I feel greatly blessed to be in South Africa today, to share in the experience of one of the most beautiful things that South Africa is known for: the idea that we can be who we want to be; how we want to be and wherever we want to be, in spite of our actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. Nonetheless, in the past few months I have been deeply plagued by the thought that queer persons can die, have died, at the hands of the marginal stories we as queer persons write, tell, immerse ourselves in and constrain ourselves to, to the exclusion of other stories. And this is how we do it:
When we write, we must always begin with our desire. It always has to be only about our desire and how dangerous it must be to be resident in our homes. Perhaps we can write about our childhood if we dare. We must write about bad our childhood was. About how every social, religious, cultural, media and literary canon that we had access to were fired against us - because nothing exists, can exist, outside of what we can find, have found. For our dear lives, we must not mention anything good about our childhood. We must insist that nothing in it made us laugh or love or swirl around mad with laughter and love.
We must always talk about how backward and evil everyone else is because they neither understand the word ‘gay’ nor relate when we speak our sophisticated gibberish at them.
Then there must be sex, lots and lots of sex. This is because sex is the only way we can live out our diversity. This is the only expression of liberty that we could authentically and believably be interested in.
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When we write about ourselves we must neither mention that we are deeply flawed like everyone else nor how deeply flawed we are. Of course, our queerness cancels out all our flaws. We are simply, delectably only ever endangered targets of homophobia. We can do no wrong!
And love? Our love must never be written out in its various ethnic, gender and generational complexities. Insist that love is only ever sexual, verbally expressive and does not exist until it is smeared generously across Instagram.
When we discuss our non-heterosexuality or our human rights, we should forget other layers of who we are and other things that we are connected to like natioanality, age, race, socio-economic standing, faith, the environment, the world economy, the politics of corruption, the baggage that comes with migration and so forth.
It should not matter that Nigerians and other foreign nationals who come here to South Africa for reasons including fleeing persecution on the grounds of their sexual orientations get attacked and killed on the grounds of their foreign nationality. It should not matter that women get attacked the most, go missing, brutally violated sporadically because they are women regardless of anything or anyone else that they are connected to.
It should not matter that South African LGBTI rights organisations seem functionally passive and silent in the face of issues like xenophobia, migration, climate change, femicide and corruption because it really is none of their business. Of course it cannot be queer business to bother about such things especially when these organisations fly in foreign nationals from all over the continent, interact with the economy, depend on the environment for its existence and functionality.
We do ourselves, our work and journeys in the world as queer persons a great disservice when we decide to cherry pick what issues concern us and what issues do not; what we write about and what we do not; when we move, take action, collaborate and when we do not.
I was visiting Nigeria when the media churned over with material on xenophobic violence here in South Africa. I was scared stiff, everyone was scared for me. On my way back through the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport Abuja, a Nigerian immigration officer asked me, ‘How can you be going back there when everyone is coming back home?’ He cared enough to ask me, although I had grown my hair into locks and wore my rainbow emblem proudly. Although he, part of the ordinary mass of Nigerians socialised to frown at non-normative expressions of gender, would think me too queer to matter, he engaged with the part of my humanity that he shared, my Nigerianness. He cared for this Nigerianness enough for it to broke his hate.
Inspired by this, I suggest that it is important to show and write queer people as people first. Centre us in the mainstream the way we really are. Insist that we are a functional , relevant, regular part of the society. Untell our ‘queerness’ by constantly interacting and expanding what is believable, what is really here.
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Show queer persons doing the mundane things that we do ordinarily like everyone else: eating, raising kids, battling illness, standing in queues, being anxious about interviews, working hard, making mistakes, making money, losing money and so forth.
When we as queer persons write our stories, engage with our work and live, we should insist that we belong. We should insist that the world is our home and the universe’s gift to us. There is a place for fighting back. But there is also a place for defending what we have fought for, by dropping the arms and building along with those who build. There is a place for being part of the solution for the larger world beyond our little rainbow corners and meetings. As such in our stories, in our lives, no space, no issue should be beyond our imagination, occupation, presence, engagement and participation.