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The Brink

The Colonial Christian Kernel of African Anti-LGBT+ Politics and Queer Humanitarianism: Conversation with Kwame E. Otu

“We should think of queer humanitarianism as a theological project. It suffers from a messianic complex.”

This interview serves as the introduction to the new issue of Political Theology 24_8. The issue also includes an expanded round robin book symposium on “Religion, State, and Sovereignty” edited by Noah Salomon, a long review essay of Eugene Rogers’s Blood Theology by Karmen MacKendrick, and book reviews of Devan Stahl’s Disability’s Challenge to Theology: Genes, Eugenics, and the Metaphysics of Modern Medicine and Michelle Chaplin Sanchez’s Calvin and the Eesignification of the World: Creation, Incarnation, and the Problem of Political Theology in the 1559 Institutes.

Adriaan van Klinken: It is wonderful, Kwame, to have this opportunity to talk about your book, Amphibious Subjects. How did the book come about?

Kwame Edwin Otu: The book’s journey has been very long and winding. Back in 2009 at Syracuse University, I took a class called Culture and AIDS, which provided a global perspective on the HIV pandemic. Throughout every part of the world–Asia, Latin America, North America–it was acknowledged that HIV was partly spread through same-sex relationships. However, when we finally got to Africa, there was no mention of the fact that HIV and AIDS affected people other than heterosexuals.

As a queer African myself, I asked: why have queer Africans been omitted from this epidemiological narrative? I wrote a paper on that question, trying to understand the historical context that produced this narrative that overlooked the figure of the effeminate man I knew from Ghana. So, these early moments are the womb where what became Amphibious Subjects was conceived.

Adriaan van Klinken: Thanks for sharing that. You refer to this figure of the effeminate man with a word from the local vernacular, sasso. Can you tell us something about who sasso are?

Kwame Edwin Otu: Sasso is a constellation of so many things. Etymologically, sasso means coequal. It is the Ga and Akan languages, it means co-equality. Sasso is intended to be a signifier that amplifies sameness in terms of where one is in relation to others and with whom one shares this kind of communion within the social hierarchy.

The men I studied managed to capitalize on this term to describe themselves and the community of which they are apart. They use sasso to mean so many things. For example, we are all sasso because we share effeminate characteristics; that is what makes us coequal. But, sasso could also mean engaging in homoerotic encounters. In that usage, one is considered part of the sasso community not because of exhibiting effeminate characteristics, but because of engaging in homoeroticism.

These multiple meanings is what makes sasso a constellation. This constellation sometimes gets flattened by LGBT+ human right interventions and by the deployment of LGBT+ plus vernacular in Ghana.

Adriaan van Klinken
How does the terminology of sasso relate to Western LGBT+ terminology?

Kwame Edwin Otu: Sasso is very provincial; it is a Ghanaian term. But in a world that is becoming very globalized, the LGBT+ train rides on the rails of globalization. Thus, there is a desire for sasso to embark on this global train, precisely because of the very complicated neoliberal and neocolonial context in which they live. Most self-identified effeminate men jump on this global train; however, the men who are masculine looking and straight acting do not, because they are still within this cultural threshold that marks them as men. They might be sasso, but will not identify as LGBT+.

In African contexts, sexuality and intimacy all occur in a lattice work of secrecy. We all know who is getting fucked by who, who is doing the fucking, and who is taking the fucking, but it is a public secret. We really do not care about the entrails of what you do. But there is something about the LGBT+ nomenclature that transitions this public secrecy into public knowledge. To subscribe to LGBT+ iconography is to act it out, to reveal that slice of knowledge that everyone knew as a secret. In that light, when Africans say that homosexuality is un-African, this could be seen as a code. Such allusions should not be completely dismissed as African ignorance. In fact, they preserve what I refer to here as the public secret.

Adriaan van Klinken: Interesting! If Western LGBT+ organizations would ask you for advice about their role, their responsibility, their interventions in Africa with regard to sexual minority rights, what advice would you give them?

Kwame Edwin Otu: The first problem is their assumption that they can make an intervention in and of itself. Such assumptions are deeply rooted in colonial biases. We need to think about how coloniality informs the desire to participate in what I call the “politics of rescue.” Because the politics of rescue is a perpetuation of the very oppressive system that created the conditions in which the men I study live in in the first place.

The assumption that you can go there to stop the Ugandan government from passing the Anti-Homosexuality Bill is predicated on this longue durée of colonial fracas that has produced the bill.

We focus so much on the queer issues at the expense of other issues that also confront queer subjects in these postcolonial contexts. Some of these queer subjects are made vulnerable by projects of neoliberal provocations or neoliberal sources that rob from them their access to a good life. Of course, I know that their quality of life is affected by homophobia, but we need to think of the context in which these things are happening. These are scarred, traumatized contexts.

There really is a lack of critical intersectionality in how we think about the queer problem in Africa. We only focus on queerness, and in doing so, elide the fact that the problem of homophobia is also a problem of knowledge, a problem of poverty, a problem of ethnic divisions, a problem of neoliberal and neo-colonial collusion. We fail to take all these factors into account as we tailor our responses to these African countries passing anti-LGBT laws.

Adriaan van Klinken: A question about the title of your book, Amphibious Subjects. Where does it come from, and how do you use it to conceptualize queer lives?

Kwame Edwin Otu: The term comes from Kwame Gyeke, the Ghanaian philosopher whose intervention really inspired amphibious subjectivity. In his work, he struggled with the question how Africans have been conceived in Western imaginary as communalistic communities. Gyeke’s point is that as important as community is, there are moments and spaces for agency. This is how the adinkra symbol ended up on the back of the book–it is the symbol of the Siamese crocodile, which has two heads and one stomach. The two heads signify individuality. The conjoined belly signifies community. The two heads struggle over food that goes into that one belly. So, community needs this kind of friction. We are community because of difference, not because of sameness. That template was useful to think about the ways in which sasso position themselves within and against their communities, especially with the arrival of LGBT+ human rights interventions.

I argue that they were navigating these contexts amphibiously. On the one hand, they retained their sasso identity, which preserved or kept their homoeroticism as secret. Whereby on the other hand, they had to participate in this neoliberal intervention as a way of being part of this global queer community, even though such participation risks their lives by exposing them to homophobia. This amphibious moving back and forth between LGBT+ human rights organizations and their own communities, is just like the two heads; it is like the amphibian moving back and forth between land and water. That is what compelled me to theorize sasso existence as amphibious.

Adriaan van Klinken: One of your interlocutors states: “I have never for the love of God, understood why Ghanaian Christians are terrified by LGBTQ+ issues” (p. 123). How has Christianity become so invested in anti-LGBT+ politics?

Kwame Edwin Otu: This project made me think about the ways in which Christian theology is understood in the African context, and especially in the context suffused with anxieties around sexuality. These anxieties themselves are products of historical anxieties. What we are calling Christianity in Ghana is also a part or even a result of that. Theology is this archive. It reveals in many ways how society is adapting to it and how it is also adapting to society. I would like to think about this core shaping that is happening. So, I am intrigued by the ways in which Christian discourse at the turn of the century sometimes gets mobilized to discipline African subjects into modern subjects, through the theological claim that inhabiting this religion is going to propel you into modernity. I try to unpack the ways in which that lie has been translated and mistranslated and has become a kind of truth.

In the mid-60s, to become Ghanaian meant to become Christian; to participate in this post-independent modernity, one had to actually abdicate any connection to, for example, polygamy. That was what indexed you as a citizen. A lot of people believe being Christian is what makes them modern.

Interestingly, I think that queer humanitarianism operates on a somewhat similar logic. We should think of queer humanitarianism as a theological project. Theology, in my understanding, is really about how we can live with each other in the world, coexist peacefully, subscribing, if you will to, dictates that reside in the realm of the religious. And queer humanitarianism comes from that tradition, too. Humanitarianism is not secular. It is theological. It suffers from a messianic complex. At the very root of everything is Christianity.

Adriaan van Klinken: So, there is this longstanding project of Euro-colonial Christianity in Ghana that imposes a particular form of sexual politics. But what about the changes in Ghanaian Christianity in recent decades, with the emergence of new Christian evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal movements?

Kwame Edwin Otu: We need to be very critical of how we talk about change. Christianity has changed to take on African forms, imbued with certain African traditional religious styles, but the kernel is still there. The kernel is the Bible, but also that historical basis. Many queer people may think, oh, we are no longer Christian. But then the kernel is still there, the kernel of this messianic rescue. It promotes the idea that you are the savior. We have to look at the kernel, which amplifies the unimagined connections between the Christian moderns and the queer moderns. African Christians say, “We are no longer like the Western Christians.” Then, the queer humanitarians are like, “Oh, we are not like the Christians.” They are both making the same claims. Ironically, they make these claims while following a deeply Christian logic, which is what binds them.

Adriaan van Klinken: Many of the sasso featured in your book identify as Christian, go to church, read the Bible, believe in God, etcetera. Which raises the question, how is or can Christianity be part of queer self-making in Ghana, and in Africa more generally?

Kwame Edwin Otu: Absolutely. Christianity is part of African self-making. In that respect, I can see that also happening for queer Christians. If Africans at the turn of the century were very adamant and recalcitrant towards Christianity, but then through time became amenable to it, I can see that also happening for queer African subjects. They can find a home within Christianity; they inhabit Christian faith to make a connection to the world, to the Christian world in which they live. But for me, that is also a little fraught, because there is the risk that those queer Christians join other African Christians to be against, say, queer African Muslims. This is what I call the shapeshifting of our oppression. What are we folding ourselves into? Especially given that Christianity is still a colonial project. What are we willing to fold ourselves into? As much as I do get it, we can queer Christianity, I also think, we have not even queered queerness, and Africanness. So, it is a very complex thing.

Adriaan van Klinken: It has been such a rich conversation. Thank you.

Kwame Edwin Otu: Thank you, hun. This has been such a delight.

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