Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa

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Adriaan van Klinken
  • University Park, PA: 
    Penn State University Press
    , July
     2019.
     248 pages.
     $89.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780271083803.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Adriaan van Klinken’s Kenyan, Christian, Queer is a passionate book. It is passionate in the sense that its central problematic is the question of desire, a desire that is often arrested in the contexts of Kenya and many other African countries where being queer flies in the face of neat social, political, cultural, and religious narratives. This arrested desire leads to a second sense in which this book is passionate: the problematization of LGBT people has led to significant suffering. The author sees passion as played out in desire and suffering. Love, then, becomes the hermeneutic key of the book not only as a theological motif but also as a paradoxical locus of hope and suffering, of joy and frustration. Love becomes the double-edged sword by which the humanity of LGBT people in Kenya in particular and Africa in general is called into question but by which they hope to find liberation. This love-bearing passion is what ties the theme, theory, and method of the book together.

The passionate narrative of the book is captured in the form of stories—the stories of men and women whose very humanity has been called into question because they transgress the normalized, binary notion of gender and sexuality. While some have claimed that homosexuality is un-African, others claim that it is un-Christian. Herein lies the notion of a homophobic Africa, the idea that Africa is a kind of hell for LGBT people. The author does not deny this view of Kenya or Africa but rather seeks to problematize it. Despite the pain and suffering that LGBT people experience in Kenya and much of Africa, van Klinken seeks not to traffic in a pessimistic vision of their plight. What he does, instead, is to show the different ways in which this persecuted group of people draws from resources, especially Christian resources that are used to oppress them, to carve spaces in which they can breathe.

This is not the first time van Klinken points to these counter-narratives in Africa. Two books (Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa [Routledge, 2016] and Christianity and Controversies Over Homosexuality in Africa [Routledge, 2016]), which he edited with the Zimbabwean scholar Ezra Chitando, began to show how some LGBT people in Africa utilize religious discourses, especially drawn from Christianity, to challenge the dominant narrative that homosexuality is un-African and un-Christian. In fact, van Klinken’s first book,  Transforming Masculinities (Ashgate, 2013), which shows how Christian discourse was being used to create a new kind of man in Zambia, could be seen as an initial attempt at engaging counter-discourses that challenge dominant ways the human is constructed in Africa. Kenyan, Christian, Queer therefore establishes van Klinken as a scholar with an eye for the cracks, for the places where dominant discourses fracture, as new imaginations press for life.

There are four main stories (case studies) in the book, and van Klinken reads these stories using the notion of artivism—the combination of art and activism—in Kenya. These stories include Biyanvanga Wainaina’s trenchant critique of homophobia, the “Same Love (Remix)” video, the anthology called Stories of Our Lives, which details the lives of some LGBT people in Kenya, and the Cosmopolitan Affirming Church, a church in Nairobi that caters to the spiritual needs of LGBT people. These four stories are read artistically as written, visual, and social texts. The artivistic dynamics that animate these stories is demonstrated through the stinging critique they make against the exclusion of LGBT people from Kenyan citizenship and the resources they provide to help them weather this storm of rejection. For Wainaina and “Same Love (Remix)” video, homophobia is a rather new phenomenon in African cultures, not something rooted in ancient African cultures, as is often claimed. The Cosmopolitan Affirming Church in Nairobi is portrayed as rewriting the very history of Christianity so that LGBT people are made a central part of story of Christianity (173-77).

In a fascinating dynamic that speaks to the passion and intimacy of the book, the author weaves his story with the stories of those whose lives he narrates. Thus, the author tells us about his connection to the communities he studied and how he is even assigned the position of an ambassador and advocate for these communities. Methodologically, this blurs the much-discussed line between insiders and outsiders and may raise questions about the objectivity of the author. However, van Klinken does not simply aim at objectivity but also at redress because the issues involved occasion significant human suffering and sometimes death. By weaving his own story with those of the participants, the author overcomes a kind of voyeuristic ethnography, rendering himself accountable to the community he studies (187).

While the constructive dimension of the book embraces a transgressive theology of love and fraternity that funds the struggles of LGBT people in Kenya, elements of this theology may have been further probed. For example, in the portrayal of Wainaina as a prophet, van Klinken appears to be too reticent to see him as a “secular prophet” (38), even in a context where the distinction between the secular and religious is problematic.

The same goes for the discussion regarding the extent to which the “Same Love (Remix)” video might be thought of as a gospel song (66). The distinction between gospel and non-gospel music in Africa is one that is becoming increasingly harder to make. Finally, the issue of language: feminist liberation theology has called for the use of inclusive language in the life of the church and the author pays keen attention to the issue of language, especially when it comes to designating LGBT people (9). A feminist reading of the song about being treated “like a son” or “like a king,” might have been advisable. These notwithstanding, this is a passionate, intimate, and lyrical book which should be read by all those interested in queer studies, religious studies, and African studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Ngong is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion and Theology at Stillman College, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Date of Review: 
August 6, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Transforming Masculinities in African Christianity: Gender Controversies in Times of AIDS and coeditor of several books, including Public Religion and the Politics of Homosexuality in Africa and Christianity and Controversies over Homosexuality in Contemporary Africa.

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