All through last weekend I have been glued to news from Nairobi. The terrorist outrage at the Westgate Mall particularly got me because I've had personal contact with many Kenyans. First through reporting on the digital revolution there, which is astonishing, then the LGBT(IQ) community. Some are now friends.
For the past few days I have been following reporters like Mike Pflanz and the #Westgate hashtag but also gay friends, especially Denis Nzioka, who is the go to source for queer news from Africa.
After Denis reported that two members of Nairobi's queer community had been murdered in the attack, and that one other was trapped, I tweeted this at several news outlets. On the Monday it was picked up and reported by Gay Star News.
This drew an immediate hostile reaction on social media with people asking whether reporting the sexuality of these victims was relevant or necessary, that it was "bizarre to highlight someone's sexuality in this situation". Another sarcastically noted that "what we all really want to know is were any gay men killed in Nairobi massacre."
Denis' reports had described the two who died as members of Nairobi's "queer community". If this attack had happened in Brighton, England would it be wrong to report that "Brighton's gay community is in mourning", say, if "members" had been similarly murdered?
Now some may scoff at the idea of a 'Brighton gay community', or any 'gay community', let alone a 'LGBTIQ community', and hence wonder why you'd report "members" lost. That's because we're privileged enough to have reached a point where we can be sarcastic about it. Kenyans don't have that luxury.
|Gay Kenyans at a health demonstration|
One of my bugbears in reporting about Africa and gays is that this positive aspect is lost in a sea of horror stories, much as general reporting on Africa is. I saw this up close when I covered an anti-gay riot near Mombasa in 2010 and its aftermath. The riot drew (inaccurate) international headlines, how it was shut down and how both gays and allies worked together to help and then go further to educate drew no international headlines.
The same is true of Uganda, where the growing community and its increased visibility is hardly reported on. All most people would know about is the 'Kill the gays' bill.
When I reported a couple of weeks ago that a number of Russian sources, including a main LGBT organisation, were saying that the latest aspect of the anti-gay tide - a bill to remove children from gay parents - would be stopped and that there was some reason to think the tide could be reversed this was mocked and derided. My reporting was even compared to Holocaust denial.
Anyone with anything positive to say about Russians, even about gay Russians, gets this treatment. Particularly those who question the boycott tactic, opposed by several Russian gay groups. In the case of the gay figure skater Johnny Weir this has led to queer-baiting and fag-bashing with one prominent gay American blogger, John Aravosis, labeling the flamboyant Weir a "freak" and a "quisling". On his blog Aravosis allows commentators to abuse Weir in ways which wouldn't shame a High School jock tormenting a fey teenager.
It is not 'journalism' if places like Kenya, Uganda and Russia are solely presented as hell holes. In fact it does a serious disservice to gay people there.
Our disaster too
Regarding the Westgate Mall disaster and its gay victims - and it is a 'disaster' - gay people have particular needs in disasters which usually are ignored.
The need to take into account gay disaster victims needs is something which relief bodies and governments have become, and need to become, increasingly aware of. This is not just an issue in somewhere like Pakistan, where transgender (hijara) flood victims in 2010-11 were blocked from relief, but also South Florida.
Nzioka reported that he would not name the two queer terrorist victims because they were not out. Even in death Kenyan society requires them to be closeted. The support for the people they've left behind will come from the community which supported them in life.
That community exists and in a disaster like this reporting its existence is one step to demanding that it be respected and equally aided. Yes, we must report that gays exist in disasters because, first, they need to be visible.
Edited to add: Tris Reid-Smith, editor of Gay Star News, sent in this comment:
Just to help explain our news values here... We do not report on 'gay issues' we report on LGBTQI people. Just as a French newspaper would highlight French victims, we have highlighted LGBTQI victims of this tragedy. We are not 'singling out' people – we care equally about everyone – but reporting on our community. The points raised are very good but our approach is pretty much standard for all media in the world, whatever audience they serve. Let's hope the remaining people caught up in this get out safely. Meanwhile our thoughts will be with all the victims, their friends and families.And there's also this angle, pointed out by Owen Barder, Senior Fellow & Europe Director at the Center for Global Development. Development:
@pauloCanning people think it normal to report on victims' nationality and occupation; why not on this aspect of who they are?And Marcus O'Donnell, former Editor of the Sydney Star Observer, noted that:
@pauloCanning I got the same reaction when I did report at sso after 9/11 on reactions from NYC gay communityOn the Tuesday Denis Nzioka tweeted:
@pauloCanning I cannot allow the memories of #KenyaLGBTI to be swept under, even in such a situation as #Westgate. It would be an injustice!On Facebook Nzioka added this point:
It's critical to show that even in such incidents, LGBTIQ persons are also victims and remembering them is one way we can show solidarity with them.Update, October 1: JJ survived. 'In trauma but alive'.