grinds violently with other (femme) women in Nairobi clubs. I am not interested in that kind of thing. I never was.
If to distance myself from this identity does any political work, it should be to push ourselves to think of queerness beyond the familiar. A queerness that, even when sexual, expands the boundaries of gender. A queerness that begs us to think of what it is that we do when we use a set of stereotypes to not only read particular bodies but also to decide what kinds of desires those bodies might carry. It is to immerse ourselves into political labour. To do the work of breaking down NGO-speak. To engage in a project of decolonising queer politics. To break the chains that demand that our conversations about ourselves must be defined by an else-where. To say to ourselves and others that, “Marriage equality is a good thing, for you but our ideas of family come from a different place. Often a place of toxicity”. It is to allow space for those who do not desire to have their queerness mark a boundedness to place. A queerness whose legal status is a mark of State legitimacy and a country’s level of progress. It is to allow for the many ways of being. Political and queer. Simultaneously.
If to confess that I do not desire women sexually is a distancing, then perhaps desiring men would be detrimental to my gender identity. It would be to legitimise the many men in this country who call me a ‘tom boy’. Men who say that all they see is my dress choice. Men who want to imagine that my masculinity has nothing to do with my gender identity. That I just prefer to present within a masculine dress vocabulary. That I am just a masculine-presenting woman. That identity. An invalidation of my trans* experience. A way of telling me, “You might be masculine but not a man (enough)”. But I do desire men. Sometimes men like me. Transmen. Sometimes men of a different experience. Gay men; heterosexual men. I do desire Keguro Macharia’s hands because they are soft and beautiful. Because they are intelligent in ways only Keguro’s hands can be. I do desire Eric Gitari’s attention to legalese. I do desire Denis Nzioka’s beautiful body. I have publicly disclosed my desire for Binyavanga. I desire men whose names are yet to appear in lists of “top homosexuals”. Men of unknown names. Unrecognizable in the first instance. That desire may (or not) be sexual. That desire comes from a Queer place. A place excessive to both heteronormativity and homonormativity. A queer utopia.
This is an incoherent confession. A confession from a soul begging to be free. It is the cry of a spirit suffocating in an acronym. An acronym whose expansion refuses to be political. An acronym that allows one to be a particular kind of queer. A particular kind of queer who allows only a particular kind of organizing. A particular kind of articulation. A single narrative.
If I break this box, shall I fall off the politics? Will I still be a transman in my high heels and orange lipstick? Will you allow me the space to be queer if I do not have sex with anyone? Will I still be able to speak in feminist spaces if one day I come out as genderqueer and the next as a transman who loves men? Will you still take my identity as a personal attack on yours? Will you?