My Queer Kenyan Homecoming
I hadn’t been back in ten years. I had spent the entirety of my twenties in America, and now here I was — a queer Kenyan girl with a foreign accent, a girl trying to remember how to properly roll her rs — going home for a few weeks. Would I fit in there? Did I still belong in the land of my mother and father?
Flying 36,000 feet over northern Africa, I told myself that I was returning to the place that birthed and bruised me, the place that had made me into a young woman who could traverse oceans and make a new life for herself in America. It was in America that I stumbled across my queerness: I met someone, and she had me chasing after her in illicit date after illicit date. I felt compelled to woo her, to romance her; I wore my best summer dresses — the same ones I wore to entice the boys — and took her to the cutest places I could think of, jittery at the mere thought of seeing her or kissing her at the end of our dates. And when it ended, I left her for another woman. There had been many other women after the first. With each one, I felt more certain that I couldn’t return to Kenya. It seemed I had outgrown it, my desires and my ideas about myself now too large to fit within its boundaries.
But home is not a thing you ever leave permanently, no matter how far you go, so here was Kenya’s prodigal daughter returning. I was working on a grant-funded storytelling project that would take me to Kenya and Cape Town to explore this very question: What does “home” mean? As a generation of Africans growing up in the 21st century, who exactly were we?
I had been out for six years, out and proud for four. But Kenya is a country where many boast about conservative sexual norms while reveling in late-night sexual dalliances and a predilection for extramarital relationships (colloquially referred to as having or being “a sponsor”). For all the passes given to heterosexual relations, Kenya can be a deeply homophobic country, where social and gender norms retain sexist overtones. Homosexuality is criminalized (or more correctly, sexual acts between persons of the same sex are criminalized), there are no legal protections to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the right to marry is granted to heterosexual couples only. The result, for many LGBTQIA Kenyans without the privilege (or desire) to live elsewhere, has been forced conformity through concealment of their true gender or sexual identity; harassment and blackmail by state officials; stigma and exclusion by family and community; and, in some cases, physical violence and death threats.
So it’s no surprise that I felt I had to hide my queerness when I returned. I touched down in Nairobi on a July evening this year, determined not to cause a stir unless stirred myself. My family and friends knew about my sexuality, as did anyone connected to me through social media, where I never hid my orientation. But I told myself I wouldn’t “shove my sexuality down their throats,” already engaging in the sort of self-censorship imposed on LGBTQIA persons in our society.
It was four days before I got the first direct question about my sexual identity. “So . . . are you gay?” my high school friend asked. She had barely sat down across from me when the question popped out of her mouth.
I laughed at her brazenness. “No ‘Hi, how are you? What have you been up to?’ None of that?”
I explained that I identified as queer. And what did “queer” mean as an identity? I said that, for me, it was less of a sexual identity and more of a political one, committed to radicalism and nonconformity.
Then she did something I hadn’t expected: she located the gay people in her life, finding a place for them and for me in her existence. “You know, I have gay friends . . .” We moved on and talked about her baby, my writing, her work, my aspirations, and I felt my shoulders loosen their hold on words I had not intended to speak.
When you have lived away from home and return, you become a diplomat of sorts, shaking hands everywhere you go and bridging the gap between two societies. In those first few weeks at home, there were many lunches and dinners and coffees and get-togethers with people I had not seen in a decade or longer. I was the emissary from America, and my friends, cousins, aunts, and siblings were the representatives of the place I was now trying to immerse myself in. I found myself having the same conversation I’d had with my high school friend four days into my visit; there was always a brief silence before the person asked, nervously, “Are you gay?”
I laughed each time, sensing the question before it appeared in full. Of course they wanted to know. With each answer I gave, the questioner found a place for my story within the fabric of their lives and Kenyan society. Family members told me of older relatives who knew about my sexuality and had accepted it; of people who now went to churches and bemoaned the hate speech against homosexuality now that I was out; of their own personal journeys to acceptance and allyship and advocacy. I met other LGBTQIA Kenyans and talked with them about their battles and triumphs; I learned about the spaces we were creating for ourselves and the legal battles we were waging.
I learned that people like me could not just live, but thrive, in Kenya. I felt myself more at home than I had expected as the days wore on. And as the weeks flew by, I found myself postponing one flight back to the States, and then another.
I wanted to share my experiences with some of my foreign-national friends back in the U.S. who, like me, fear coming home because they want to be “safe” and “free.” I thought of how free my Black body felt in Kenya, and what freedoms we had given up in lieu of others.
Removed from America’s white supremacy and violent racism, I found myself breathing deeply for the first time in years and thinking about how I related as a full person to the other beings around me — who happened to look like me. I was no longer Black, no longer other, no longer an outsider trying to prove my worth or my right to exist.
While I cannot speak for a whole country or an entire community, what I have found in Kenya, much to my own surprise, are people growing, challenging, questioning, and experiencing their lives as queers, as parents, as young professionals, as activists, as artists, and as daughters and sons of Kenya and Africa. I came home a queer, willing to fragment myself in order to exist here. Instead I found that home wanted to heal me, not break me. My experience here is a reminder that love and courage can flourish even in the most unexpected of environments, and that Kenya, certainly, is no desert for me.
Editor’s note – this post was originally published by The Warm Fruit in The Establishment in September 2016.