A number of obstacles obscured my queerness from me. The first was the casual belief held by my mother that queerness was for rich white people with too much time on their hands. The second was the representation of only white queer people on TV/in magazines/everywhere which seemed to confirm my mum’s belief. The third was an internalised biphobia that filled me with so much angst I rejected queerness entirely.
Ultimately, it was time travel that made me at peace with my queerness. In my second year at Cambridge, a few weeks before I started to come out, I watched Tom Ford’s “A Single Man” over twenty times. I saw myself in George Falconer’s place: in my mind, I built a sensible life for myself, a stable life that could be grey at times but became drenched with colour whenever I saw my love, who I kept hidden. I also watched the music video to “Rocket” on repeat, drawn intensely to the moments of domesticity depicted: Beyoncé eating strawberries in the kitchen, a woman – any woman – lying across from me in bed years from now, looking at me the way I’d looked at women I’d loved in the past.
Before I envisaged my future and saw that it was inevitably queer, I struggled with my identity in that present. I struggled to contextualise my queerness within the history of my Kenyan and Ugandan ancestors. This is the legacy of colonialism that shapes my queerness today.
I pick up fragments of queer pre-colonial Kikuyu practices here and there. Like women marrying other women, ostensibly for pragmatic reasons – I prefer to think about the romantic relationships that were facilitated by or born of this arrangement. I read somewhere once that queer gender expressions were identified and institutionalised among various Bantu tribes. I know there’s more, but this is all I have right now. Concerted efforts by colonial administrations in my countries attempted to erase swathes of our gender histories. Their success can be measured by the extent to which it is laborious for me to know myself.
Ultimately, when I finally came to understand my queerness, that meant partly assimilating into a conception of queerness that stemmed from the Global North. Aesthetically, when I wanted to present as butch, I’d don chinos, braces, men’s shirts. Socially, I’d spend my time at gay nights out. When I wanted to learn more about my identity as a bi woman, most of the reading I’d revert to was either written by white people or within a Western context.
None of these things stress me out too much. I take comfort in Frantz Fanon’s theorisation of postcolonial, formerly colonised subjects as hybrids. It’s impossible for us to revert back to our pre-colonial selves, but that doesn’t mean assimilating into the cultures of our former colonial masters. We are uniquely historically situated to embody both our pre-colonial and postcolonial identities and I embrace whatever comes of that.
But it is an uneasy comfort. Knowing that when it comes to queerness, that binary between the pre-colonial and postcolonial is totally ripped apart, and that hybridity complicated and warped by time. As someone half-Kenyan and half-Ugandan, who has never been to Uganda and never assimilated into Kenyan culture, all I feel towards my national identities is ambivalence. Yet in the face of claims that queerness is inherently un-African, I find myself desperate to travel into the past in order to find and present evidence of queer identity and relationships before my countries were influenced by England and its peers. I know that the existence of queer Africans today is proof enough that those claims are false (as is the hypocrisy of people rejecting a “Western import of homosexuality” but welcoming Christianity, capitalism, etc.) but I still end up trying to find myself in the past.
What would have come of a marriage between me and a Kikuyu woman brought about for whatever reason? Young people (teenagers) were able to explore heterosexual desires within the confines of their mothers’ huts, so where would I have explored mine? Some Kikuyu fell between the cracks of heteronormative cultural practices. I continue to search for the locations of those cracks and what happened inside them.
I also inevitably find myself in the present. Navigating what it means to be Fanon’s hybrid while queer, when it feels like the queer semiotics with which I engage come largely from Western histories and ontologies. This is further complicated by my knowing that queer African bodies are at best ignored and at worst wholly rejected in the Global North. At best, representations of queer black women in Britain are lacking and too often have to be actively sought after or wistfully implied. At worst, black queer asylum seekers here are sent back to countries where they will be persecuted for their sexuality – including women who have failed tests set by judges who ask whether they’ve read Oscar Wilde or attended a pride march. As if these are the only legitimate expressions of queerness.
They aren’t. I struggle to navigate my queerness as someone who doesn’t fully belong in most spaces. Most aspects of my identity exist in flux. But I see my British, Kenyan, and Ugandan friends forming identities for themselves, providing examples of black queer female joy. I struggle less when I take inspiration from the black women I see carving out spaces in the present, declaring that they exist in spite of it all. They’ve created and are creating rich, black, queer, female spaces. Be it Pussy Palace or pre-drinks in someone’s college room. In Twitter threads and in halted moments, independent of time, reading a chapter of Maurice together outside Caffè Nero on King’s Parade. I have to remind myself that I have a hand in shaping these spaces, too.
Which makes me wonder about the future. Two years ago, I cobbled mine together using one white gay story and one presumptively straight one. I’m currently in the process of re-making it.
My queer future will exist on its own, stand on its own two feet. It is intimately tied with the decolonial struggle to push whiteness (and white queerness) from the centre and allow queerness as a subversive, humanising, life-saving, uncontainable force to do its thing. I’m beginning to prepare my queerness for that future. I don’t know if it will be totally free of the angst it’s mired in today. But it will be free.