The evolving interface between religion and queer politics in Africa – Fellows’ seminar by Adriaan van Klinken

1 July 2016

“LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues have been heavily politicised in different parts of Africa,” said Adriaan van Klinken, Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds and current STIAS fellow. “Prominent African political and religious leaders have made strong statements about homosexuality being ‘un-African’, ‘un-Christian’ and ‘un-Islamic’, and have used this to reject calls to recognise the rights of sexual minorities.”

“Christianity, in particular, has been used to perpetuate a nationalist rhetoric of African authenticity in which homosexuality is depicted as ‘un-African’ and ‘un-Christian’ and therefore unacceptable.”

“However, wide reporting of the discrimination, stigmatisation and persecution that African LGBT individuals and communities experience has presented a rather one-sided account of Africa as a homophobic continent, of ‘African homophobia’ being religiously inspired, and of African LGBT persons as victims.”

“Simultaneously Christian-inspired beliefs are used by those advocating for LGBT rights and/or identifying as LGBT,” he said. As much as some American evangelical groups are involved in fuelling homophobia, most recently in Kenya Van Klinken found an African-American organisation working to promote an ‘inclusive’ and ‘progressive’ form of Christianity that accepts gay rights. “There is almost a Christian Cold War being fought through proxy states in Africa,” he said. “I’m interested in examining the complex nature of these almost conflicting dynamics.”

“And,” he continued “also in understanding how the conflation of Christianity into public culture in many parts of Africa could serve as a resource for queer politics.”

Prof. Van Klinken presented early ideas from his latest book project at a recent STIAS seminar. The book will aim to look beyond the dominant narratives of ‘African homophobia’ and African LGBTs as victims, and will seek to understand the role religion plays in both promoting and hindering LGBT mobilisation.

Sexual decolonisation

“In popular African discourses, there has been an underlying construction of Africa as heterosexual,” said Van Klinken. “On the other hand, in the Western media we often only read about Africa as homophobic. I believe there is a need to destabilise both images of Africa.”

“We have to counterbalance the images of homosexual people as being victims and powerless,” he added. “In different African countries, we see LGBT people organising and mobilising themselves, demonstrating creativity and agency in the struggle for their identities and rights.”

This struggle is conceptualised by Van Klinken as ‘queer politics’, following a recent trend among African scholars and activists to use the label ‘queer’ for their work on sexual and gender diversity.

Describing the term ‘queer studies’ as an umbrella label for scholarship, activism and writing, Van Klinken pointed out that African scholars have been reluctant to embrace the term but it has become more widely adopted in the last few years. “’Queer’ is used to underscore a perspective embracing gender and sexual plurality, and opposing heteronormativity and patriarchy – an emerging field of interdisciplinary scholarship,” he said.

The book will seek to examine the creativity of African LGBT activists and communities, especially in the ways they engage with religion. It has a particular focus on Kenya. Van Klinken has examined a selection of queer texts and projects as case studies and will focus on four – the Stories of Our Lives project, a collection of 250 stories of queer Kenyans, published as a book and also as a film (that was then banned in Kenya); the work of Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan gay literary writer and very vocal public critic of homophobia, especially that espoused by the Pentecostal Christian movement; the Cosmopolitan Affirming Church which was established in 2013 by LGBT activists; and the Same Love music video released by Kenyan hip hop group Art Attack in early 2016, that has been restricted by the Kenyan Film Classification Board. Van Klinken sees these as “examples of recent Kenyan queer cultural and social ‘texts’ that, in the book project, serve as case studies to explore the multifaceted relationship between religion and queer politics in a contemporary African context.”

Imaging African queerness

In the second part of his presentation, Van Klinken focused on the Same Love music video, which he described as a form of ‘artivism’ – “using art for activism and social commentary”.

“It is a rich and significant social and cultural text. A creative African way of imaging African queerness. It is an African framing of the struggle and, as such, an important addition to the African queer archive.”

“The video employs the pan-Africanist idea of the African race made by God in order to emphasise unity and solidarity, and also invokes the notion of God’s love that includes same sex and erotic love.”

“The song ends with a very well-known biblical passage, Corinthians 13, which is often used in church wedding services. Thus it appropriates a very Christian notion of love but one that includes people of the same gender.”

Van Klinken sees it as an important example of how “Biblical texts are being reclaimed and appropriated for queer politics.”

Van Klinken pointed out that Same Love, as well as the other case studies, exemplify African LGBT people fighting their own battles, and emphasised the need that they are “listened to in their own voices”.

In the discussion following his presentation, he mentioned the much-longer tradition of queer mobilisation in South Africa. “I am interested in how this inspires or doesn’t inspire the rest of the continent,” he said.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS

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