In the past two months or so I have been in a sort of queer mode. From struggling with the queer Dutch language and culture, to learning to navigate the queer public transport conundrum all the way to getting regular warnings on queer sexuality and social life of Amsterdam night life, it has been queer all through.
So when I arrived here on a generous six-month visiting research fellowship at the University of Amsterdam’s (UvA) Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research, little did I know that I was literally on queer sojourn. Amsterdam is basically a cycling city. Everyone here loves biking including their politicians who can easily be spotted happily whistling their way to work every morning on a bicycle. Understandably, this new culture has been part of becoming a man in Amsterdam, even as I go about my daily research activities under the aegis of the appropriately named “Becoming men project” at UvA. And you guessed right, I have acquired a bicycle just to belong in this queer culture!
But on matters sex and socialisation, the Dutch fame on permissiveness is legendary and needs no introduction. From the Red Light District to the licentious coffee shops that sell ‘weed’, it’s all legal and queer here.
And so as I’ve been trying to make sense of my queer sensibilities, in a queer culture and city called Amsterdam, I have suddenly drifted into reading a lot on queer theory, queer authors, queer lawyers, queer gospel singers, queer politicians and just about everything that sounds and looks queer.
When I am not cycling away in the woods and negotiating the canals of Amsterdam to breath in the summer tepid air, I have all of a sudden taken to rereading Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence, TS Elliot, Alice Walker, Federico Garcia Lorca and James Baldwin. Plato’s The Republic certainly has new meaning, and Nikolai Gogol, Honore’ de Balzac and Langston Hughes’ works have a kind of new freshness when read from a queer perspective knowing the authors were gay.
Interestingly, the term queer has fascinating etymologies ranging from the ‘odd, strange, peculiar, bizarre, eccentric and weird’. From the banal, though, queer is derogatory and an insult like the effeminising term shoga in the Kenyan context.
Teresa De Laurentis coined the term ‘queer theory’ in 1990 with reference to sexuality studies that highlight mismatch between sex, gender and desire. The term has since been linked largely with bisexual, lesbian and gay people. Queer anthropologist Cymene Howe notes that the term applies to “alternative configurations of sexuality, gender and desire” and it is all about destabilising the heteronormative categories and pushing the boundaries on sexual identities. In her words, queer theory is deconstructionist in the sense that it is a “continuous exercise of interrogating sexuality as manifested in social relationships, identifications, affective practices and political positions”.
But apart from deep theory, my queer wondering mind has also led me to relook at our very own Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina’s works. I have been rereading his One day I will Write about This Place, How to write about Africa and being ‘a lost black man’ in a queer European city, I have been reading his ‘Lost chapter’, “I am a homosexual mum”.
I particularly like the essay How to Write about Africa because in Europe it comes in handy as a talk back weapon to many thoroughgoing racist professors who still believe Africa is a “heart of darkness”.
But “I am a homosexual, mum” is my favourite. Apart from the ‘sexy way’ he used it to come out of the closet and to declare his ‘in-love’ with gayness, I like the way the author deploys the self as a protagonist in an emotional narrative that highlights the psychological turmoil that many young Kenyans have to undergo in order to ventilate about their different sexuality in a culture that criminalises such difference.
This got me thinking about my kinsman and self-declared gay activist/gospel singer George Barasa otherwise known as Joji Baro from Bungoma. Since the young man decided to confess his homosexuality, he has encountered homophobic threats to a point he once contemplated suicide. Unlike Binyavanga, who had the luxury of coming out like a celebrity, my village mate Baro was “smoked out” by gay haters who continuously visited violence on him and vandalised his house just to spite him for being ‘unAfrican’.