The soul of wit
13 December 2017 13:09 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Outing the liars: How to come out of an African closet

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

A few days ago, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana became one of the most prominent Africans to declare his homosexuality. The words in his open letter are important to all Africans because they represent a growing refusal, across the continent, to go along with lies that people tell about what it means to be an African. Wainana is Kenyan, but he speaks to a more continental reality. In South Africa, in Ghana, in Nigeria, in Cameroon, in South Sudan and the CAR, we are lied to a lot. And so there is something that resonates when someone cuts through the ‘blah, blah’ and tells their truth.

“You write in order to change the world ... if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

James Baldwin

A new homophobic law has passed. A gay man has been killed because he texted ‘I love U’ to someone he was hoping would return the sentiment. Another lesbian has been murdered on her way home from work because she looked too butch. Another president has declared that gay people are lower than pigs and dogs, that they are the product of “random breeding”.

The BBC is full of us. The narrative does not change. The African leaders we see with scrunched up hateful faces are backward. They oppress their people. They moan that the Western powers continue to colonise them. They look ridiculous when they do this, even though what they say is true. The West still rules us. We roll our eyes at their crocodile tears. David Cameron, whose conservatism is notorious, whose heart is not large, offers rational and calm advice to them: Mr. President, suspend the egregious law and release the activists who have been arrested. When he is the spokesperson of reason, you know you are in trouble.

And into this vortex of sound and fury, signifying nothing, floats the heartsong of Binyavanga Wainana. Wainana’s searingly gorgeous letter to his dead mother cuts through the blah blah drone to which we have become accustomed. ‘Homosexuality is un-African, No it’s not, Yes it is, No it’s not. Yes it is.’

No, it is not.

Binyavanga Wainana is not yet a household name. But he will be. In 2008, he wrote a hilarious and important essay called, “How to write about Africa.” The piece satirised the white gaze, and opened up a set of conversations that Africans had been having with one another for decades over roast meat and nsima and spaghetti and whatever it is that we have been eating since the end of colonialism. In a pithy faux style guide, Wainana articulated the arch intellectual irreverence of a new generation of Africans.

My favourite line in that early essay is contained in this instruction, “African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.”

Everything about Wainana’s coming out letter defies this false edict.

After reading his memoir in 2011, I spoke with a friend. We speculated about why he had decided not to talk about his sexuality in the book and then concluded that we understood. The heartache and drama of being out and gay everywhere in the world has not disappeared simply because gay marriage is legal in a few places.

So, when I saw that Wainana had decided to ‘come out’, I thought I knew what he would have to say. I thought it might be a political message addressing the state of affairs on the continent. It was, of course, this, but also so much more.

Binyavanga has managed to write a coming out letter that every African man should read – regardless of his sexuality. He has written a letter than anyone who loves African men should read, regardless of their sexuality. He has written a letter that anyone gay and anyone who loves anyone gay should read. He has written a letter that all homophobes and conservatives must read.

He has offered us a delicately spun clarion call. It is a whisper rather than bugle. It speaks richly to the complexity of being an African man.

Binyvanga’s words remind us that African people are not what the world tells us we are, that African men are not defined by the stereotypes they are fed. He reminds me of my brother-in-law, comfortably cradling my infant niece, changing her nappy, holding her close. He reminds me of lovers and brothers and friends – each as articulate and as feeling as Binyavanga – who folded me into themselves and unstuck me each time I found myself in a place that was sticky. He reminds me that it is easy to allow pathologised black masculinities to become the truth, even for those of us who know better.

When he was interviewed shortly after the letter was published four days ago, he said that he decided to write the letter because “people who live in societies where you are being lied to a lot, value truth.”

He is right. Wainana is Kenyan, but he speaks to a more continental reality. In South Africa, in Ghana, in Nigeria, in Cameroon, in the UK and in the US, we are lied to a lot. And so there is something that resonates when someone cuts through the ‘blah, blah’ and tells their truth.

In telling the whole truth, in refusing to do so in a simplistic manner, in addressing frontally the terrifying line between love and acceptance that so few of us ever dare to cross, in navigating the idiosyncrasies of his own unique persona, Wainana had shamed the liars who whip up hatred and write horrible laws, those who steal money and then deflect their crimes by mongering hate.

In so doing, he has reminded us that the truth shall set us free. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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