Pride is about visibility, and visibility has a double edge. The Harvey Milk maxim that is at the root of Pride politics — “Gay brothers and sisters, you must come out!” — has been proved, time and again, as the best corrective to the canards that queer people are dangerous or possessed by demons or are foreign agents. But what if it’s forbidden or simply too dangerous to come out? There are, for example, very few Pride events in Africa outside my home country, South Africa. In much the way Eastern European nationalists use the American culture wars playbook to assert their cultural sovereignty against the West, some African nationalists use the sodomy laws inherited from Britain, a former colonizer, to insist that homosexuality is un-African.
And yet, last Sunday, another Pride celebration took place, this one held by L.G.B.T.Q. asylum seekers awaiting confirmation of their refugee status in the vast Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Many of the celebrants have fled their home countries because of a fear of persecution on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, but the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees processes them in a country where homosexuality remains illegal and holds them in camps filled with other refugees who hold the same homophobic or transphobic attitudes prevalent in the environments they fled.
Augustine Kayemba, an asylum seeker who leads the L.G.B.T.Q. community at Kakuma, told me that over 600 people from seven countries attended Pride but that many just passed quickly by his gathering, afraid to linger, for fear of reprisal. “There is not a day that goes by without some news of violence due to hate,” he said. Kayemba told me that last Sunday night, after the Pride celebration, one of his housemates, Oscar Katamba, was severely beaten with pipes by assailants who called him a Kiswahili slur for “homosexual”; he suffered a head wound requiring 10 stitches.
Kayemba offered two reasons for holding Pride in such a hostile environment: to establish community within the camp and to use the event “to tell the wider world about our predicament.” In a letter he wrote to supporters, with photographs of the event, Kayemba said, “Despite all the misery, we try to find some time to kill the stress when celebrating official L.G.B.T.I.Q. days and festivals.”
For Kayemba, Pride is the “official” day not just of a movement but also of a set of values that represents the kind of freedom he can only dream of while waiting at Kakuma. I have written about the disillusionment of L.G.B.T.Q. refugees when they arrive in “liberated” rainbowy Vancouver or Amsterdam or Cape Town: Their poverty or dark skin or Muslim faith makes it hard for them to integrate into L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly Western society the way they had imagined. Even in these places, then, Pride must reconnect with its political roots.
The party, of course, is also important: It is a way of claiming the street. Even at Stonewall in 1969, there was a performative element to the protest. The engagement in Pride by corporations is important, too. In countries like India and Mexico, the diversity and inclusion policies of multinational corporations have created space not just for their employees but also in society more broadly as they or their products become emblems of a cosmopolitan modernity that embraces pluralism and diversity.