Binyavanga Wainaina is brave man for coming out at a time where there is rising homophobia and the introduction of homophobic laws on the continent. And he chose to come out the best way he knows how-through his writing, in a letter to his mother. Granted, Binyavanga is not a nobody in Kenya or in Africa, and his coming out garnered attention because of his renowned literary status. One wonders whether his coming out has given other gender and sexuality diverse people courage to claim their sexuality, publicly or privately-but that’s yet to be seen, or declared. It is, however, a step in the right direction for the sexual and gender rights movement in Africa, because the more of us they see, the more they realize that we are not a sexual minority as often purported to be. But is Binyavanga’s coming out representative of all so called sexual minorities in Africa?
Binyavanga’s coming out begs the question-where are the lesbian voices in Africa? Can lesbian women publicly and proudly raise their voices without fear of reprisals from conservative, patriarchal systems of silencing and oppression? And if we can- then why aren’t we? What systems of oppression still keep us muffled and quiet? When homosexuality is spoken about in Africa, the voice, rhetoric and overall emphasis on either affirming or disputing the rights of non-heteronormative people is more often than not the voice of gay men. Binyavanga is a gay man and he has ‘come out’ and publicly said so. But what does this mean for bisexual, trans and lesbian women? Does Binyavanga’s coming out also give us a voice and a space to claim our rights to exist in spaces that are hostile to our otherness? Can a lesbian woman in Africa copy-paste and edit his letter as a telling of her own story? Has he, in essence, spoken for us all? Women’s sexuality as a whole is a completely side-lined and unacknowledged part of womanhood, where societies, cultures, traditions and religions refuse to recognize women’s sexual rights and bodily autonomy. In this light, lesbian women struggle for legitimacy in a phallocentric world, where the absence of the penis means the absence of sex and sexuality. It can even be argued that colonial laws never took lesbian relationships to account because the very thought that two women, or women alone, could have sexually gratifying relationships was seen as ludicrous, and therefore unaffected by any kind of laws. Sexuality, sadly, is still seen as the dominion of men, both heterosexual and homosexual.
There is an assumption that the voice of the gay and lesbian movement is one-and that it does not matter whether it’s a gay man or a lesbian woman that ‘comes out’ and asserts their sexuality and gender preference publicly. But it does matter. We can argue that Binyavanga’s self-outing was made easier because he is a man, and a non-effeminate man at that. Masculinity, in its various manifestations in both heterosexual and homosexual contexts, continues to dominate spaces and voices, and Binyavanga’s masculinity, in a patriarchal world, in a way, protects him. Would Binyavanga’s heartfelt writing be received the same if he were a trans-woman? Or what if Binyavanga was a lesbian woman-how much support would (s)he have attracted?
A quick Google search for prominent black African lesbians yielded a host of African American queer and lesbian icons and of course, Brenda Fassie. Another blog had a list of prominent South African lesbian musicians-all of which but one are white, and some of which live outside Africa. Brenda Fassie made this list of course, which one cannot help but think, is Brenda Fassie the only prominent, black African lesbian woman known? Granted, the internet’s contents cannot be taken to be exhaustive, but the very absence of black African lesbian women online speaks volumes. Google searches for black African lesbian women often turn up unsolved murder stories of lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people. The story isn’t any different for Google searches of gay African men-but thanks to Binyavanga, an African gay man’s voice is being heard, and he is claiming his space on the continent and in his country. But lesbian women need to raise their own voices-and claim their own spaces.
Binyavanga has helped push an already happening conversation into a public, heterosexual space. The energy around unapologetically and honestly stating our sexuality should not lose momentum. And the voice he uses in planting, firmly, his homosexual identity, is admirable. He makes no apologies, and offers no explanations. And neither should we. We need more lesbian voices, and the voices of gender non-conforming women, asserting ourselves and owning our place on the continent. It doesn’t have to be a coming out story, and you don’t have to be a literary giant. It just has to be your truth as a lesbian, bisexual or transgendered woman, but it has to be spoken out loud, because like Audre Lorde said-your silence will not save you.