Sacred Queer Stories
ADRIAAN VAN KLINKEN, JOHANNA STIEBERT, SEBYALA BRIAN & FREDRICK HUDSON
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your extremely important new publication Sacred Queer Stories. To begin with, can you please provide an overview of your book?
The book grew out of a collaborative project centred on both research and activism. It opens with a foreword by Ugandan scholar and activist Stella Nyanzi. After an introduction, outlining some aims and parameters, Part 1 of the book presents twelve life stories of Ugandan LGBTQ+ refugees living in Nairobi, Kenya and awaiting resettlement. All were at the time of telling their stories associated with The Nature Network, a community-based organisation and key partner of the project. Each of the twelve stories gives a moving and vivid insight into a life of queerness, sanctity, struggle, and hopes for a better future. Next, Part 2 of the book analyses how and why these life stories and story tellers come into contact with Bible stories. Central to this are the notions of a queer African archive and of the Bible as an African artefact. Sometimes, the contact is obstructive and damaging, because religious leaders and communities use the Bible as a tool to condemn or demean LGBTQ+ persons. But, as our book makes clear, the Bible can also be utilized for affirmation and liberation. Two of the main chapters focus on such liberatory re-tooling of Bible stories: one focuses on the story of Daniel in the Lions’ Den, from the Bible’s Old Testament, and the other, on the gospel story of Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery, from the New Testament. These chapters are supplemented by the beautiful poetry of Tom Muyunga-Mukasa, and followed by a reflection and a conclusion. Collectively, they describe and analyse the re-storying process and how it achieves sacred queerness and queer sanctity. The book is an interweaving of Ugandan LGBTQ+ life and of two Bible stories, as well as of scholarship, activism, and creative writing. These categories are not mutually exclusive but cross-fertilize one another in a way we hope our readers will find enriching, provocative, and profound.
In the book you state ‘This process of dialogue, or inter-reading as we call it, between life stories and Bible stories engenders a new body of stories, which we describe as sacred queer stories.’ Can you elaborate on this and specifically comment on the significance of the title of your book?
As described above, the book is dialogical, combining a range of voices and genres. Central to this are the life stories of Ugandan LGBTQ+ refugees and the stories of the Bible. The book makes the case that the LGBTQ+ refugees and the Bible both are sacred and queer. According to some vocal rhetoric, LGBTQ+ persons are not sacred but the very opposite, while the Bible is only and unequivocally sacred. Our book, above all the life stories and the participation in the re-storying of the Bible stories, demonstrates that LGBTQ+ persons are not only religiously literate and religious, but sacred. We use ‘sacred’ as an open-ended term referring to the various ways in which, through storytelling, lives are signified and given meaning. The bottom line is the humanistic principle that human life has intrinsic value. For many of the people featured in this book this is a religious idea: human life is sacred, because it is created by God. Moreover, the Bible is a text widely held to be holy and sacred, but it is also queer. You can read all about how this ‘works’ in the book! At any rate, for us ‘Sacred Queer’ aptly describes the refugees at the centre of the book, the Bible, the project, and its outcomes. See if you agree.
How did you collect the life stories, and was it hard to find contributors?
The project that resulted in this book was a collaboration between two UK-based academics and the just-mentioned organisation, The Nature Network (TNN). Life stories were collected through the members of this LGBTQ+ refugee self-help organisation. Instrumental here was the role of the TNN coordinators, Raymond and Hudson, who served as research assistants and became co-authors of the book. As community leaders, they were known and trusted by the participants, who were more than willing to share their life stories with them.
How did the idea for this book come to you? What was your research process like?
One of the authors of this book, Adriaan, has been conducting research on LGBTQ+ issues in Kenya for several years. He got to know the community of Ugandan refugees in Nairobi, and developed a strong relationship with The Nature Network. In conversations with Raymond and Hudson, the idea of a collaborative project begun to emerge. The idea was to render visible the life experiences of a marginalised community by telling their stories, and to put these into a creative dialogue with the Bible – a book that is often used against LGBTQ+ people, but that remains a source of inspiration and faith for many of them. Johanna, who has a longstanding interest in the role of the Bible in Africa, joined the project. TNN had a strong ownership over the research process, with several day-long workshops being conducted at the TNN community house and facilitated by TNN leaders. The workshops used a method of family-based therapy as developed by TNN, which is holistic and attends to participants as physical, social, emotional, and spiritual beings. In the workshops, we engaged in an in-depth reading of the selected Bible stories, identifying the key events and main characters, and linking them to experiences in the life worlds of participants. This was then creatively developed in a drama performance, which was acted out and video-recorded. The two videos, Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den and Jesus and the Guys Charged with Indecency can be watched on YouTube. The workshops ended with a conversation where participants were invited to reflect on the process and share the emotions and thoughts it had brought up for them.
Why should people read your book? Why is it important?
People should read this book because it exemplifies the importance and power of storytelling! The life stories presented in Part 1 are extremely rich and powerful. The inter-readings of these stories with the selected Bible stories, in Part 2, are creative, moving, and insightful. Together, these parts exemplify how through stories we can signify our lives, make meaning of difficult experiences, and reinforce hope and faith in the future. Although the stories presented in this book come from a very specific group of people – Ugandan LGBTQ+ refugees in Kenya – they relate to universal human experiences of struggle, solidarity, and the quest for dignity and justice.
This book is a ‘powerful contribution to Queer African studies’, are there many similar books out there? How popular is the field of Queer Studies in Africa today?
Over the past twenty years or so, queer African studies has emerged as a new field of scholarship. It seeks to nuance generalising narratives of “African homophobia” by examining the histories and cultures of gender and sexual diversity in Africa, and by foregrounding the agency of LGBTQ+ communities. As part of this field, several collections of LGBTQ+ life stories have been published, from countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and Nigeria. This book builds on this strategy of life-story telling as a critical method, but also expands it by engaging with the stories from Scripture and facilitating a creative and empowering dialogue between the two. It is the first book that reclaims the Bible as a resource for African queer experience, and as such makes a very original contribution to queer African studies, as well as to African biblical studies.
What do you think the future of Queer Studies is in Africa? Do you think it’s a growing field? Is it becoming more acceptable to the general population? How does acceptance vary across the continent?
Arguably, queer studies is a very contested terrain in many African countries. Academically speaking, it tends to feature more prominently at African Studies conferences in the USA or the UK than in Africa (apart from in South Africa). However, things have begun to change, with more and more African scholars actively contributing to the development of the field. More generally, questions around LGBTQ+ rights continue to be controversial, but with developments going in different directions. Several countries – Angola being the latest one – have decriminalised homosexuality in recent years, while others – most recently Ghana – are trying to pass new anti-gay laws. So, it is difficult to generalise, but obviously a lot of work needs to be done to increase the levels of acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, and of respect for LGBTQ+ people.
The life stories that you relate are those of Ugandan refugees in Kenya. Describe how the two states differ in their views on and treatment of the LGBT+ community.
Uganda became a pariah in the international community with its Anti-Homosexuality Bill that was first tabled in 2009 and that passed through parliament in 2013. Although only short-lived, this Bill stimulated socio-political homophobia and made many LGBTQ+ Ugandans feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own country. As a result, many of them fled to neighbouring Kenya, hoping to be resettled in other countries in the global North through the United Nations’ refugee agency. Although Kenya did not pass an anti-gay bill such as Uganda, it still has the colonial anti-sodomy laws in place, meaning that same-sex activity is officially prohibited. There is a strong LGBTQ+ movement in Kenya, advocating for the rights of sexual minorities and for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. But the Ugandan refugees find themselves in a precarious position, as they suffer from double marginalisation, on the basis of their sexuality and their refugee status.
The life stories that make up the first part of your book are extraordinary and immensely important to share, thank you for bringing them to light. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
In an introductory video to promote the drama films produced as part of our project, Raymond stated: “We want our family and friends back in Uganda to see this film. And also the pastors and politicians who fuel the hatred against us. People across the world should see the film. Because everyone should know that we are neither sinners nor victims. We are human and we celebrate our stories.”
For the same reasons, we hope that many people will read the Sacred Queer Stories book!
ADRIAAN VAN KLINKEN, JOHANNA STIEBERT, SEBYALA BRIAN & FREDRICK HUDSON
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Adriaan van Klinken is Professor of Religion and African Studies, University of Leeds and Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and of the Centre for Religion and Public Life.
Johanna Stiebert is Professor of Hebrew Bible, University of Leeds and Deputy Head of School (School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science).
Sebyala Brian is co-founder of The Nature Network, the first LGBTIQ refugee organization in Nairobi. Sebyala is Coordinator, with overall management of the organisation.
Fredrick Hudson is co-founder of The Nature Network, the first LGBTIQ refugee organization in Nairobi. Frederick is responsible for communications and media strategy. He is also a Research assistant on a project headed by the University of Leeds.