Navigating queer utopia

A new book presents an empirical challenge to the myth of South Africa as the “pink capital” of Africa and contributes to building an archive of queer, African, and religious narratives.

Pride Johannesburg 2013. Image credit Niko Knigge via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

The book Seeking Sanctuary: Stories of Sexuality, Faith and Migration is a compilation of the stories of fourteen queer African Christians who have migrated to (and within) South Africa. These stories are contextualized within the LGBT Ministry of the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Here, we encounter the narratives of lesbian, gay, and trans-identifying Africans in their own voices. They represent diverse country contexts, including Zimbabwe (Dumisani, D.C., Thomars, Mike, Tino, Toya, Tinashe), Cameroon (Mr. D), Ethiopia (Eeyban), Zambia (Dancio), Nigeria (Sly), Uganda (Angel), South Africa (Zee), and Lesotho (Nkady). The author, John Marnell, is honest about the predominance of gay men’s and Zimbabwean men’s narratives in the book. While this may not be representative of the migrant population in South Africa, it is perhaps reflective of the relative safety and agency available to various groups.

The collection addresses a particularly notable gap on migrants and migration in research on Christianity and sexuality in southern Africa. These narratives have often been sidelined as researchers, including myself, have been more interested in exploring the Christian queer subject who remains at home, within their religious institution or country, despite anti-queer doctrines, policies, and legislation. While these studies have generated important insights into how queer people navigate oppressive or exclusionary contexts, the diverse narratives in Seeking Sanctuary highlight the significance of exploring movement, boundary-crossing, and liminality in religious and queer studies in Africa.

Seeking Sanctuary stands alongside other publications—such as Stories of Our Lives, by the NEST Collective in Kenya, and Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible, by Adriaan van Klinken and Johanna Stiebert with Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson—in building an archive of queer, African, and religious narratives. In Van Klinken’s words, the multiplicity of stories compiled in the book, like its interlocutors, “challenge[s] the overall silence and taboo surrounding homosexuality and sexual diversity in African theology.” Seeking Sanctuary is unique, however, in that it provides an empirical challenge to the myth of South African queer exceptionalism. South Africa is often portrayed as “Africa’s gay capital” because unlike elsewhere in Africa, it enshrines protections on the basis of sexual orientation in its constitution and was the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex unions in 2006. This reputation, however, is proven flimsy at best. The spate of killings of queer people throughout South Africa, which caused public outcry in early 2021, is evidence that this idea is not based on the realities of people’s lives. Similarly, this collection shows the tenuous nature of queer freedoms in South Africa.

The stories in Seeking Sanctuary do not paint a binary picture of contributors’ home countries as oppressive and violent and South Africa as the land of milk and honey. Their narratives are complex and nuanced, with many stories telling us about loving homes and families and idyllic, sometimes even privileged, childhoods. In contrast, many of the contributors experience violence, discrimination, corruption, and liminality in South Africa. There is a longing evident in many of the narratives to leave South Africa, if only their home countries’ laws would change or if only they could be freer about their sexuality with their family or community.

Indeed, South Africa is not a queer utopia. It seems that merely the potential and promise of safety (however limited) that lies within South Africa’s constitutional protections and its political discourse around queer freedoms is enough to convince many migrants to remain within its borders. Class matters: notably, it seems that in large part, those who were already relatively financially privileged in their home country are the ones able to access some of this potential for safety and stability. For many, the prevalence of xenophobia pushes them to seek out security and networks within already established migrant communities in South Africa, yet queerphobia pushes them to find belonging and connection in queer South African communities. This liminality places them in especially vulnerable positions, and there are few examples in any of the contributions that express genuine experiences of sustained belonging, security, and safety.

While not primarily a theological text, Seeking Sanctuary also contributes to the emerging body of scholarship producing ordinary queer theologies in Africa. The book reminds us again, as Black feminists have consistently done, that “stories are data with soul.” The soul within these narratives brings to life the ways in which love, compassion, justice, and charity can be queered. Significantly, we see in the book how these meanings are constructed in relation to the various versions of Christianity in which narrators locate their spiritual formation—versions which include forms of Methodism, Anglicanism, and Pentecostalism, to name a few. Further, because the LGBT Ministry featured in Seeking Sanctuary is within a Catholic congregation, the book also begins to engage with Catholicism in South Africa—a particularly under-researched site. The stories of the ministry’s founders, Father Russell Pollit and Ricus Dullaert, and the current leader of the ministry, Dumisani, combined with the narratives of those who have sought sanctuary in this group, demonstrate the practicalities and challenges that accompany establishing affirming religious spaces.

The stories featured in Seeking Sanctuary are courageous, resistant, critical, insightful, and instructive. This book is an exceptional gift for activists, scholars, and allies who seek to queer their religious homes and/or provide a place of healing and affirmation for others. The migrant narratives featured in Seeking Sanctuary allow readers to empathize with the lived experiences and humanity of those often placed on the margins of South African society in unique ways. This in itself is a worthy contribution, as the stories serve as useful catalysts for dialogue within and between queer Christians, religious institutions, and perhaps political bodies, too. This book carries this potential largely because of the courage of those who tell their stories. The contributors remind us, in their narratives, of how easy it is for them to become targets of violence and persecution, which they experience within their families and communities (born into, found, and created) or at the hands of state officials, public servants, and religious authorities in South Africa and their home countries.

Their stories also highlight the unique and intersecting systems of oppression that shape their everyday lives, including queerphobia, xenophobia, underemployment, and poverty. These structural realities shape contributors’ different pathways to (and also within) South African borders of citizenship and belonging and point to the immense task that remains in realizing the potential of South Africa’s constitutional ideals. Contributors’ expressed hopefulness in relation to their experiences with the LGBT Ministry, also serves as a challenge to religious institutions in South Africa to engage in the possibilities of creating queerer forms of ministry—even when their official theological stances may not be queer affirming. These written stories serve as an illustration of small victories that have been won in religious spaces in Africa and, perhaps more importantly, as a reminder that there are still many stories to be told and much work to be done.

Further Reading