Stories of Our Lives does not contain a section titled Suicide.
The book’s seven sections are
Childhood and First Times
Society and the Future
Love, Sex and Everything in Between
Religion and Spirituality
Yet, suicide haunts this book.
I’m trying to find a way to name the ghosts that appeared and threw me off track.
I had completed the first and longest section, Memories, and moved on to Childhood and First Times. Before I moved on, I thought I wanted to write about patriarchy as terrain: many figures in the Memories section could only imagine themselves within heteropatriarchal frames. This writing would not indict those figures. Instead, it would ask how terrains shape the possible.
What kind of queer imaginations are possible in Kenya’s deeply ethnopatriarchal space?
Queer writing has speculated that queers invent and re-invent ways of being together. I learn this lesson from Cherríe Moraga and Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde and Michel Foucault and Assotto Saint and Thomas Glave. Queer lives can be world-remaking.
But I also learn that being two or more men together, being two or more women together, being two or more bisexuals together can also replicate heteropatriarchal norms. We cannot so easily disregard the waters in which we swim. Nor can we forget that being together in different ways requires incredible energy—the patterns around us seduce us to slip into their inevitability.
This is some of what I was going to write. And I couldn’t. And I didn’t.
Instead, I read the Childhood and First Times section. It’s a short section, with about 21 narratives. And it gutted me. I had to stop reading Stories of Our Lives. Not because the narratives hit too close to home—I use clichés purposefully—though some did. Some were familiar. Some I could have told. Others were foreign. Almost all featured examples of banal cruelty, of the ways queer childhoods are rendered unlivable.
As I return to this book and to this section, I’m haunted by the many who did not survive their childhoods.
Here’s some of what’s in the book.
He used to stay in his study because he wasn’t allowed to stay in the dorm. He’d walk to the dining room and people would just spit on him.
My friend and I were the two most effeminate boys in the class. Kids would bully us because we couldn’t play soccer, we didn’t run fast enough, our school bags were too bright, we couldn’t lift as many things, we were too clean, too neat, too organized! Even when being bullied, we were not expected to cry.
We knew how to minimize the damage from being beaten up—hiding your face so there wouldn’t be bruises.
There were a lot of consequences to being labelled a lesbian, I was the Deputy Head Girl but I got demoted after that.
When I was young, I used to go through these seasons when I felt like I was not a human being.
I had a painful childhood; I was always insulted by the other boys because I think they noticed I was different. I didn’t play sports with them, I rarely socialized with them, I always hung out with girls. So I feared going to high school.
Young kids can be so evil to each other. There was a group of four kids who specifically used to really bully me. They made every single day of my primary school life hell. One day, as I was having lunch, they came into the canteen—I used to go and eat lunch later than everybody else so I could avoid being bullied. They came in and found me sitting there, and they dragged me into the bathroom. The leader of that gang started peeing in the urinal and made the other guys bring me over to him. He made me drink his urine. I must have been eight years old, and I was so scared of what they would do to me if I didn’t do it. Even now, when I think about it my heart starts racing because I remember how terrified I was.
Three times I tried to take my life, but it never worked.
How does one listen for the queer children who do not make it? How does one narrate their stories?
Over the past few years, a few well known Kenyan queers have died. Their families and friends, mostly religious in respectable Kenyan ways, have taken back their children. Queer traces have been erased. Heteronormative eulogies have been written. Queers who gather to mourn friends and lovers have been told to respect families and friends. We are erased and erasable.
Sometimes, queers find the strength to gather, the strength to celebrate and remember and mourn those we loved. Sometimes, often, we cannot or we dare not. We become impossible. Many who lived through what they call the plague years in the U.S. are still unable to find the language to describe their losses, our losses.
Let me gather myself.
Eve Sedgwick’s “How to Bring Your Kids up Gay” opens with a meditation on suicide.
the eclipse of the effeminate boy from adult gay discourse would represent more than a damaging theoretical gap; it would represent a node of annihilating homophobic, gynephobic, and pedophobic hatred internalized and made central to gay-affirmative analysis. The effeminate boy would come to function as the open secret of many politicized adult gay men.
In 1991, when Sedgwick’s article was published, the term cis had not yet become a queer vernacular. Trans activists made this possible. We might return to Sedgwick’s essay, having learned from trans activists how to think about the “effeminate boy” and the “boyish girl” as misnomers for a range of gendered, sexed, and sexualized presents and futures. The problem of the queer child—trans, intersexed, lesbian, bisexual, gay—is always how to occupy a present that cannot imagine such a figure.
Futures are not inevitable.
I do not know if any Kenyan families save suicide notes from their queer children. I imagine that in respectable heteropatriarchal Kenya, such notes cannot exist. I imagine, too, that while many queer children can name the cruelties visited on their bodies, their minds, and their spirits, few have the language to name themselves as queer. Even if they did, how could that matter?
Suicide haunts the white space in Stories of Our Lives. It haunts the ellipses. I am not sure how one writes the stories of queer children who do not live to adulthood. I am not sure how one creates space for their erased and erasable stories. I am not sure how to make Kenya more possible for queer and queered children.