Last month I visited Nairobi to embark on a project together with my Leeds colleague Adriaan van Klinken. Adriaan has been conducting research in Kenya over a number of years but it was my first visit. Our project is funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust and centres on a collaboration with the Nairobi-based initiative called The Nature Network.
The Nature Network is a community of LGBTQ+ refugees (the majority from Uganda) who have come together in Nairobi for solidarity, mobilization, community and survival. Kenya has been called a haven for LGBTQ+ refugees, but their lives are nevertheless far from easy.
The Nature Network provides support and community, advocacy, resources, advice, and a social justice platform for its members but, like other LGBTQ+ people and other refugees, too, they are a vulnerable community. Homophobia in all its insidious and often violent forms is very much present in Nairobi, as it is in very many other places. Added to that, like refugees elsewhere, community members are struggling in the face of economic uncertainties, poverty and all the vulnerabilities these bring with them. The range of members’ needs is complex and varied. Many suffer from unmet health problems, including mental health issues, and all live with various kinds of uncertainty regarding employment, economic security, and future prospects. Many are awaiting decisions from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, and several are due to be resettled, as others have been before them, in the USA, Canada, or Iceland.
Our project is called ‘Tales of Sexuality and Faith: The Ugandan LGBT Refugee Life Story Project’ and it explores how life stories, or autobiographical accounts, in combination with biblical stories, can become both a means and a resource for activism towards social justice for LGBTQ+ refugees and for activist-inspired research. In doing so, we are mindful of and draw on established and important work in other parts of the continent of Africa. I am thinking here, for instance, of the many activities of the Talitha Qumi Center in Ghana and of the Contextual Bible Study projects of the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa.
Adriaan and I conducted some interviews on our visit, but the bulk of the data is being collected by members of The Nature Network. The initial interviews have proved moving and inspiring and we are working towards a collaborative publication that will bring these stories and the method itself into wider circulation.
While I was in Nairobi, there were two other queer highlights for me: one was attending the loud, proud, and lively service with the Cosmopolitan Affirming Community, which again demonstrated creative and empowering deployment of religious motifs and biblical texts; and the other was joining in the vibrant launch of Adriaan’s extraordinary new book, Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism, and Arts of Resistance in Africa. What a fine party it was – with dancing, drag, fabulous outfits, a play, presentations, and above all, abundant celebration and joy. I am so glad I could be there.
Adriaan’s book is being launched again in Leeds: at 4pm on 14 November 2019, at Claire Chapel, Emmanuel Centre, University of Leeds. The event is co-hosted by the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. All supporters are welcome.
Alongside the people and communities I encountered in Nairobi, and alongside Adriaan’s research and publication, there are yet more queer events to celebrate. First, there is the research of Sam Ross, a PhD candidate based at the University of Leeds. Sam is exploring queer readings of Hebrew Bible texts that focus on suffering, pain, and trauma; he features as our Researcher of the Month on the Religion in Public blog. You can read about his research journey here. What he does not mention is that he has had a paper accepted in the peer-reviewed Journal for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies. Congratulations! Look out for the special issue on transgender and genderqueer perspectives coming soon.
And another shout-out for a queer celebration goes to Chris Greenough who has just had two books published (yes, he’s an over-achiever). The first, Undoing Theology: Life stories from non-normative Christians (SCM, 2018, reviewed here), has been invaluable as I reflect on and think ahead to the next stage of the project in Kenya. In this book, Chris takes up the call of Marcella Althaus-Reid who, in 2003, published the words, ‘At the bottom line of queer theologies, there are biographies of sexual migrants, testimonies of real lives in rebellions made of love, pleasure and suffering’ (The Queer God, Routledge, 2003, p.8, reviewed here). Chris documents his communications with three sexual migrants, or non-normative Christians: an intersex-identifying Catholic, a former ‘ex-gay’ minister, and a Christian engaging in BDSM (bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism, masochism). The result is a moving testament from those who are sometimes seeking, sometimes demanding, and occasionally finding inclusion and spiritual fulfilment. What remains un-erased in the course of this book are the difficulties and traumas encountered by and inflicted on sexual migrants. The book is a remarkable blend of vivid personal accounts and incisive critical theory.
Chris’s second book is called Queer Theologies: The Basics (Routledge, 2019) and is an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to come to grips with queer interpretation and queer theologies. Those who have tried to do so know it to be a rich and varied field with some hard-to-navigate ideas, theories, and terminologies. Chris’s book is accessible and written with clarity and flair. It also contains a helpful glossary and plenty of suggestions for further study and exploration.
There is so much queer to celebrate!