Binyavanga Wainaina: The African memoirist who dared to come out

The African memoirist who dared to come out

Binyavanga Wainaina is one of Kenya’s leading literary figures–and a gay man in Africa, at a time where it’s dangerous to be one

Binyavanga Wainaina. (Photo by Cole Garside for Maclean's)
Binyavanga Wainaina. (Photo by Cole Garside for Maclean’s)

For his 43rd birthday this past January, the Kenyan memoirist Binyavanga Wainaina, the best-known Kenyan writer of his generation, gave himself a most unusual gift: he came out as a gay man. “I like adventures,” he says, with a hearty laugh.

Of course, this is a particularly fraught time to be an African who is gay. In February, Uganda’s president passed a law that enforced lifetime imprisonment for “aggravated homosexuality,” and jail for those who “counsel or reach out to gays.” In Nigeria, a law banning “open show” of same-sex public affection signed in January has spurred beatings and harassment. Wainaina lives in Dakar, Senegal now, and insists things are different in his native Kenya. But it’s hard to ignore the tide of anti-gay sentiment: Of the more than 77 countries where homosexual acts are illegal, 33 are in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, too, some members of parliament are mounting a campaign targeting homosexuality in the country, seeking the upholding of loosely enforced laws that make consensual homosexual acts punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

Nevertheless, Wainaina–­the founder of influential publisher/literary magazine Kwani?, and the man recently named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people,­ came out in a very public way. Three years after the publication of his memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, he released a “lost chapter,” which invented a dialogue between him and his dying mother where he admitted: “I am a homosexual, mum.”

Wainaina spoke with Maclean’s in Toronto, where he was delivering a talk at a fundraiser panel discussion for IFT Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre during World Pride Week, about what it means to be gay in Africa, and why he decided to come out.

Q: What is the situation like in places like Uganda and Nigeria these days?

A: The situation in Uganda at this time is dire because of the new law. The new law in Uganda and Nigeria is best seen from the angle of knowing the political systems: there are presidents who are floundering in looming elections to maintain legitimacy, and they have gone for the lowest common denominator. The consequences of that, of course, are tragic. But it’s important to note that in Uganda, which has one of the most organized and strongest activist communities on the continent, there is an active petition in the Supreme Court [saying that the law violates the right to dignity and non-discrimination] that has a good chance of winning. It’s time that conversation was had.

It’s also important to note that homophobia has a very special history in Uganda because of the Church–­both the Catholic and Anglican Church colonized Uganda on the back of the bestialization of a gay king [Mwanga II]. A lot of the emotions right now are various re-enactments of history. We’re also in a time of economic change on the continent, so it’s the best possible time to be pushing for further freedoms of people in general. I’m interested in the freedom of people to create, to earn, to live freely. Many Ugandans, leave alone gay and lesbian Ugandans, do not live freely. You have a political system that has become old, that is run by various mafias, and part of that is the problem. So it is important to talk about queer issues–­I am queer–­but it is important that we platform our campaigns with the diversity of the needs of everybody.

Q: Why did you come out when you did?

A: I’ve been working out of the continent all my life, really, with a part based in the U.S. for eight years, and I moved back permanently three years ago; I quit my job and said, “I want to be here.” I’ve worked with some of the most talented young writers on the continent for years: publishing them, figuring out ways to publish them. So it seemed to me, at a time when there was escalating pressure on the ability of queer Africans to live freely, that it would be a kind of reductive hypocrisy for me to remain silent. I also wanted to go back home and live in a slightly more honest way. I’m a fairly privileged person­—always been—­and a close friend of mine who wasn’t so privileged died of AIDS about a year and a half ago, partly out of shame, really. That affected me very much. It’s not just that he didn’t have the opportunity to be free, it wasn’t even just the question of poverty: the West likes to discuss Africans as bodies­–oppressed bodies, diseased bodies­—but people really are spirits and imaginations. The bodies work for those things. I’m interested in the fact that someone like my friend fell at a time when he could not imagine a possible future where he could say, “I should go to a hospital because I am not feeling well.” He did not have the confidence in his own future at that moment to do what was necessary, and he was dead in three months, staying in my house, and hiding from everybody. At that time, it became clear to me that working in a creative field, I have to use all the resources I have, but also that idea I want to grow old in a place where people can imagine their future with more confidence.

Also, it’s going to be a lot of fun … these are going to be good adventures.

Q: What happened after you came out, and what did you think was going to happen?

A: I wasn’t 300 per cent sure, but a lot of the people in the artistic communities have known I was gay for a long time. It was a political statement. And I have, better than anything, the insulation of reputation. So if you’re going to come after me—­and some people did, political types—–you’re going to have to come after my legacy, for what I’ve done for hundreds of young writers with Kwani?. To say, “throw him in,” how could they do that? I came out because I could come out. In terms of risk, I’m not living in any greater risk than any ordinary person being bashed on the side of the road by a car.

What happened, of course, was a storm. But I knew there was going to be a storm. I wanted a conversation to happen. I recorded a six-part video in advance because I wanted the conversation to come on the back of the announcement, and the announcement to be curated in African spaces, so there’s a context presented when the BBC and the Western media catch up to the noise. Within a week, that got 100,000 hits, of young Africans discussing. One member of parliament tried to protest, ­but only 13 people turned up. Now, my situation is not necessarily a situation that all gay people are in, people have different circumstances. But we need to normalize the discourse.

Q: Why didn’t you choose to come out as part of your memoir?

A: We spent two chapters in my mother’s hair salon. How gay are we going to get? (Laughs) The answer is complicated because the memoir was never a tell-all. There was a moment where I thought, it’d be nice to enter my love questions and what love means, but then I thought, “Look, I’ve been out to myself, in the situation of accepting the love of a man, since my mid-30s. It’s new, I’m just enjoying it. So I’m not ready to go, ‘Oh, this is what’s up,’ yet.” But even then, though, I knew: I’m not the kind of writer that is going to run away from things. The adventure of imagining how to deal with sexuality was always in my head, and so I decided to put the chapter out at the moment where the language worked.

Q: There’s a chapter in your book about George Sigalla, your head boy at the boarding school you were attending when you were young, who was outed as gay and also for providing goods in exchange for sex acts from the boys there. He was shunned afterward. Have you thought about him since you came out?

A: I think about him often. On one hand, for the rest of the year [after he was outed in the boarding school], I would watch him alone and shamed in the public sphere and feel like I wanted to say something to him, but did not know what to say. Years later, I actually saw him, he was the last person to come off a bus, but I was too nervous. The issue then, too, was that he was an adult, 18, that was running a kind of syndicate with boys as young as 13. That has obvious ethical issues. But I also didn’t even know what a homosexual was until that week. I knew there was a mixture of wrongness, but I also had the sense that something there was no doubt about what he was, and that what he was would have to live inside this public world that was very scary. It’s a shame that things would have to get to that point.

Q: Is there a need for more African figures to come out as gay?

A: In Nairobi, they call them the “Sisters With Voices,” ­all these kids under 20 who are kind of fearless already, and they’re up to all kinds of wonderful and terrible fearless nonsense, which is great. But of course, you’re also in a vulnerable position, in terms of your own security, in many places. So everybody has to measure risk for themselves. In terms of what I learned from my coming out, the music industry in Nigeria came out very strongly for the anti-gay bill there, which was deeply hypocritical because there is no place you will find more gay people than inside that group. So for me, that deep hypocrisy of this overcompensation, where you’re the first to condemn, I thought that was terrible. The writers and artists and intellectual communities mostly have come out against these different laws. But yes, the people who have visibility, in a certain sense, defuse the paranoia. The paranoia is often ignorance and so on, and these things create a certain kind of normalization. But I’m not the one to diagnose what people should do.

Q: What I find remarkable is that you clearly love Africa, and yet so many of its countries hate the idea of what you are. How can you reconcile those things?

A: The colonial project divided Africa into four countries, simply saying, “You’re going to be like this: you’re going to be an Anglican, a Catholic, or a Muslim,” inside a place with all these religions and cultures. That is a civil war going on in our own hearts now. We remain just as diverse, but at the same time our systems are forcing us into these little pipelines. That’s where the revolution to return is necessary and is happening, for good or for bad. As change starts, people find their own journey forward, for better or for worse. But one of the reasons that these laws are coming out is because people feel threatened. The reason that people are clamping down on this is not because they think they are winning. What it is, is a fragile, brittle, colonized mentality trying to superimpose itself back on its hinterland, and it has really no power.

The thing that remains most amazing about the continent I come from is that it’s the oldest, so it’s going to be the hardest to change. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing. Even the colonial thing, that was fairly new, and it changed the cosmetics of it, but it did not impose a will. That’s amazing. We’re living in this amazing time of diversity. You’re feeling these forces, and you need to step out of this and find your way. We’re starting to resemble ourselves a little bit more, and that means a lot of turbulence, a lot of change. But the last four or five years, my sense is that there’s no going back. It’s going to be great.

This interview has been condensed and edited.