Q&A with Adriaan van Klinken about his new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer

Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds. His new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa, has just come out with Penn State University Press. For the readers of Religion in Public he answers some questions to introduce his latest.  On 14 November 2019, there will be a book launch event hosted in Leeds, which you are warmly invited to attend. 

How has this book come about?

I have been studying the role of religion in the politics of homosexuality in Africa for the past decade. Initially my work focused on Zambia, and in several articles, I tried to make sense of religious discourses and politics opposing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and their human rights. I did consider writing a book about this, yet I asked myself: Do I really want to spend several years of my life writing about what, in the end, is religiously inspired socio-political homophobia? What does it do to me, personally, emotionally, and intellectually, to invest my time and energies in such a project?

I ended up co-editing two book volumes on religion and the politicisation of homosexuality in Africa, but decided that my major project would approach the subject from a different, more positive and constructive angle – and also from an angle that stayed closer to myself as a gay person who has been exposed to more than enough religiously inspired negative messages about homosexuality and who does not want to voluntarily encounter more.

I developed an interest in the ways in which LGBT communities in Africa organise and empower themselves in a context of religious, social, and political homo-, bi-, and transphobia, and I wanted to foreground emerging LGBT political perspectives and activist narratives on the continent. In particular, I wanted to examine how religion is not only a source of homophobia in Africa but also a source of LGBT activism and queer politics. It turned out that Zambia was not the best place in which to explore this new direction, and for several reasons I decided to shift the focus of my new line of inquiry to Kenya. That was five years ago, and Kenyan, Christian, Queer is the result.

In those five years a lot has happened, also to myself in the process of undertaking the research and writing this book. I decided to do justice to that by including auto-ethnographic interludes in between the main chapters, as an attempt at academic reflexivity and as part of what I call a queer methodology.

What is the key argument that your book develops?

Basically, the book aims to interrogate, complicate and nuance several popular narratives, such as the depiction in the West of Africa as a homophobic continent, of religion as a driving force of homophobia, and of African LGBT people as victims of these socio-political dynamics. Thus, in the book I seek to foreground the agency, courage and resilience of LGBT communities, specifically in Kenya, and to highlight the creative and inventive ways in which they negotiate several aspects of their identity, organise themselves, present themselves in the public domain, and contribute to social change, through a wide range of activist and artistic practices. I specifically focus on the ways in which they engage with religion, appropriating religious, in particular Christian beliefs, texts, symbols and imagery, to affirm their sexuality, to critique homo- and transphobia in the church and in society, to develop strategies of community organising, and to construct a new socio-political narrative that is proudly black and African, Christian and queer.

One of the key arguments I develop in Kenyan, Christian, Queer is that the reluctance in Western queer academic and activist circles to engage with religion is deeply problematic. It excludes many LGBT people, especially (but not only) in Africa and other parts of the “global South”, for whom religious belief, ritual and practice is a vital part of their lives and identities, who have developed ways to negotiate their sexuality, gender identity and faith, and who engage with religion as a site of affirmation and empowerment.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

Religion in contemporary African societies is a highly public affair: it visibly manifests itself in the public domain, shapes the public sphere, and blurs with popular culture, the media, and politics. Against this background, the role of religion in the recent politicisation of homosexuality in African contexts can also be understood. Both Christian and Muslim actors in many countries have actively mobilised against homosexuality and LGBT rights, expressing concern with public morality and with the purity of the nation. In those cases, we see a contestation between public religion and what can be called “public sexuality”, that is, the emerging public visibility of diverse sexualities. However, precisely because of its public prominence, LGBT communities in Africa cannot ignore religion as a factor in society but do engage with it, critically, strategically, and creatively. Thus, the relationship between public religion and public LGBT identities is far from one-dimensional. My interest in this book is to demonstrate the different ways in which religion, as a publicly available repertoire of ideas, symbols and imagery, is engaged and drawn upon in the context of African LGBT activism and queer politics. Beyond simple opposition, how are religious beliefs and practices negotiated, appropriated, and transformed?

Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it.

The best thing to do might be to quote from the conclusion, two sentences that summarise much of the argument developed in Kenyan, Christian, Queer: “The various arts of resistance studied in this book represent the possibility of a black, pan-African, and Christian form of queer imagination and politics, as an alternative to widespread homophobic forms of Christianity, popular anti-gay pan-Africanist discourses, and influential (typically white Euro-American) secular forms of LGBT activism. This, in turn, might open up critical avenues for rethinking the nature and future of Christianity and of activism around queer sexualities in Kenya, other African contexts, and beyond.”

However, knowing how human curiosity works, maybe another quote is more effective in getting people to read the book. This sentence presents the rationale for the auto-ethnographic interludes that I mentioned earlier: “In writing this book, I have begun to realise the extent to which my own flesh and body, and my identity, are indeed enmeshed with the bodies and identities of those I came to know during the research process: as informants, as interviewees, as friends, and, I hesitantly admit, incidentally as lovers – categories that, in my experience, are not always easy to separate (precisely because of the embodied and relational nature of fieldwork).”

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