The on going homophobic hate crime attacks on black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in various townships in South Africa, the rape and murder of black lesbians, and the anti-homosexuality legislation in Nigeria and in Uganda in recent months cloaked as protection of African cultures is enough for you to loose hope. As LGBTI Africans we are often told that we come out of nowhere, that we do not have a history in Africa, and that we are a western invention. We are often depicted as people who are ruining African cultures, cultures falsely assumed to be without homosexuality.
As LGBTI people, just like black people during colonisation, and during apartheid, we have internalised that we are less than human. We often adopt the inferiority complex projected on to us by society. Our lives are riddled with shame because of our sexual identity. Anecdotal evidence and studies show that LGBTI youth are more likely to be homeless than non-LGBTI youth because of homophobic families who make home life unbearable. Many transgendered youth turn to prostitution to make a living because they can’t find employment.
Living in a world that discriminates against you, a world that denies you the right to exist, how does one develop a healthy self-view? The feelings of shame that LGBTI Africans harbour about themselves can be self-destructive. The feelings of unworthiness can and have led many LGBTI to endanger their lives with drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk sexual behaviour, and experience trauma and mental health issues that impact personal growth.
How do we then counterattack the seemingly ubiquitous homophobia in this country, indeed continent? How do we as LGBTI individuals and communities face up to the prejudice we experience in society? While there are many things that we need to be doing, and many we are doing, like protests, supporting LGBTI organisations, supporting LGBTI art and scholarship etc., we need a way to think about ourselves that moves us away from internalised prejudice towards a Queer Consciousness.
Queer Consciousness entails understanding that sexual diversity is part of the human experience. It is the self-acceptance of LGBTI individuals with full knowledge that there’s nothing unnatural about being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and/or Intersex. It is learning to be comfortable with yourself and your sexuality while learning about other people’s sexuality and ways of being. Queer Consciousness is about fostering LGBTI communities that are underpinned by pride, solidarity, and a steadfast approach to LGBTI Rights and wellbeing.
Firstly we have a responsibility to ourselves, secondly to our communities to reject the inferiority complex we have adopted. We have to reject negative images and assumptions about ourselves that we have come to believe that have been created by society in their aim to demonise us because of who and how we love. In the same vein as Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness, Queer Consciousness recognises “that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
As LGBTI Africans we need to discard the psychological grip that homophobic rhetoric has on us by vehemently rejecting the constructions of homosexuality as “un-African” and subsequently Western, as immoral, as unnatural. Queer Consciousness is more than just a fleeting verbal assertion against false constructions of homosexuality, but must translate into our deeds, into the way we approach life, into the way we relate to each other as LGBTI, and the way we take pride in our sexual identity as both individuals and as a community.
Queer Consciousness can impact society as a whole. Perhaps this consciousness can impact both LGBTI and broader society, and perhaps be adopted by people who are not LGBTI. In sync with feminism, Queer Consciousness questions the way we think about, talk about, and “do” gender. It is an attitude that embraces, celebrates, and encourages the disruption of gender norms. It encourages the blurring of the lines of what is expected of women and of men.
Queer Consciousness confronts the complex intersection of race, class, and gender that makes black lesbians vulnerable to ‘corrective rape’ and murder. It is the recognition that black lesbians are victims of hate crimes because of their gender non-conforming behaviour that challenges patriarchal dominance. It is a stance that challenges the dominant forms of masculinity not only in the larger society, but also within LGBTI communities. Queer Consciousness is therefore at odds with patriarchal structures of society and it is constantly wrestling with these structures.
Homosexuality is not at odds with African-ness. Queer Consciousness is about understanding that one can hold an African identity simultaneously with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Intersex identity. It is about knowing that difference is not something to be feared but something to be engaged with because we grow by learning things we have never encountered before.
The discovery of someone’s unorthodox sexuality is an opportunity to learn about the fabulously complex myriad ways in which we love, lust, and sex. Queer Consciousness is about opening yourselves up to other people’s life experiences, because we take different paths to get where we are. We cannot sanitise the complexity of life by legalising anti-homosexuality bills and by terrorising people who are assumed to be homosexual. The stifling of people’s gender and sexual expression is really the stifling of people’s humanity. A Queer Consciousness outlook understands that sexuality is as complex as human existence. That we do not have a hold in the multiple ways that people’s sexuality develops.
Queer Consciousness is recognising that the way LGBTI communities structure their relationships has the potential to educate us all about gender, about shifting the boundaries that society places on sexualities, and about liberating people’s sexuality, including heterosexuality. An unintended consequence of homosexuality is the liberation of heterosexuality, that society might see heterosexuality as nothing static, but adaptable and influenced by other sexualities.
Queer Consciousness demands that we in LGBTI communities be very vigilant about the ways in which “new” normative standards of establishing relationships and life in general can be used to subjugate others within LGBTI communities. Same-sex marriage is legalised in South Africa, but Queer Consciousness demands that we as LGBTI communities emphasise that forming personal relationships goes beyond the “one guy, one guy” or “one woman, one woman” relationship structure modelled after heterosexual coupling. Queer Consciousness is knowing that there are myriad ways in which people can organise their relationships, and that the simplistic ways in which marriage laws are structured are inadequate to fully capture the ways in which people love.
Queer Consciousness is about letting the imagination run wild in trying to answer the existential question of “who am I?” It is a way of thinking and seeing the world that encourages and nurtures the creative fashioning of the self. It gives you the ability to reject the models of “how life should be” from the everyday and gives permission for new ways of being in the world. Self-invention is at the centre of Queer Consciousness.
Self-invention becomes that much more prescient because we are busy with the postcolonial project of Africa’s Renaissance. The spirit of the African Renaissance revived in recent years by former South African president Thabo Mbeki emphasises a creative, intellectually stimulating, and self-directing Africa. He asserts, “They (Africans) are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be.” If we are truly invested in Africa’s Renaissance we cannot prescribe the ways in which Africans should express themselves and live their lives in a free postcolonial Africa.
Binyavanga Wainaina’s recent coming out and the videos he subsequently released talking about how “we need to free our imagination” capture the spirit of Queer Consciousness – we need to step out of the boundaries of what we know and into the creative world of imagining. The blue prints of how life should be, left behind by the colonial and apartheid administration are inadequate for life in postcolonial times and beyond. Our imagination in fashioning our lives in 21st century postcolonial Africa needs us to be without boundaries. The human potential is infinite and if we are to prosper as countries and as a continent we cannot limit the possibilities of innovative self-identities.
Written by Lwando Scott