Sunday, 23 June 2013

That Strange Headline, "I'm A Gay"

That Strange Headline, "I'm A Gay"

My FB newsfeed has this past week been dominated by a particular post shared over and over, a Kenyan news article with the headline, “I’m a gay.” I wondered if the journalist was just grammatically challenged or he/she thinks that gay is just like an object, hence the indefinite article “a”. It’s like saying, “I’m a book”. If I made such a claim I’d require some psychiatric evaluation. I once read about a guy who though he was an egg. Turns out he was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. One day he rolled himself right in front of an oncoming train and cracked. True story. Very sad. Not meant for humour.

So the subject of that grammatically or conceptually awkward trending headline was one, Maina Kageni, a famous Kenyan radio talk-show host. I once caught his show on an early morning matatu-ride in Nairobi; he’s excellent. The comments that accompanied this post were varied. On one hand, acid hatred, god-waving bible-quoting slayers, “Africanist” gay-deniers… On the other hand, some thoughtful, calm and non-judgmental comments. The bad far out-weighed the good.

For me, two incidents came to mind: first, a brutal attack - with kicks, punched and broken bottles - of three ladies in Nairobi whose grievous “offence” was their sexual orientation. They were even thrown in jail. I recall wincing even more at the visceral string of “they deserved it” comments. Cold, cold I tell you. But I remained silent. My excuse? I was not in Kenya, too far away from my diaspora perch, I did not “identify”… This, like many other cry-for-justice incidents I read about, went into my not-my-battle bins. I should have said something then, even if only one person listened. 

The second incident that came to mind was a few years ago when I was asked to translate for a team of Tanzanian community health workers attending a National Institute of Health conference in DC. I knew it wasn’t necessary because Tanzanians understand and speak English, and I was far from as competent in Kiswahili as our Tanzanian cousins. They birth, eat, live Kiswahili. But the job was paying well, and so I took the week off work to do this gig. I was in for a treat!

A conference presenter used the term “gay community” a lot in one particular session. So here I was about to translate it to my team for the first time and I had no idea what to say. Every time I got stuck they had been my wonderful teachers, and I had learnt a lot of medical terms in Kiswahili. My role had switched from translator to student, and I was having a great time. But this time they watched me with amusement. The only term I knew was the word “shoga”, whose classical Swahili meaning is “friend”, but over time, it has become a derogatory reference to “gay.” I asked them what positive terminology they use for this community.

One of them helped me out and said, “watu wanaofanya mapenzi kinyume cha ubinadam.” I said nooo, really?? It directly translates to “people who engage in sexual activity against human nature.” This was a long phrase the community health workers had come up with to “compassionately” identify the gay community in Tanzania so they could provide services without discrimination. "But the phrase itself defeats the purpose!", I whispered loudly while the presenter went on humdrum about microbicides. 

The team was most puzzled by my reasoning. It was obvious to them what "human nature" called for. “Kwani wao si binadamu?” (Aren’t they human?”) I whispered even louder. “Wacha ukenya!” (stop your Kenyanness!), one of them admonished. Tanzanians characterize Kenyans as obnoxiously questioning of authority. I was questioning nature, the ultimate authority. I determined I'd rather be nature's student than nature's police. I think that nature, in all its dynamism, laughs in our faces all the time while we try to police it. We demand that we punish, ostracize or force-fit those who "don't fit in". I imagine that in Mother Nature's eyes, the ostracizer is the outcast.

My Tanzanian teachers still boasted of their work as bridge-builders to a shunned community. Thing is, their "against human nature" phrase was conceived from a negative meme, much like that Kenyan news headline, “I’m a gay”, with its indefinite article “a” that assumed gay is an object and could therefore be treated without humanity, with detachment, with kicks and punches, prodded with broken bottles… 

Throughout history, the objectification of a people has gone a long way in enabling the stripping of their humanity, permissible to damage and destruction. Silence destroys us all. 

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