To honor the thick autobiographical breadth of Adriaan van Klinken’s Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBTQ Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa I would like in this contribution to share a bit of my own journey/struggle with question of the normality of homosexuality both at the personal and at the scholarly level. Coming from a Catholic background, I also suggest in my concluding remarks that the reference of van Klinken’s book to gay Pentecostalism should not occlude the fact that religions in Africa remain one of the main repertoires of homophobic arguments.
In January 2021, just a few days after the swearing in of Joe Biden as 46th president of the United States, I posted the following on my Facebook page, which has about five thousand followers: “I prefer a good homosexual leader to all the corrupt and inhumane heterosexual leaders who are destroying our countries here in Africa.” I was responding to a number of African critics of Joe Biden following the appointment of a number of LGBTQ Americans to his cabinet. For many of the critics, these appointments were unworthy of a president claiming to be Christian, let alone Catholic.
My post attracted hundreds of comments, most of which were fierce critiques of my stance. The few who sided with me argued that competency and professionalism had nothing to do with sexual orientation. As for my critics, their arguments ranged from ethical considerations to mere insults. These criticisms came especially from those for whom my stance sounded like an apology for homosexuality, which many still perceive as a religious and ethical abomination. Coming from a priest and a scholar of religion, for them, it was a betrayal of moral and religious standards.
One of my critics wrote: “your inclination for homosexuality is well established. I always wonder when you say your breviary, if you still celebrate masses, when you preach the word of God. You are more mundane than spiritual. It is not too late to swap your cassock for politics. You are a lost soul.” Another commentary read: “Finally a good Catholic priest coming out! Homosexuality is the golden rule among these fake religious people hiding behind a cassock.” Another one wrote: “You have to hang this devil, this demon or else burn him alive . . . you are lucky to have such a lax government that lets you do and say anything of this kind. I dream of seeing a real man at the head of the country that will mercilessly deal with these demons. I have always told people that the Catholic Church is the most demonic thing ever seen. I imagine what the children undergo in the hands of the same devil.” These homophobic utterances are far from being isolated in Cameroon, where I am from. The violence they exhibit is revealing and shows how little space there is in the public sphere for those who identify as LGBTQI+ to engage in what van Klinken calls “arts of resistance.”
Cameroon is one of the many countries where being LGBTQI+ is illegal and same-sex relations are still criminalized. The most recent case where identifying as LGBTQI+ was criminalized was when two transgender women were sentenced on May 11, 2021 by a Cameroonian court to five years in prison and ordered to pay fines of $370 because of their sexual orientation. This example shows that it is still not safe to identify as LGBTQI+ in many African countries. It is in light of such challenges that van Klinken explores the “dynamics relating to the creative ways in which gay men and other lgbt (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in Kenya make themselves visible despite sociopolitical homophobia” (3). The book “is particularly interested in the role of religious belief and practice in what I call Kenyan queer ‘arts of resistance’”(4). Based on the case studies discussed by the author, I reckon that although homosexuality is equally illegal in Kenya, LGBTQ people are safer in Kenya than in Cameroon. They can sing, write, worship and theologize against the exclusive normativity of heterosexuality without risking being arrested and jailed as they would be in Cameroon. In other words, the margins of Queer “art of resistance” vary from one country to another in Sub-Saharan Africa.
My first intellectual engagement with the question of homosexuality dates back to 2011 when I published an article on popular homophobia in Cameroon. The essay showed how in public opinion representations of homosexuality that associated it with esoteric practices, including witchcraft, acted as defenses of traditional values and stood in contrast to the more liberal values of a corrupt postcolonial elite. Religion, especially the reference to sacred texts, was identified in this article as a major repertoire in homophobic arguments.
Van Klinken’s major contribution to the debate is indeed his focus on the use of religiously inspired arguments to challenge homophobia.
More recently, within the Africa working group of the “Authority, Community and Identity” component of the Contending Modernities Project, I researched the politics of gender reforms in Côte d’Ivoire and it was again evident that religion is more often used to condemn and demonize homosexuality than to defend it. Therefore, van Klinken’s major contribution to the debate is indeed his focus on the use of religiously inspired arguments to challenge homophobia. The existence of a Pentecostal “gay church” discussed in chapter 4 was a discovery for me. I just do not think something like this is feasible yet in Cameroon, where I am from, or in Chad, where I live.
Even doing research on homosexuality in some parts of Africa remains a major challenge. I have come to realize that some of my colleagues are very uncomfortable with the idea that research on homosexuality could be a worthy topic of scholarly investigation. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, I encouraged a Master’s degree student to study how Ivorian LGBTQI+ organizations managed to secure visibility in spite of a largely homophobic legal environment. During the thesis defense, one of the examiners took issue with the student for choosing to work on LGBTQI+ organizations in the first place. For this examiner, to study LGBTQI+ organizations amounted to an apology for homosexuality, of which he disapproved.
The second register of my personal journey with the LGBTQI+ community is that of human encounters. I wonder how many Africans on the continent have knowingly met and interacted with a gay person? Of course, in the context of Africa, these encounters are made difficult by the repressive legal infrastructure which limits the visibility and free expression of gay identity. For me, this has only happened in the west.
Like most Africans, I grew up in a highly heterosexual and heteronormative social environment. Homosexuality was not an identity that was available for one to embody in my universe of socialization. It was during my years of university studies in the west, first in the United States and then in England, that I actually knowingly met LGBTQI+ people. Among my fellow priests, students, and lecturers, some openly identified as gay. We met in class, at church, on excursions, at sports events, etc. I had no choice but to interact with them regularly. With time, I learned to relate to them as brothers and sisters in humanity. Something shifted in my perception. I am not implying that these personal experiences did away with all my queries about homosexuality, especially given my position as a clergy man in a Catholic Church, which officially teaches that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” But my lived experiences now resist any dehumanizing approach.
Is there some space for the “queer arts of resistance” in the Catholic Church in Sub-Saharan Africa? Very little! A few theologians and scholars of religion, as van Klinken alludes to in his book, have cautiously attempted some intellectual openings. But the Church hierarchy strictly upholds heteronormativity. In one of the most recent cases on this topic, this time in Ghana, there were plans to establish the first LGBTQI+ community center. The Ghana Catholic Bishops Conference joined other groups to call on the government in a public statement to oppose it. While the center was opened in February 2021, it had to close three weeks later “due to homophobic pressure from politicians, antigay organizations and, you guessed it, church leaders.” In a pastoral letter issued on July 29, 2021, the archbishop of Douala in Cameroon, Bishop Samuel Kleda, cites homosexuality among what he terms “pratiques sexuelles contre nature.” These examples from the Catholic clergy suggest that there is a long way to go for the “queer arts of resistance” to find some space within major Church institutions in Sub-Saharan Africa.