Tag Archive: Africa

One More Gay Kenya Post

The great thing about the summer after my abroad semester is the slow pace, which has allowed me some time to process my feelings about living in Kenya and to confront a lot of the difficult realizations I came to during my time there.  And many of those realizations are intertwined very tightly with my identity as a queer person.

Being queer abroad wasn’t as repressive as I was expecting (because frankly, my standards were pretty low), but it was hard.  I didn’t have the freedom for self-expression that I was used to, and I had to continuously deny the most positive relationship in my life- that of my loving girlfriend of almost two years.  I felt stifled and cut off from my activism and my identity.

I think the pressure I felt most acutely, however, was the pressure to make the homophobia I felt around me into “not a big deal.”  Because I was in Kenya and because all of the students of the trip were dealing with difficult issues of color, race, wealth, and especially gender, my concerns became relatively less important. It’s fairly obvious that I still have trouble talking about my time in Kenya, though, and about the things I did think and feel.  I tend to skirt around details, get caught in self-referential circles to nowhere, only alluding to the things that have really hurt me.      But I think it’s because I can never entitle myself to the pain, when we all went through so much there.  My whole group faced a lot of hard decisions, a lot of frustration, a lot of doubt in our work and the future of our host country, and the goodness of its people.   I could never hone the hurt down to just homophobia, to just being closeted, because it was so many things more than that.  And it was more than that for everyone else- so I haven’t accepted that my load was just a little heavier than some of my classmates.  Even writing the fact seems wrong. I still won’t believe it as true.

Why?  Homophobia in Kenya is not blatant: it is not Prime Ministers getting up on podiums to denounce the homosexual menace.  It is not men screaming and spitting on effeminate boys walking through the Central Business District.  It is not even, generally, underhanded allusions to prostitution or moral decay.  Homophobia in Kenya is rarely offered outright- it has to be drawn from people with the right questions.  Thus, if you DO ask those questions, and you DO get offended, well, who is to blame but you, right?

And that’s the most poisonous part.  That the men and women you genuinely try to befriend- the coworkers and classmates and even the guards and maids who inhabit your daily routine- are all seeping with that ignorance and hate underneath.  There’s such a beautiful gloss over homophobia in Kenya, and yet, knowing that it’s just a gloss makes it all the more painful.

Part of me wishes that someone could have told me.  Part of me believes it would have made me better prepared.  And yet, mostly, I realize that it wouldn’t have made a lot of difference.  Indiana University, long known as one of the most friendly LGBT campuses in the US, created a whole website for LGBT students studying abroad (as well as for international educators and staff welcoming international students to the US), and there are a few useful documents- notably their checklists of What Can An International Student Orientation Program Do? and What Can a Study Abroad Office Do? which help college staff in charge of study abroad and international students to better incorporate LGBT concerns into their programming- but for the most part, the   advice on the site rings hollow.  It has little to do with my actual experiences in Kenya.  It offers little insight, and no therapy.

Because how can any website give me permission to feel betrayed by homophobia, when the people who hold it in their hearts suffer so many injustices that I can’t even fathom?  How can any essay tell me it’s ok to say I had it harder than my friend who was harassed almost daily walking through Nairobi, who was denied exit from public transportation one day and driven into some remote part of the city against her will?  How can I grieve when my weakness feels oppressive to those who have suffered and continue to suffer more than me?

I honestly don’t know, and I fear that if I cannot accept these contradictions in my experience, I won’t be able to move on with my life.  But there’s no one that can help me with it.  It has to come from inside.

As for those of you who are looking to study abroad, especially in Middle Eastern or African programs, let this be a warning for what you’ll have to face, but not one meant to dissuade.  Being in Kenya was the most meaningful experience of my life to date, and despite all the pain, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  The best thing I can suggest is that you look through IU’s list of weblinks to regional organizations that deal with LGBT issues abroad.  There is some comfort in knowing that there are groups fighting stigma and homophobia/transphobia everywhere, however small and often isolated their influence is.  Because when it comes down to it- when you’re finally there, confronting a whole new world- there’s nothing left to be done but to go on living.


The Only Sex Blog in Kenya

One of things study abroad does quite bluntly is to put your life into perspective: living in another country, playing by other people’s rules, figuring out a system for dealing with a whole new way of life. And studying abroad in Kenya is no picnic.

I’m very happy for my experiences here and the assumptions about poverty, development, and Africa in general that I’m being forced to confront. But there are aspects of my life at home which are very difficult to reconcile with the life I’m living here- and most of them converge around this blog.

A huge part of my identity stems from my sexuality, my sexual expression, and the way I express my academic and personal interest in a sex-positive life. That encompasses a lot. Everything from my relationship, to my blogging, to the way I talk and relate to others. In the US, it’s not unusual for me to interject into a conversation about how mine or another person’s viewpoint reflects gender or sexual privilege. I wave the flag of my queer sexuality proudly as an explanation of how I view the world and the way people interact with one another. I bring up gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues and relate them to my own experiences, hash out political developments and the significance behind court rulings and newspaper articles. And finally, I bring my observations here, for feedback and debate with you.

In Kenya, this part of my life doesn’t exist. I am not queer, I’m not a sex blogger, I’m not…anything. I have been told time and again by my program director, a Nairobi resident of 9 years, that Kenya does not have the climate for a gay rights movement, that this is not my battle to fight, and that it’s best not to make waves. This is hard advice to swallow. Why? Not simply because I love being queer and talking about it, but because this is the silencing I’ve heard so many times before- all through the history of the LGBT movement and into today.

Why should gay marriage be an issue? We need to fix the economy first, win the war first, end poverty and homelessness first. One injustice is not an excuse to ignore another (in fact, this is a true logical fallacy, which I’m going to refer to as the “more pressing issue” fallacy, because I don’t have my high school Honors Argument notes with me in Kenya).
This is a problem for me, as person who is at the crossroads of deciding where her life will go and where her true passions lie. In Kenya, my identity as a queer blog writer is not valued. I dare say it isn’t valued anywhere in Africa. In the US, I have opportunities to express my identity, affirm my loving relationship, and do what I feel I’m actually good at: talk about sex! But is that reason enough to give up on the academic and social endeavors of development work which I have devoted myself to for the last 3 years?

I don’t honestly know. I haven’t made up my mind, and perhaps it’s not my decision to make. But this I do know- if I do work in development work, there are elements of my identity that I know must be part of the conversation:

• Sexual citizenship
If you aren’t familiar with sexual citizenship, there’s a brilliant article here from the now sadly defunct site, Carnal Nation. Sexual citizenship is crucial to the way I conduct my life- it is about acknowledging myself and others as sexual people and refusing to judge others by their sexual decisions, however unusual. It is also about helping to disseminate information, much in the way I do through this blog: in conversation, through workshops, and writing. Even if it is not in person, I want to continue to be a part of the discussion of sexual rights and sexual affirmation.

• My queer identity
I need to have a community around me with whom I can disclose my queerness- it may be a group of three or four fellow aid workers, it may be other LGBT activists in the area I work, or it may be with fellow “othered” populations in the world- people like BDSM enthusiasts, feminists, sex workers, and polyamorous couples who have been excluded from the world of sexual privilege and can welcome another stranger.

• This blog
I make a dedication here and now that as long as I have fingers to type with and something to say about sexuality (and I trust it will be a long time before the world runs out of things for me to comment on), I will continue to write this blog. It is the culmination of my identity as a sex-positive person, and I feel its importance reverberate in my bones. It has grounded me during my time here in Kenya, given me something to retain perspective through, and to help me remember what I value. I don’t want it to fade away.

And for those of you starved for reading material, this paper by my Sex, Gender, and Culture professor Harjant Gill, which talks about the queer diaspora community and his interpretation of their struggles through film, is a great read. Yes, it looks like something you’d get for class, which makes sense, because he’s a PhD student. But it’s also an incredibly well-written insight into the part of the queer community I can’t even touch with my experience; queer diaspora members suffer alienation from their home communities and often the juggling of two separate identities which are very difficult to reconcile with one another. While I can’t speak to those struggles, I feel their relevance to my own life as I navigate my own small version of diaspora here in Kenya. I understand the reverse of these feelings, trying to find my place in a new culture while maintaining both my queerness and my identity as an American. If you have time, I highly recommend you read his article, if not for the parallels to your life, then for an appreciation of what many queer individuals go through trying to find their own space in our community.

Out of Africa

There are a few reasons that I feel I need to write a serious blog post to you today.  First, I am leaving for Kenya in just shy of 3 weeks, and I am absolutely terrified and beyond excited.  Second, while I’m gone, this blog will go inactive, unless someone is there to care for it.  So three, I am scoping out caretakers for the site until I return.

This isn’t a big obligation, but if you ever felt like blogging about sex, sexuality, or the like, this is your shot.  I’ll be gone for four months and internet is spotty in Kenya, so I probably won’t have time to upload any content.  If you want to put something here, just email me at bonkiep@gmail.com or comment on this thread (or facebook me, if you must), and I’ll get it up there.  Your help will be greatly appreciated.

As for the actual post, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about homophobia on the international stage.  While I am in no position whatsoever to try and sum up what the nearly 200 countries in this world have integrated legally and socially into their codes against LGBT people, I can offer a few handy links to give you an idea.

The best source I’ve found to-date about the legal discrimination placed against LGBT people is this pamphlet issued by the International Lesbian and Gay Association called “State Sponsored Homophobia.” It goes state-by-state, listing all the applicable sodomy and obscenity clauses in national documents which apply to gay people.  The problem, of course, is that the document does not even begin to touch on the traumas, trials, and tribulations of transfolk in foreign countries, which is often an even more torturous road to travel.  As I’ve written before in my article on Queer Literature abroad, the story of Randa the Trans illustrates how even in the relatively progressive state of Lebanon, there are incredible hurdles for transpeople to clime in living the life they want, and if so desired, changing their body to fit that life.

As a queer person who is about to travel abroad, this reality terrifies me.  Queer activists in many countries, especially Russia, the Middle East, and Africa, are harassed, beaten, and stalked for their affiliations and beliefs.  They are murdered as examples to the LGBT community.  They are beacons towards a world of tolerance often swallowed up by the waves.

I am a person who despises injustice in all its forms and idolizes the people who fight for equality by putting their lives and futures on the line.  Yet, as a foreigner, I find myself worrying about my own personal safety.  What if I slip up and mention my girlfriend?  What happens if I attend a meeting for LGBT people in Nairobi?  Will there be angry mobs outside my door?  Will I be watched?  Vilified?  For me, perhaps this is an over-reaction- I am insignificant on the bustling streets of the city.  But am I really?  I’m a mwanza, a white person, sticking out like a sore thumb.  A white person in a black country means something, even when it means nothing.  People pay attention.  I do not honestly know how safe I am.

Now imagine that being your entire life.  Imagine always wondering who is watching you, who is checking the people you let into your apartment at night, who is noting where you go for drinks in the evening, who you dance with.  It’s an ugly, unnerving feeling, to be unsure who is out there and what their intentions are.

For the starkest picture, compound this constant alertness with the fear that strikes every woman at some point in her life: rape.  In many countries, most notably South Africa, civilian vigilantes still use “reparative rape” as a means of “converting” LGBT people back to normalcy.  And rape itself is not an unusual problem.  This article from BBC highlights the threat of gang rape in public latrines in Nairobi slums.  These are all issues staring me in the face during my study abroad.  The focus of the program isn’t ecology or African literature- it’s sustainable development.  That means addressing the structural problems of HIV/AIDS, rape, discrimination against women and LGBT people, the devastation wrought by poorly-run government programs and the slow decay of urban slums.  All problems are linked.  One cannot isolate one issue from another.

I can’t offer a solution to any of this yet, but perhaps after some field work, I’ll be able to report back with some perspective.  I don’t know where this journey will lead me to, but I know where it starts.  When I began my studies in International Relations, I thought there was no room for LGBT and sexuality studies in Africa, that other problems came first: water, access to medical care, etc.  But everything is interconnected, and I see now that the hardest and most obscure battle to be fought may be the one that needs the most help.  In closing, let me remind you to be thankful for your freedoms, but also never to compromise.  Always push for true acceptance, for real equality.  The battle is to be fought everywhere.

((side note: the bill to get rid of DADT just passed the house.  If it gets through the senate before the end of the year, President Obama will sign it and the discriminatory policy will be no more!))

This one goes out to all my male readers, because I have a conundrum and I want your input.

When I was younger, I never really had a philosophical or moral “problem” with male circumcision.  It was just a personal or religious decision made by the parents of a male child based on what seemed right to them. In the long run, it posed no serious medical risk and didn’t seem like a big deal.

However, having immersed myself in a lot of random, sex-positive literature, I’ve found that there is a large community of people who are strongly against male circumcision, citing reduced ability for men to self-lubricate, lessened sensitivity, hygiene issues, and a sense of bodily violation by men who were circumcised.  Thus, while I don’t fault people for circumcising their kids (after all, they probably aren’t versed in the theoretical or medical arguments that led me to oppose the practice), I feel like the better option is to leave what nature created alone, and would suggest as much to people who were on the fence.

But Carnal Nation brought up an interesting question regarding circumcision in Africa, where HIV prevalence is so high.  Apparently, the WHO recommends circumcision as a means of reducing HIV transmission.  I am sketchy on the science of this, but you can read more about the general dialogue here.  The good thing is, most African men are getting circumcised later, around age 15 or so, when they have the agency to decide for themselves about the procedure.  But I imagine they have very little information on the subject, and have simply been told that it will prevent them from getting AIDS.  Does this present a moral hazard- making kids feel even more invincible against the disease by circumcising them?  And what about their own sexual and hygiene needs?  Is the potential for preventing AIDS worth trading off the general health benefits of having the foreskin?

Granted, it is AIDS.  And AIDS is a scary disease, and a prevalent one, so I am inclined to think the trade is worth it.  But something inside nags at me….

Your thoughts?

Also, for guys who are comfortable sharing- are you happy, upset, or ambivalent about being circumcised?  Has it affected you in any significant way?  Looking forward to your input.

Stay cool, queer kids.

Female Genital Mutilation

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, FGM (or Female Genital Mutilation, also known as female circumcision) will probably cause your stomach to turn over.  It is a common practice in many African countries, where the skin of a young girl’s clitoris and/or surrounding tissue of the vulva is cut, sliced, and sometimes even completely removed, then the edges of the vagina are actually sewn shut.

This practice occurs upon a young girl reaching adulthood and is rooted in the cultural values of many native societies as a way to ensure that a girl is “clean” and virginal upon marriage.  It is also considered to increase the pleasure of sex for her future husband, while simultaneously removing it for the girl herself.

Now there are A LOT of problems with FGM that would take hours to go into, but primary among them are the medical and hygienic issues that the procedure causes.  Since most FGMs are done in the home of the girl being cut, they are highly unsanitary- those who perform the cutting use dirty razors or sometimes even crude instruments like tin can lids, which can lead to serious infection and shock or death from blood loss.  FGMs are almost never done with anesthesia (as the process is outlawed in most countries, but performed ritualistically by families regardless) and many girls do not know exactly how the process is carried out, leading to immense psychological and emotional trauma, as well as physical.

It only gets worse after that- build-up of blood which sometimes cannot escape during a girl’s period can cause toxic shock syndrome, infertility, and death.  According to an article by the Guardian about the practice, “In Sudan, 20%-25% of female infertility has been linked to FGM complications.”

And this is not exclusively an “African problem.”  The same article by the Guardian chronicles the struggles of English girls with family abroad, who are taken home during the 6 week summer vacation to be cut.  For these girls, the trauma is even worse, as they are generally only told that they will be going on holiday or to visit an aunt, and the procedure is then forced on them.  I would HIGHLY suggest you read the article in full and if you can stomach it, the video, because I can’t detail it all.

What I’d like to focus on, in addition to the medical horror of the FGM practice, is the problems it causes for women who are developing their sexual identity. Because FGMs destroys all feeling in a woman’s genitals and can cause problems internally as well, it renders “cut” women almost completely incapable of sexual pleasure. One study among Egyptian women found 50% of women who had undergone FGM “endured” rather than enjoyed sex, and even among women will some ability to feel arousal and pleasure through vaginal sex, the psychological and emotional scars of a cutting makes intimacy even harder.  For girls as young as age 5, their first “sexual” experience was probably their cutting, where several of their close family members held them down and took a razor to the most sacred part of their bodies.  You simply do not recover from that.  Allowing another person to touch you where your family members have so abused your body takes an amount of trust I cannot even fathom.

For women who suffer the most extreme form of mutilation (having the vagina completely sewed shut), cutting renders them incapable of deciding their own sexual future.  Even if they are married or are in a committed relationship, the sutures which bind together the sides of the vagina have to be torn apart each time she wants to have sex (which is of course, not for her to decide, generally- but for her husband).  Afterwards, in many cases, the vagina is sewn up again, completely robbing a woman of her sexual agency.  After all, she can’t very well decide for herself when and how often she wants to have sex, if the act must be preempted by a medical procedure.  In addition, if she has surgery done to remove the sutures, or god forbid, reform part of the labia in a healthy manner, she may be tossed out by her husband, alienated by her community, or looked upon as “unclean.”

A wonderful nonprofit in Kenya called Maendeleo ya Wanawake Organization (which translates to “Women’s Development Organization”), as well as other groups like Human Rights Watch and  United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) are trying to combat this terrible practice.  Maendeleo ya Wanawake offers a ceremonial “cutting with words” process, which they urge traditional families to use instead of a physical FGM for their daughters.  One of the women in the Guardian’s featured video recommended a gynecological exam in the airport for children being taken between the UK and countries which practice FGM to enforce the ban in both countries.  While this would probably constitute a HUGE violation of privacy, it could also spare the devastation of an FGM for millions of young girls and women.

For me, this is one of the most crucial issues which can be addressed in a developing country, not only because of the emotional and physical damage done to women who undergo FGMs, but also as a means of promoting gender equity in general.  Women who are connected and in control of their own bodies, who can assert themselves as beings both sexually and professionally equal to men will move underdeveloped areas strongly in the right direction.  Self-assured women are resourceful, creative, hard workers, who, when given agency and control over their own lives (the choice to work or have children, to do both, to marry or to stay single, to have sex when and with who they want), will thrive.  But agency starts at this first, very physical performance of societal norms.  A young woman who has the power to say “no” or who had parents who dared to say “no” to FGM, will move forward with her life with the self assurance that this powerful decision has given her.

When I was given the power to chose whether or not I wanted to get a tetanus shot, I felt more respect for my body, because I was given control over what went into it.  In the same way, women who can chose against an FGM will gain immense respect for their bodies and for the power they hold as individuals.  A woman who refuses FGM will go on to spread the spirit of refusal, and create social change.  The societal pressures to perform FGMs is HUGE, so it is in the spirit of groups like Maendeleo ya Wanawake that I salute those who help women to end this brutal practice.  How will you help?

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