NEKESSA - SEPTEMBER 24TH, 2019
Nekessa: I think one of the first conversations we ever had, I don’t know if you remember, was around the American definition of Queerness and the ways people present. Because there are parts of it I actually don’t understand in terms of like defining what Queerness is. How much of nonconforming is Queerness or is it like being suppressive or all that sort of thing? But yeah, I remember this conversation we had. Nancy: Well, thank you for sitting with me and sharing your story. So, my first question is just establishing who am I sitting across from? Tell me your name, where you’re from, and what brought you to the West? Nekessa: I’m Nekessa Opti. I moved to Minnesota to the U.S., early 2000 and I came here for college. I had family that had also moved here in the 80s for college, but I basically came to the U.S. for higher ED, and then have stayed since.
Nancy: And, did you just say what caused or what drove your family away? Nekessa: No, nothing drove my family away. So, I grew up in Kenya in a city by Lake Victoria called Kisumu. I was born in Nairobi, which is the capital of Kenya. And grew up in a very educated, elite family that always wanted my siblings, I and cousins to have. You know, formal education. And so I applied to a lot of colleges in the U.S. and in the U.K. and I got admitted to a couple of colleges in the U.S. and that’s how I ended up here. So, I came alone and my siblings are also all over the world. One of them [who] is here also came here for college, and then the others went to college in other parts of the world. Nancy: And have you returned? Nekessa: Back home? No, I have not actually. The last time I was home was twice: one for my mother’s funeral, and then one time after that, and of course it became really difficult for me to go back after my mom had passed on. She was an only parent to my siblings and I. And at the time when she passed away, all of us were college-aged and moving around to go to college. So, home really changed for me and what home was because she wasn’t there anymore. And so I fell into depression around that time and lost my student status and have been undocumented since. And I have thought about going back home, but I don’t know. Yeah. Nancy: Well, I just want to hold that, what you just shared, acknowledging that loss drove you away from home. And that’s like really heavy and I’m just taking a pause for that. Nekessa: Thank you.
"MY FAMILY HAS REALLY MY HOME, LIKE VERY CENTERED AROUND NOT EVEN NECESSARILY THE GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION OF WHERE I GREW UP, BUT THE MEMORIES."
Nancy: So prior to your mom passing, how did you define home?
Nekessa: Yeah. Home was always where my family was, where my siblings were. It was always. So, I grew up right outside Lake Victoria. Like about half an hour’s drive from the literal crossing of the invisible equatorial line. So, you know, I share that to say it was our little paradise, you know, perfect weather. 80 to 100 degrees. I know that’s not perfect for a lot of people, but I love the heat. So, 80 to 100 degree weather; right by the lake, trees. And I always, even when I was home sick when I was in college, I would always remember that that was home. My mom and my siblings would write me letters or call and talk to me about what things were going on back home. So my family was really my home, like very centered around, not even necessarily the geographical location of where I grew up, but the memories. And we were a very tight knit family. We continue to be separated by borders now but my best friends are my siblings. You know, my best friend was my mom. We did a lot together, like a lot. We traveled as a pack.
Nancy: You mentioned — I love that you mentioned borders and how that can change our definitions of home. Describe what a world without borders would be like for a person like you.
Nekessa: Wow. That’s a profound question. And I actually think about this a lot. I always say that my family has been disrupted by borders for generations. My one side of the family is second-generation Indian from the Indian subcontinent and were brought to East Africa as indentured servants. And so they worked across the railway line in East Africa when it wasn’t at all even defined as we know, it was called the East African Protectorate.
And so as soon as the nation-states were developed, the families became separated because of having to move from one country and the other. In the late 70s, some of the political upheaval that was happening in Uganda, for example, resulted in my Indian grandfather being imprisoned because Idi Amin kicked out all the Indians out of Uganda. And so a lot of my Indian side of the family fled and applied for asylum. Many of them live in Canada now and the U.K. because those are the countries that are giving asylum to East African Indians. And then another subset of the family moved to Kenya because it was safer.
So my family on that side of the family has always been interrupted by borders. On my other side of the family, similarly, they are also historically from the Kenya-Uganda border, and also separated by that border. Again, once those borders were built and other things that come up with the nation-state is loss of land. People have to move farther away from wherever is their ancestral home. It’s interesting then that my siblings and I also ended up crossing borders and moving to the places that we have ended up settling in. So, to your question about what does living across borders mean — for me, it’s a very complex question, and I think the number one thing is freedom to move.
And freedom to be with family as you define it. Also recognizing that people have a right to live without oppressing others, right? To move as freely as they want to. If I want to live on one side of the Kenya-Uganda border, I should have the right to live and work there. And we know that the complex parts is then what happens to indigenous peoples? How we respect the lands that we’re moving into? How we’re living in community with people. How are we building new community while respecting the legacy of folks who’ve come before us? Not in an artificial way, but like really thinking about what our responsibilities to the earth are, collectively? I think about that stuff a lot because for a long time, even as a child, I always felt like I didn’t have an identity because I existed in all these different ways of being. And then I come to the [United] States and it’s also turned upside-down because now I have a new identity that I didn’t have before as a black immigrant in a white country, white majority country, rediscovering myself.
And so I think a lot of this has to be done, this border-identity. Like, when people ask me where I’m from, I never say I’m Kenyan. I always say I’m from Kenya, or I grew up in Kenya, or something like that because I don’t even know what it means to have a Kenyan identity. I know cultural aspects because I grew up there. I went to school there, and there’s cultural markers that you have. You know, you watch TV so you develop certain things. There’s fashion, there’s all that stuff. But if you ask me to the core, what does it mean to be Kenyan? I don’t know what that answer is. Just as if someone asks me what does it mean to be American? I don’t know what that answer is either, but I know who I am and I know how I move around the world.
"BUT IF YOU ASK ME TO THE CORE, WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE KENYAN? I DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT ANSWER IS. JUST AS IF SOMEONE ASKS ME WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE AMERICAN? I DON'T KNOW WHAT THAT ANSWER IS EITHER, BUT I KNOW WHO I AM AND I KNOW HOW I MOVE AROUND THE WORLD."
Nancy: Well, you’re doing my work for me! You’re leading me to my next question, which is, how do you identify? Describe all the things that would describe you.
Nekessa: Whew. So, I think identity, of course, it’s fluid, right? And it’s also — what is the word? Within context, right? It’s like locational. But in brief, I would say for purposes of this discussion, I am a Black immigrant, Queer Black woman. And I think those are my top identities and then everything else just depends. I take very seriously my relationship with my siblings. I’m a big sister to them. I’m also a big sister to a lot of like, Queer African kids here in the [Twin] Cities.
I’m almost 40. I’m a young auntie. I think I’ve been an auntie since I was in my late 20s. So yeah, I think those are the ways I would define myself. In how I exist, I’m a writer. I don’t really consider myself an organizer, but I’ve been teasing around what that means. What does it mean to be an organizer? A lot of the work that I did in the past was sharing off information around media and journalism. And now it’s around sharing information or rather telling stories and uplifting stories of immigrants.
"WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE BLACK IN AMERICA AND TO BE DEHUMANIZED AND TO FACE ANTI BLACKNESS AND RACISM? AND THEN ON THE OTHER HAND, EVEN HOMOPHOBIA, RIGHT? BECAUSE THE ASSUMPTION IS PARADISE. THERE'S NO HOMOPHOBIA HERE."
Nancy: So, you spoke about what brought you and your family outside of Kenya, outside of home, or how you would consider home. What has kept you here [in the West]?
Nekessa: The thing that kept me here was simply me going, putting one foot in front of the other because of my depression. This was what I knew. I had friends from college, I had a community of people, and then the longer I stayed here, the more work I did. More friendships I created. I had an even larger family of people. Being very connected to people has kept me here and it’s also part of my survival. Like those relationships are what have sustained me and kept me. And I have toyed and teased with the idea of going back home. I think one of the questions that I grappled with is, what does it mean to be Black in America and to be dehumanized and to face anti blackness and racism? And then on the other hand, even homophobia, right? Because the assumption is paradise. There’s no homophobia here. And then on the flip side is going back home, being in community, you know, being by the Lake, soaking up the sun, eating mangoes. There’s all that. And then there’s also the reality that it is dangerous for Queer people in a very physical way.
Not to deny that Queer activists back home are fighting like really amazing, inspiring battles and have created safe spaces for where they can exist and to be Queer. And that reality terrifies me, that I can never be able to be fully out. Which, in some weird ways, also impacts me being out here. Because in the event that I’m deported, I don’t want this to be the story that, ‘Oh, she’s gay. Right?’So it’s like a balance of either way, I’m not living my complete true self, because of the fear. And it’s like sometimes I also think it’s a false sense of safety, right? The Minnesota State government could not ban conversion therapy. The bill did not pass, so it is still legal. Because the Republicans could not. It’s actually a fascinating story and fascinating in the sense that’s a reality here in Minnesota, right?
There are conversion therapy camps and we have them back home too. They look different. Right? But they exist. So there’s ways in which you’re reminded that you don’t exist or you don’t deserve to exist.
"THERE'S WAYS IN WHICH YOU'RE REMINDED THAT YOU DON'T ECIST OR YOU DON'T DESERVE TO EXISTS."
Nancy: Yeah. So I really like how you are identifying and naming [that] borders can change who you are the moment you cross them. So, just purely by definition, our identities are fluid. But I also really love the comparison, like this false sense of security in the West, you know, keeping you away from harm back home where I feel like [we] are more exposed or maybe more vulnerable to these systems, or these things that dehumanize you or don’t allow you to be your full self. You know, can you just talk a little bit about the factors or the systems or the elements that drive people away from their homes? Like, what makes [Queer/trans folks] not feel completely safe to be their full selves? That’s a very, very large question…
Nekessa: As you were talking, one of the things I had wanted to mention earlier that I didn’t was in terms of thinking of myself as a Black woman in America and this false sense of safety. So, there’s ways in which we think American women are more empowered and have access to a lot of all this stuff. And in some ways, parts of that is true, right? And in some ways, it’s also not true. I remember like one of the most terrifying moments was when Sandra Bland was killed by cops. Even though I know it, I know that Black women are victims of police brutality and do die at the hands of police, this showed something in a very real way. Sandra Bland was me and she was also many Black women that I know who feel, if you ask one too many questions, that you’re invading their space or their privacy, and will push back, either stop you or ask you not to. We get punished for being outspoken. We get punished for being the angry Black woman. So, of course there is the fatal results that ends in you having loss of life. And then there are other things that mean you not having jobs or you’re not getting a promotion or you not having friends. All those sorts of things. That your being as a Black woman is scrutinized and permanently being clawed on. And so when I think about my mother raising us, the sort of stories that she’d tell us, you know, where people would question her and ask her where her husband was, or if she went to a PTA meeting, they would not take her seriously because [they’d ask] where’s the man?
"SANDRA BLAND WAS ME AND SHE WAS ALSO MANY BLACK WOMEN THAT I KNOW WHO FEEL, IF YOU ASK ONE TOO MANY QUESTIONS, THAT YOU'RE INVADING THEIR SPACE OR THEIR PRIVACY, AND WILL PUSH BACK, EITHER STOP YOU OR ASK YOU NOT TO. WE GET PUNISHED FOR BEING OUT SPOKEN. WE GET PUNISHED FOR BEING THAT ANGRY BLACK WOMAN."
Nekessa: And so like I grew up knowing all of this, but I also grew up in a household where all of us siblings were treated the same. I don’t want to say equally because there’s also patriarchy that will always exist within and outside of the home. And the way kids embodied that is also a reflection of society.
So anyway, I say all this to say that I think there’s this, again, same thing with the falseness of what America promises and that it does not deliver, even for us when immigrants are the idea. So I’ll tell you, there’s a guy I know who heard one of Obama’s speeches when he was in, well, I wont say what country, but a West African country, and he heard one of Obama’s speeches.
Obama was saying ‘this is a nation of immigrants’. And basically the American exceptionalism speech that he was very good at giving. And so this guy hears this, and him and a group of friends, of gay West African men, decided they’re going to make it to America before Obama gets out of office because they believed that they could live freely as gay men in the U.S. You know, they fly into Central America and then they trek and they turn themselves in at the [U.S.] border. And every single one of them is arrested and put in detention for minimum 2 years, but some of them over 2 years. Some of them are still in there and some of them are out. So you think about this, right?
I have actually [heard] a lot of that kind of story of Queer Black immigrants who have come to the U.S. to flee persecution for being gay in their home country and to arrive the U.S. and be treated as a man, Black man. So, you can imagine the reality for this guy. And there’s another one who is even younger who says that he never imagined that this is what America would be. He thought he would be coming to a place where he would be free.
"THAT KIND OF STORY OF QUEER BALCK IMMIGRANTS WHO HAVE COME TO THE U.S. TO FLEE PERSECUTION FOR BEING GOY IN THEIR HOME COUNTRY AND TO ARRIVE THE U.S. AND BE TREATED AS A MAN, BLACK MAN."
Nekessa: He had more freedom as a persecuted gay man in his home country than he did in the U.S. because in the U.S, he was locked up: could not move, could not make phone calls, did not know anyone, did not know who to call, where to get help. Several of these guys have tried to file their cases for themselves, only for the judges to throw them out for ICE to “lose their” papers, in quote. And so like very much a reminder of this country is actually not free, right? The freedoms that we say that this country is, is not a reality. And the reality for Trans immigrants as well is also that they put them in isolation. So it’s an another from of layered imprisonment and incarceration because they’re completely cut off from all human contacts for their “protection", In quotes, again, that ICE says. And so to your question of what drives people away from home? A lot of people are not making the choice to come to a country so that they can face, say, anti-blackness or racism. They really are moving because they believe that they’re moving to a better life. They believe that this is offering them and their family something different that they can dream, that they can go to school, that they can have children, they can have families, or not have families.
"A LOT OF POEPLE ARE NOT MAKING THE CHOICE OT COME TO A COUNTRY SO THAT THEY CAN FACE, SAY, ANTI-BLACKNESS OR RACISM. THEY REALLY ARE MOVING BECAUSE THEY BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE MOVING TO A BETTER LIFE. THEY BELIEVE THAT THIS IS OFFERING THEM AND THEIR FAMILY SOMETHING DIFFERENT THAT THEY CAN DREAM, THAT THEY CAN GO TO SCHOOL, THAT THEY CAN HAVE CHILDREN, THEY CAN HAVE FAMILIES OR NOT HAVE FAMILIES."
Nekessa: All those promises. And then there are some people who literally are making a choice. There’s a woman who said to me that a couple of her friends were killed because they were gay. So she ran, she hid from city to city in her country. And she says to me that she comes to the U.S. and she’s “saved”, in quotes, by one of these international gay human rights organization that’s run by white people. She says she has never felt that dehumanized. I was like, ‘yo, you just told me you ran for your life.’ She said, ‘yes, because they saw me. They saw my humanity. That’s why they wanted to kill me, and they were chasing me.’ And there’s nothing more invisiblizing than sitting in front of a room of people and they don’t see you, or they don’t hear you or your voice doesn’t matter to them. Right. And this is the experience that she’s had as a Queer African woman who fled, applied for asylum, actually has physical scars because of the brutality she faced as a Queer woman — as specifically as a lesbian. And in America, she doesn’t feel seen at all and humanity is completely erased.
Those are the realities. All these people, myself included, were not making choices that is better than another. This is basically what our card has dealt us, and here we are.
"AND THERE'S NOTHING MORE INVISIBILIZING THAN SITTIN GIN FRONT OF A ROOM OF PEOPLE AND THEY DON'T SEE YOU, OR THEY DON'T HEAR YOU OR YOUR VOICE DOESN'T MATTER TO THEM."
Nancy: Thank you for that. So, I want to further clarify and go a little further than that. US -involved conflict in these countries that people are fleeing from, how ironic it is people are fleeing from a country that’s all they’ve known and they’re not leaving because this is their “plan” as in, ordained for them. So, they come here, but they’re facing more systems and more systemic oppression. The feeling of being displaced, the feeling of feeling stateless. It’s being perpetuated by this country who promotes this false concept of freedom and democracy around the world…
Nekessa: What a joke. American democracy? I do think, I mean, this is like a college dissertation and several years worth of work that so many people have articulated much better than we can in this short interview. I think for Queer Black immigrants, specifically Africans, I think this shows up in three ways: one is, the U.S. conflict in really physical terms — whether it’s war and their involvement in the different countries. So that’s one example. Then the other one is anti-LGBT laws around the continent that have specifically been introduced by American white evangelicals. So you see the countries that have the worst experiences for Queer folks are the countries where this legislation had been introduced.
"THE U.S. CONFLICT IN REALLY PHYSICAL TERMS - WHETHER ITS WAR AND THEIR INVOLVEMENT IN THE DIFFERENT COUNTRIES. ANTI-LGBT LAWS AROUND THE CONTINENT THAT HAVE SPECIFICALLY BEEN INTRODUCED BY AMERICAN WHITE EVANGELICALS. SO YOU SEE THE COUNTRIES THAT HAVE THE WORST EXPERIENCES FOR QUEER FOLKS ARE THE COUNTRIES WHERE THIS LEGISLATION HAD BEEN INTRODUCED."
Nekessa: And this is also not to say that we are not homophobic as Africans, because that is a thing that exists. But, the institutionalizing of anti-Queerness is a very Western concept, the putting it into law. And saying, for example, if you’re in a same-sex relationship, you will be sentenced to death. Your family with the awareness of it will be sentenced to death. All these are things that never existed. In fact, many of them didn’t exist until the last 20 years. And so that’s very direct involvement.
Again to say, I mentioned this, other Queer activists on the continent are really doing phenomenal work because every single one of these countries has people protesting and fighting that legislation, suing their governments going all the way to the Supreme courts. Also protesting in the workplace, in the home, and other ways of showing up challenging these laws.
Then the third thing is the climate change crisis is pushing people away from homes. So even if you’re a Queer migrant who’s come to the [United] States as a refugee because your home country doesn’t have water, or land has been taken with all these international conglomerates. The multinational food production that’s pushing indigenous people away from their land. And creating, again, more conflicts in those areas. Oil, our cell phones, all that stuff. Queer people are part of those groups of people that are being displaced and marginalized. So the initial move away from home, may not be because they were Queer.
"CLIMATE CHANCE CRISIS IS PUSHING PEOPLE AWAY FROM HOMES. SO EVEN IF YOU'RE A QUEER MIGRANT WHO'S COME TO THE (UNITED) STATES AS A REFUGEE BECAUSE YOUR HOME COUNTRY DOENS'T HAVE WATER, OR LAND HAS BEEN TAKE WITH ALL THESE INTERNATIONAL CONGLOMERATES. THE MULTINATIONAL FOOD PRODUCTION THAT'S PUSHING INDIGENOUS PEOPLE AWAY FROM THEIR LAND. AND CREATING, AGAIN, MORE CONFLICTS IN THOSE AREAS. OIL, OUR CELL PHONES, ALL THAT STUFF. QUEER PEOPLE ARE PART OF THOSE GROUPS OF PEOPLE THAT ARE BEING DISPLACED AND MARGINALIZED. SO THE INITIAL MOVE AWAY FROM HOME, MAY NOT BE BECAUSE THEY WERE QUEER."