Amid growing anti-gay measures, African author comes out

Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina. Flickr user Internaz / Creative Commons

These days, an author announcing he’s gay wouldn’t cause much of a splash here in the U.S.

In Africa though, things are different.

Binyavanga Wainaina, a celebrated Kenyan author, came out recently in an essay titled “I’m a homosexual, mum.” The “lost chapter” of his already published memoir describes what he wanted to say to his mother on her deathbed:

This is not the right version of events.

Hey mum. I was putting my head on her shoulder, that last afternoon before she died. She was lying on her hospital bed. Kenyatta. Intensive Care. Critical Care. There. Because this time I will not be away in South Africa, f—— things up in that chaotic way of mine. I will arrive on time, and be there when she dies.

My heart arrives on time. I am holding my dying mother’s hand. I am lifting her hand. Her hand will be swollen with diabetes. Her organs are failing. Hey mum. Ooooh. My mind sighs. My heart! I am whispering in her ear. She is awake, listening, soft calm loving, with my head right inside in her breathspace.

She is so big – my mother, in this world, near the next world, each breath slow, but steady, as it should be. Inhale. She can carry everything. I will whisper, louder, in my minds-breath. To hers. She will listen, even if she doesn’t hear. Can she?

Mum. I will say. Muum? I will say. It grooves so easy, a breath, a noise out of my mouth, mixed up with her breath, and she exhales. My heart gasps sharp and now my mind screams, sharp, so so hurt so so angry.

“I have never thrown my heart at you mum. You have never asked me to.”

Only my mind says. This. Not my mouth. But surely the jerk of my breath and heart, there next to hers, has been registered? Is she letting me in?

Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear.

“I am a homosexual, mum.”

Read the whole piece for his description of what did happen.

His decision to come out is extraordinary in light of the continent’s attitude toward homosexuality. “Gay and lesbian people risk a jail-term of up to 10 years if they are convicted of homosexual acts in Kenya,” the BBC reports.

Just last week, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan signed a bill outlawing same-sex marriage that has garnered praise in the country. The bill carries penalties of up to 14 years in jail for marriage.

While I didn’t report on this issue while I was in Nigeria last year, a colleague, Connor Sheets of the International Business Times, did. He found that one’s ability to live freely depends on who you are, and where you live:

Life in Nigeria, one of the world’s most anti-gay nations, is a daily struggle for Adeola (not his real name), a closeted, working-class homosexual man living on the outskirts of Abuja, the nation’s small, central capital.

Adeola has been called names, insulted and ostracized over assumptions about his sexuality, so he shields his true self in fear that coming out would only attract more intense abuse.

Meanwhile, some young, wealthy gay Nigerians who spend most of their time in the louche, Westernized Victoria Island section of Lagos — the massive, quickly modernizing megalopolis on Nigeria’s southwestern coast — are able to live a quasi-open life despite the virulent homophobia that rules in much of the rest of the country.

Still, Wainaina’s news drew praise from his contemporaries. From Teju Cole, a Nigerian author:

And from Otieno Owinom, a Kenyan journalist: “I can’t imagine how free you now feel. How liberating must it be to know that you are now true to yourself!”

Wainaina told the Global Post he was “giddy” while writing the essay and believes he’ll be accepted in his home country and across Africa:

“People who live in societies where you are being lied to a lot value truth,” he said.

Wainaina is set to become a still-louder voice for gay rights, a struggle that he sees as part of a wider defiance, an effort to break apart “the very, very hardwired restrictions that were imposed in 1885” by colonialists and which “are very alive in every facet of African life.”

“I want to be part of a generation of people in Kenya and Africa who change [Africa] to be accountable to itself,” he said.