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Kenyan writer hopes to boost gay rights with bold coming out

28 January 2014, 08:20

Nairobi - With hair dyed red and blue and shaved into a mohican, leading Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina is no stranger to making a powerful statement.

But his public announcement earlier this month that he is gay is perhaps his strongest yet, sparking huge debate and posing an open challenge to draconian anti-homosexual legislation on the continent.

"So as far as the emotional side was concerned, I did that a long time ago, this is more a political act," Wainaina told AFP in an interview at his home on the leafy outskirts of Nairobi.

The timing of his announcement, in a short story published online and entitled "I am a Homosexual, Mum", was prompted in part by the passing of a controversial anti-gay law in Nigeria, a country he admires and considers his second home, the influential literary figure said.

"There is a time something has bothered you enough that it sparks your creative imagination," he said.

"A lot of people in my writer circle, my close friends, my family knew quite explicitly quite a while back -- I am not very good at complicated secrets."

'A beautiful continent'

Discrimination against gays is rife on the continent and homosexuality is outlawed in most African countries, including in Kenya, although arrests there are rare.

In neighbouring Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni recently refused to approve a divisive bill that would have seen homosexuals jailed for life. But the president has also suggested that homosexuality is caused by a genetic flaw, or a need to make money.

And under a new law adopted in Nigeria this month, same-sex couples who live together or attempt to solemnize their union with a ceremony can be punished with 14 years in prison.

"There is no country in the world with the diversity, confidence and talent and black pride like Nigeria," Wainaina said, adding that the "anti-gay marriage law shames us all".

Wainaina, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 and is a founder of the Nairobi-based literary network Kwani, attributes homophobic attitudes in Africa to the influence of the Pentecostal churches, imported from the south of the United States.

Aside from wanting to challenge these attitudes, his coming out was also a question of maturity, said the writer who turned 43 on January 18.

"People reach an age... where somebody else's platform is no longer yours," he said, referring to the conservative values of his parents' generation.

On his welcoming, plant-filled terrace, Wainaina cuts a resplendent figure in a colourful tunic embellished with sequins, appearing at ease with his new status as one of Africa's most high-profile openly gay men.

He lights up a cigarette and talks of his favourite authors, citing notably Ghana's Kojo Laing, Poland's Bruno Schulz and Nigeria's A.Igoni Barrett.

His own acclaimed memoirs, "One Day I will Write about this Place", appeared in 2011, but failed to mention his sexuality.

His new bombshell short story is imagined as a lost chapter of the book, and is addressed to his late mother.

"I, Binyavanga Wainaina, quite honestly swear I have known I am a homosexual since I was five," he wrote.

"Nobody, nobody, ever in my life has heard this. Never, mum. I did not trust you, mum. And. I. Pulled air hard and balled it down into my navel, and let it out slow and firm, clean and without bumps out of my mouth, loud and clear over a shoulder, into her ear.

'I am a homosexual, mum'."

Wainaina has been flooded with messages of support since outing himself, though he has also come in for strong criticism on some social media sites across the continent.

"Ten million thank yous to the thousands of Africans and others who have given all kinds of public love, support," Wainaina said in a message on Twitter. "We live in a beautiful continent."

He told AFP on Monday however that he was not "looking for universal approval".

"I'm looking for traction," he said. "I want to be fighting for a society accountable towards its citizens".



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