Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN World Voices Festival
On May 6, 2015, the PEN World Voices Festival brought together South African visual activist Zanele Muholi, Nigerian social entrepreneur Kehinde Bademosi, and Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina for a panel discussion on “Queer Futures” moderated by Shireen Hassim, a professor of political studies in South Africa.
Hassim opened with a quote from Ugandan academic Sylvia Tamale, noting that her notion of an “empowering” silence has given way to new methods of publicizing the struggle in Africa. With homosexuality criminalized in many African countries, and even punishable by death in several, the panelists worked to contextualize their own perspectives on the politics of queer visibility in the postcolonial moment, beginning with a focus on the creation of queer communities in the digital age.
Wainaina spoke about the ways in which online platforms help create new kinds of “outness.” He joked about cruising Facebook profiles and discussed the Internet as a channel for queer political power. Bademosi, whose online followers know him as Kenny Brandmuse for his digital savvy, had other insights.
In describing his current research around gay black men in his community in Baltimore, Bademosi, who recently moved to the United States, noted that a strikingly low percentage of black gay men are “out” online. “This is America where there is protection for you… but people are still hiding,” he said, insisting that the conversation focus not only on Africa, but on the United States, as well. He argued that even in the digital sphere, people uphold a more dominant, universal culture of “shame and silence,” reiterating, “I used to talk about it as an African problem until I moved here. When I got here I found that this is a human problem.”
Muholi spoke about the need for Africans to reflect queerness in their own “vernac,” to tell their own stories. “Our leaders say that it’s un-African to be queer because we don’t have language for it,” she said, calling attention to the eleven official languages from Kenya to South Africa and the academic terms around queerness, mostly in English. “Can I be a Zulu female being and walk bare-breasted in public just like Zulu maidens and reclaim my citizenship in my tribe?” she asked. Lending a refreshingly incisive perspective to the panel and demonstrating the power of her work through a screening of her short film against gender violence, Muholi noted that when discussing visibility, it is imperative to carefully consider for whom—to understand that it can be strategic for activists as well as for oppressors.
The three panelists all shared a desire to create new queer archives, as well as to uncover those already in existence. Wainaina called this the project of the moment. Muholi—whose work is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum—stressed her disinterest in the mainstream, claiming instead that the work she produces is for her community, but that it aspires, through the creation of new archives, to change the politics around how her community is represented, in order to change the mainstream.
The conversation then turned to religion. Questions from the audience for Bademosi—the son of a Nigerian preacher now at work on a memoir—revealed the challenges of attempting to discuss such a diverse continent in a single conversation crystallized, and the ninety minutes were up. “At the end of this discussion we have a lot more questions that we want to ask,” Hassim acknowledged in closing, but “what’s exciting and fresh is that we’re in a moment of rewriting. And all of you are part of that process.”
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For complete coverage of the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival, click here