James Baldwin was one of the world’s finest writers. He was also black and gay. In the 1950s and ‘60s, when he produced some of his best work, he could have been lynched for being both.
Much of Baldwin’s writings were shaped by the condition of being black and gay in an America that was both racist and homophobic. As an “outsider”, Baldwin tried to understand the inner world of all those who are marginalised in society, and who become self-destructive in response to a world that refuses to acknowledge or accept them.
Having experienced both homophobia and racism, he sought to bridge the chasm between white and black, homosexual and heterosexual, by weaving the most profound prose I have ever read.
Today, Baldwin is remembered not for his blackness or for his homosexuality, but for his writing. That in itself is his greatest legacy to literature. Fortunately, Baldwin lived long enough to see blacks in America gain civil rights, but not long enough to see homosexuals treated as equals.
Being born gay is like being born black, white or brown — there is nothing you can do about it. But a priest in Malindi thinks that when a man turns to another man for sex, it is, as usual, a woman’ fault.
Father Ambrose Muli told his congregation last week that the trend of men marrying other men was the result of women being “unmarriageable”. According to the priest, Kenyan women are becoming so “complicated” and “unattractive” that men are turning to other men for love and sex out of frustration.
I have yet to meet a gay man who is tempted to abandon his gayness in the face of feminine beauty. Gay men and women cannot be “converted” to heterosexuality through persuasion, temptation or frustration. If this were so, all women who are beaten or abused by their husbands would be ripe for conversion to lesbianism. The behaviour of our spouses does not determine our sexuality.
Being gay, as Baldwin knew too well, is not a choice. Moreover, given the stigma attached to homosexuality, most gays live lives shrouded in secrecy and guilt. If it is a choice to be gay, as many Kenyans believe, then it is a painful one because homosexuals here and everywhere are often ostracised or condemned for being “abnormal”.
In Kenya, homosexuality is not just seen as an aberration, but un-Kenyan. The recent furore over the gay Kenyan couple who got “married” in the UK recently is a case in point.
KENYANS ARE IRKED BY MANY ASpects of this union, including that both partners belong to the same ethnic group, and that they formalised their union through a much-publicised wedding. If the union had been between a Kenyan and a foreigner, would we be so incensed? I doubt it.
US-based literary critic Keguro Macharia describes the inherent hypocrisy in the Kenyan reaction to the couple’s recent wedding: “It is not simply that these men are ‘gay’, but that they flaunt their gayness abroad and through a wedding.
One partner in the couple had a previous ‘husband’, a white man, a European, a non-Kenyan. This relationship gets a pass, but when two Kenyans, and dare I say, two black Kenyans from the same ethnic group, perform gayness, there is much at stake.”
Macharia raises interesting questions, not just about homosexuality, but about how Kenyans define relationships among themselves and between themselves and foreigners. For instance, it is very common, particularly at the Coast, to see married men and women have sexual relationships with foreigners with the full knowledge and approval of their spouses. The relationship with the foreigner is seen as a business transaction, one that brings monetary and other benefits to the Kenyan family.
Similarly, many impoverished Kenyan boys who do not have a gay bone in their body have been known to become the “boyfriends” of older foreign men in exchange for money.
These relationships are abnormal and exploitative, yet we do not see Kenyans condemning them with the same viciousness that we have reserved for Charles Ngengi and Daniel Chege Gichia who did the honourable thing by sanctifying their relationship through a legally recognised ceremony.
This gay couple could have remained underground and joined the thousands of closet Kenyan gays who meet secretly and who hide from friends and family out of fear. They didn’t, and for this, they deserve our support, not our condemnation.
A final word for the family of Ngengi and Gichia — be proud of your sons and give them courage. Some time in the future, Kenyans may even come to view them as heroes.