Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Binyavanga Wainaina Didn't Just Come Out. He Came Out In Style

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The way in which Binyavanga Wainaina came out sent a clear message. Photograph by Francesco Alesi/Internz.

Bam! Baba Binya, you look like a chupa-chup on acid and I love it!

As I watched Binyavanga Wainaina's six-part youtube video, which from here on in we can refer to as his ‘gay manifesto’, I laughed a lot, before a single man-tear ran down my cheek. I want to write something about discourse on internet platforms, provoked by Wainaina's coming out and how he did it, but first let me get something out of the way. I know that various negatively-charged individuals will be hovering over their keyboards as they read this ready to make personal attacks, so why don’t I just address a few things before we begin and save us all some time.

Are YOU a homosexual?

No actually, funny you should ask. I am a none-of-your–damn-businessexual. There’s a few of us around, look it up; we’re proud of who we are!

Do you support equal rights for homosexuals?

Yes I do. I believe in, and will to the best of my ability fight for, equal rights and freedom of opinion for everyone, regardless of colour, religion, nationality, orientation - you know the rest. That means your rights too, angry person surfing the internet.

But do you support homosexuality?

Nope. In the same way I don’t support small ears, black hair or mismatched eyebrows. It’s a fact of some people’s existence, not something for me to support.

Who the hell do you think you are?

A media student with some thoughts, which we'll get on to now!

The brewing storm

Prominent literary figure Binyavanga Wainaina came out as homosexual on 19 January 2014, his 43rd birthday, amidst a flurry of media coverage regarding the tightening laws on homosexuality in Nigeria and Uganda. First, in a short story entitled ‘I´m a homosexual, mum’, published in a few blogs including Africa is a Country, and then in a six-part youtube manifesto. As a project for one of my classes in my postgraduate media studies, I followed Wainaina's coming out and the reactions in the week that followed.

Roughly-speaking, the timeline went something like this:

- 19 January: ‘I am a homosexual, mum’ is posted.

- 19-20 January: We begin to see positive and negative reactions as comments and some tweets, but relatively few.

- 21 January: Youtube manifesto is posted. According to the Guardian, Wainaina refused to give any interviews before the manifesto was up. Twitterstorm, heated discussions in comment spaces below articles, posts and blogposts (both negative and positive, personal and generic) ensue.

- 21-25 January: Story taken up by mainstream media (in Kenya, The Star and The Daily Nation; internationally, BBC Africa, the Guardian and even Fox News among others).  Twitterstorm etc continues.

In one corner, broadly-speaking, there are those who had a positive reaction: “The same story will unfold in Africa because people are intelligent everywhere and, over time, love triumphs over hate. But it takes big-hearted and beautiful souls like yours to shepherd this change forward. Thank you, for all mankind,” says ‘Bike guy’ below Wainaina's short story, for example.

In another corner, we have equal parts religious-based criticism and nationalist and/or pan-Africanist objections that orbit notions of masculinity: “Gotta say, that is a great speech n I totally agree with you on how creativity is killed in Kenya. But also I gotta say too that I FOUND no connection in your speech as to why you choose to be GAY no relation at all!!! I am a sinner, the bible condemns us from judging but it also holds us accountable for not warning n correcting our sisters and brothers,” comments Charles Njaramba under the youtube manifesto. Finally, in a whole other corner, you have the likes of the blog ‘Kenyans Against Homosexuality’ who wonder if Wainaina “is to be trusted near our small boys”. 

The medium is the fabulous message

My first observation from watching events unfold is how incredibly fast Wainaina's announcement snowballed, via mainstream media articles and online reactions, into a global event that will, for many, stand as a milestone in the struggle for equal rights in Africa. All kinds of aspects of a heated and multifaceted debate were explored by people from all corners of the world in what has been an amazingly short space of time. This is commonplace now, but it should be observed as something that is changing the way in which we hold discourse.

The second thing of note was the sheer profoundness of so many people's comments (you are amazing!). We all know that the internet contains a lot of dubious material and that it is easy to hide behind anonymity, but the comments beneath posts about Wainaina's coming out have largely been fantastic, no matter what stance you take. There have been all kinds of hoping, soul-searching, dung-throwing, well-wishing, poignant deep-felt declarations of loyalty, to God, to man, to country.

In the African context, I think it is very healthy that this is happening, especially in this way, rooted in a personal experience, many-voiced and on a global platform. We have Baba Binya to thank for that.

Third, I think Binyavanga made very conscious choices in coming out, not only regarding when, but how. “This video is a collaboration freely made and freely given for the African public space,” appears at the end of each of the parts of the youtube manifesto. In class, we talk about the importance of creating a discourse about Africa led by Africans. I think Binyavanga, as a pan-Africanist, and his crew, are intentionally taking a stand on this matter by the way in which they present us with the content.

The way in which it was done and the sequence are very important. Wainaina came out in a short story, his choice of form. He also chose to post that short story in certain online blogs that some would call ‘Afropolitan’. It's his space. If anywhere, the Afropolitan lives online.  

Then Wainaina (and his crew) posted a youtube manifesto, which they cut and edited themselves. He could have just given an interview to a major global newspaper, sat in a chair for half an hour being asked at what age he knew he was gay and then gone home. Boom, done, out. I'm not trying to suggest it' bad to give interviews to big newspapers, but Wainaina's alternative way of doing it makes a certain statement. The medium is the message, as argued (though a little differently) by Marshall McLuhan. It’s a question of voice and even self-representation, of taking control of the messages sent.

What is more, the manifesto in itself sets a certain tone. It is docile; Wainaina sits laughing, warm and quietly rational. Its tone almost functions as a juxtaposition to that of all the videos one finds of angry, anti-gay Reverend this and that, jumping around and trying to pull demons out of people.

Somebody has actually thought about what they are doing.

It is interesting how different big life-questions appear on the internet compared to real life. Do people talk about big issues in the same way in physical spaces as digital spaces? Can we really separate the two? And, in the context of Kenya for instance, who is doing the online debating about big issues and who is not? Is that a problem?

I don’t know the answers, but I do know that as digital Africa emerges, these are the questions we should all be talking about, not just academics. I also know that Wainaina is a brave man who made a stand and gave a new twist to the discourse on homosexuality in Africa. And for that I would like to thank him.

Still looks like a chupa-chup on acid though.

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