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Binyavanga on coming out, children, and gay rights

Wednesday February 5 2014

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina gestures during an interview with the AFP on January 27, 2014, in Nairobi. PHOTO | AFP

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina gestures during an interview with the AFP on January 27, 2014, in Nairobi. PHOTO | AFP AFP

Binyavanga Wainaina is in town. He says he is going nowhere, that people will have to live with him and the others of his... you know... sexual orientation. Unashamedly gay and not afraid to talk about it, he says you will have to expand your sense of awareness if you think he is being unnecessarily controversial.

Last week we caught up with him in Westlands, where, over a couple of drinks, we distracted him from a female friend with whom he was animatedly talking about the colours and sizes of his Kitenges. There is no doubt that this is a well-read man, his worldview informed by the global exposure he has received over the years and the books he has devoured. But that worldview, as we discovered in the course of the interview, also relies heavily on his sexual orientation. Below, excerpts...

DN2: Finally, you have ‘come out’. How was life like, living as a closeted homosexual for all those years?

Binyavanga: I have been a visibly gay man in many circles for a long time now. People who know me and love me, my friends and relatives and writers from all over the continent, have always known that I am gay and that I don’t hide it. For me, it isn’t an issue. In terms of how it affects my interactions, probably to (the charismatic preachers and theologians), it will mean condemnation, and that is fine with me.

DN2: What made you come out, especially when you consider the fact that in Kenya not many prominent people have come out to say they are homosexual, and that gayism and lesbianism are still regarded as obscene in these parts of the world?

Binyavanga: Part of the responsibility of a writer is to live a life of truth. I have the privilege, out of what I have done so far and my interactions with different world cultures, to have learned a lot. And that means I can talk about some things that most people may not have the courage or the platform to address. For those gays and lesbians who don’t have such privileges, life can be oppressive. When I go through such, I can easily escape — go abroad, where things are accepted. I got tired of that kind of pretence and hypocrisy. That is not a moral way of living for me.


DN2: There have been mixed reactions following your bombshell, with some saying you are a let-down and others congratulating you for the courage to speak out. Did you expect it?

Binyavanga: I sort of expected the reactions. What was more of a surprise were the messages of understanding, love and support from people who don’t know me. I am more interested, as a thinker and as a writer, in people who are able to think even about what they disagree with, as opposed to just react. People like me (homosexuals) have existed in the world, in Africa and in Kenya for ages and we are here to stay. We’ve been here. I can’t have a conversation with those who approach issues in order to shout others into silence. This is a free country. They exert their opinions and I exert mine.

DN2: Do you consider homosexuality a moral right? That is, aside from the fact that it is what you want?

Binyavanga: I, as a person, as a Kenyan and as an African, have a great problem with people who accept that a preacher should walk in and preach to us (on a bus) while I am going to Nakuru and that we should all listen. I hate it. It is an infringement on my freedom and the freedoms of others. Yet it is part of what everyone has accepted as the ‘everyone must approve Pentecostal dictatorship’ mentality. My personal space to imagine and live is protected in our laws. It is not my job to educate such people. I believe it is my choice, a moral and constitutional choice.

DN2: Most people in Africa do not discuss sexual orientation because it is obvious — you stay the way you were born and fit within expected parameters. What made you go against the grain?

Binyavanga: First of all, I refute what you are saying. Africans discuss sexuality openly in many ways. You just need to go to countries within the continent where men and women discuss matters of sex and sexuality openly in bars and in sitting rooms during meals. (The idea that sex is taboo) is a Christian colonial mentality. Our rather narrow, over-Christianised sensibility likes to see African-ness as this simple thing. Check out the history of the Azande of Sudan (boy wives), Uganda, Benin, Rwanda, and Senegal (where in the old days, wealthy aristocratic men went to brothels and picked males). Africans discuss, and have been discussing, sexuality for a long time. What I would want the anti-homosexuals to do for us is to provide evidence — scholarly documentation — showing that homosexuality is un-African.
There is no African philosophy that can be simplified. That is just stupid. Cultures are mobile things that people design in order to adapt to the world. It is not a fixed box. We must learn to expand our sense of awareness. The Africa I envision is not a continent ruled by policemen of dogma.

DN2: What is your take on the whole idea of family units? Do you plan to start a family? And do you consider gay unions complete families?

Binyavanga: The family is not a frozen idea as most people want to make it appear. Non-traditional families have been in existence in the world and in Africa for a long time. Think of the woman-to-woman marriages for the purpose of bearing children in traditional Murang’a in the past, for instance. We have diverse approaches to life that also include the family situation. Today, there are many lesbian and gay families. So, do I want to start a family? I have no immediate plans in that direction. If it comes, it comes. And I don’t have a solution to mine. To be gay is not a disease. There are arguments that it is a sort of a disease. Again, can those who say this provide medical or scientific evidence? What we want is a constitutional freedom where no one is interested in what you do behind your bedroom door.

DN2: Do you expect to be a father someday, to have someone continue your lineage?

Binyavanga: I need to be a lot more settled before imagining what it would be like to bring up a child. I haven’t figured out the logistics yet and the time hasn’t come for that. About passing on my lineage, we have no shortage of people to pass on my heritage to in our family.

DN2: What are the reasons behind your coming out? There are those who claim that it was financially motivated by Western institutions; that probably this is a publicity stunt for some work you have coming.

Binyavanga: I’m not a broke hustler. I’m a person with a good name for a certain kind of truth. Why now, at 43? I think I was just ready in an imaginative sense. But I do want to challenge the speculators and gossipers on their own moral courage.

DN2: Is there any particular homophobic situation that you have found yourself in (a), before you came out, and (b), after you came out?

Binyavanga: There is no homosexual in this country who has not experienced any homophobic situation. I have experienced it too. Most homosexuals in this country have seen so much that it is very difficult to talk about it. I want to change this without going ‘Oh my God’ about it. All Africans face challenges and benefits from living here.

DN2: Going by recent anti-gay crusades in Uganda and Nigeria, you must have known that your coming out, based on your achievements, would add weight to the quest for recognition of gays and lesbians in Africa. Was that part of your intention?

Binyavanga: The laws in Nigeria are terrible. They are finishing the oxygen of freedoms. And if you look at those who are making the loudest noises — Mugabe, Museveni and Goodluck — you can tell that they are politicising homosexuality for their own political survival. I wanted to add weight to the arguments and cause of the gay people across Africa. As for re-inventing myself, I’m an artist; I always like to re-invent myself.

DN2: Your coming out will most likely affect your audience, your readers. Aren’t you afraid you will probably lose most of them in Africa?

Binyavanga: You can’t worry about people who love literature. Those who love reading will always read. In fact,- the sales of my books have gone up. And readers always adapt.

DN2: What goes on in your mind when you see a beautiful lady?

Binyavanga: As an erotic human being, I like women. I even flirt with them. But, often, she will disappear from my mind quickly in the intimate sense. Friendship, probably. I can’t fall in love with a woman. I can fall in love with a man.