Why one Kenyan writer decided it was time to come out of the closet

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World," a co production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. "I am homosexual, mum." That's the title of a short essay by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. He came out publicly this past week when the essay was published. Kenya is one of several African countries that has recently passed anti-gay laws. Nigeria and Uganda are also on that list. In countless interviews since coming out, Wainaina has been asked a lot about those laws. When I spoke with him, I began by asking what else he'd like to talk about.

Binyavanga Wainaina: You always have the bullet points of the law in Nigeria, the law in Uganda, homophobia in Africa, and so on and so forth. It wasn't something that concerned me a lot. I wrote that story mostly because I love people. It'd be nice to talk a bit about that.

Werman: Let's start there with a person, presumably whom you loved a lot, your mother. In this essay, with what you call a "Lost Chapter" from your memoir, "One Day I Will Write About This Place," you imagine coming out to your mother as she lays dying. That actually never happened, right? Did you ever have a chance to speak to your mother about your sexuality?

Wainaina: No. I didn't get a chance to really see my mom in the last years of her life. I'd been living in South Africa illegally and I almost kind of hiding from my parents a little bit. I even dropped out of school. You never really prepare to lose your mom. You always think that they are eternal, so when it came, it came so suddenly. That opportunity never came.

Werman: So connect that time to the present, the essay. Was that what you wanted to say to her?

Wainaina: Yes, that is what I wanted to say to her. I guess if you lose parents and you're always having these conversations with them, so you're trying to draw pictures in your head of what conversations you're having now. So now, I know she's not happy about my hair, which is blue and red. My mom was a firm person and sometimes a conservative, but she tolerated a lot of the creative wackiness that I always had in a way that always surprised me.

Werman: Now you're having that conversation with the whole world. What's that been like?

Wainaina: It's been a hurricane. It was a shock and continues to be an alluding shock for many. There was a lot of foaming at the mouth and I expect quite a lot more. But it's been incredible.

Werman: Is that what you've seen around you in Kenya? What's the reaction been there?

Wainaina: I'll put it like this. My twitter feed has just been shifting every 2 and a half seconds. Things keep rolling down the screen so fast that I don't know what to post. So you think, "Okay, I'll just get some sleep and then I'll figure it out." There's been some bile, there's been some question, there's been some doubt, there's been some disappointment. "This person who was straight that we looked up to as this writer has betrayed us." But for me of course, the exciting thing is not to just learn in the embrace of love, but to build some traction. How does this begin opening up conversations around not just the rights of LGBT people to love freely on the continent, how to build traction for us to see that as part of a rising continent, something that I'm very committed to.

Werman: Binyavanga, let me just ask you this: given you have this ongoing internal conversation with your late mother, what do you think she would make of your announcement that you are gay?

Wainaina: She'd be in her living room watching TV. My dad would be coming back from golf, waiting for supper. She'd say, "Oh, Kenneth," and then she'd go and pray. Then she would probably call her pastor. My dad would come, she'd look at him, his fists would go stoney. My mom's anger at me would be quiet. I'd kind of wait a couple of days before I called her and she'd say something like, "Sit down."

Werman: Do you think she'd be proud?

Wainaina: I think she would have to come to a journey to being proud. My mother never asked me if I had a girlfriend, right, but she never encouraged me to have a boyfriend. You see what I'm saying? So, there's something that she knew in that innate way that mothers know, and something that she was always fiercely protecting me from. So that question never arose, ever. You're left imagining.

I'm not that kind of psychoanalytical person but there's a certain kind of way of trying to see and imagine the truth and understand one's place in the world. For me, it's important that that piece was written at a moment when I wanted to find a way to feel myself in a place of love in a public domain. Very dangerous things seem to be looming for gays and lesbians in Uganda, but in particular in Nigeria, a country I love and visit a lot.

Werman: Writer Binyavanga Wainaina speaking us from Nirobe. Thank you very much.

Wainaina: Thank you.

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