Two months ago, I wrote about how it was exciting and liberating for me to attend IDAHOT 2012 and how I enjoyed it because it created a queer space that didn’t really have to rely on the main event taking place at the GoDown Arts Centre (though many people did attend the event to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia and have a listen at the panels and speakers at the event). For me, because the people attending the event weren’t necessarily working at some NGO, it opened up new prospects where queer citizens would take control of their future without anyone negotiating on their behalf. I did, however, say that we needed legal and political safeguards against violence and discrimination to create these spaces, themselves not necessarily legal or embedded in current political discourse (and with good reason).
The US Embassy in Nairobi this morning held its first LGBT Pride event. It invited activists and representatives from various LGBTIQ/MSM organisations. On hearing the news, a group of “we” communicated with each other trying to stage a boycott or issue a statement against the event. Our reasoning was that LGBTIQ organisations and individuals should not be made to create links with the imperialist US which in its war on terror, economic initiatives and political alliances had created a lot of violence, killing and hardship for lots of LGBTIQ and non-LGBTIQ citizens in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, the Coast and North Eastern parts of Kenya. There is actually a statement to that effect which was drawn up by one of us but definitely inspired by the things we said about the event.
It is not the first time that a United States embassy has held a pride event. The event is an affirmative response by the embassy to President Obama’s announcement last year that June of every year would LGBT Pride month. It’s totally fine and OK for those working there to have and enjoy this event. The problem comes when the event, like in Islamabad last year, flies in the face of local sensitivities toward sexual and gender minorities. The Islamabad event had a major backlash from the public with demonstrations and denunciations taking place. As a result, the burgeoning local LGBTIQ/MSM NGO community went undercover, fearing violence from citizens and the government. The problem, also, is the detachment and alienation of such an event with the lived experiences of queers. Take the Iraq pride event of spring 2009 taking place in the Green Zone of Baghdad while dozens of gay and “effeminate” men were being slaughtered in the city outside. The same can be said of what took place this morning in Nairobi: though the embassy extended courtesy to activists and members of various organisations, the flexible band of space that composes an event like queer pride was not there, replaced as it were by the mediation of the state in cultural affairs and a few individuals to represent the rest.
But perhaps the most offensive thing about the event is the supplanting* of local queer initiatives towards affirming ourselves with ones that are, again, mediated by an imperial state and cool indifference of local LGBT organisations. I was going through my twitter this morning, shocked at how activists eased into calling this event #PrideInKenya, a pride event of national/Kenyan importance and recognisability, as if Kenyans or even Kenyan organisations participated in its planning, the composition of those attending or even the tenor of its message. How can a room filled with (I estimate) less than 100 people brought together by governmental policy and a search for recognition by the United States be queer pride?
We are yet to know whether the event which, it is claimed, was open to the media, will have any major consequences for queer Kenyans but I hope it won’t. Because this “controversy” has been limited discursively to those who keenly follow news about LGBTI activism in Kenya, I could not finish my post without saying how sad it is that members of our “community” refuse to acknowledge US Imperialism. In the numerous posts that have been put up on the Identity Kenya website, none of them even dares mention “US Imperialism”.
I am, however, happy that I got to communicate with many other activists and individuals who are committed to LGBTIQ rights advocacy but are also aware of the shadow of imperialism and civilisation that hang over these discourses. I am happy that we got to talk about intersectionality, pinkwashing and the anti-terrorism bill that is being re-tabled in the Kenyan parliament. Thanks guys.
* Those who have been interacting with me over this issue will be annoyed by the repeated use of this word but what can I say, it struck a nerve with me.