Diapers and Other Queer Objects: An Interview with George Paul Meiu

Layering. Image by George Paul Meiu.

This post builds on the research article “Underlayers of Citizenship: Queer Objects, Intimate Exposures, and the Rescue Rush in Kenya” by George Paul Meiu, which was published in the November 2020 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

In this conversation, Juliana Friend invites George Paul Meiu to reflect on technologies of citizenship in Kenya. Meiu’s fieldwork traces discourses about diapers through domains seemingly unrelated to sexual bodies and pleasures. This decentering lends insight into the reification of (homo)sexuality as a politically potent force for establishing and reinforcing the contours of citizenship. Ultimately, Meiu encourages us to expand our understanding of belonging and exclusion by attending closely to objects that, at first glance, may not seem to warrant close attention.

Juliana Friend: You mention that some of your Kenyan interlocutors were skeptical about your choice to research discourses about diapers. Some tried to point your ethnographic attention elsewhere. How did you respond to these reactions? What convinced you that diapers were, to use a term that becomes central to this piece, “multi-layered” objects of analysis?

George Paul Meiu: I remember vividly talking with two public health workers in 2017, in Mtwapa, Kenya. Both men identified as gay. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) for which they worked focused on the town’s so-called MSM, “men who have sex with men.” At that point, I had been encountering for some years references to diapers in everyday rumors, on social media, and in activist art projects. Some of these references derided or decried men and women engaged in “illicit” kinds of sex—especially anal sex—as people who would end up in diapers. Other references were unrelated to sexuality and worked metaphorically to shame those engaged in various deeds deemed uncivil, corrupt, or immoral, as if to say, “if you do wrong things, you are a diaper-wearing adult.” Gay men were the primary targets of such discourses, but so too were sex workers, drug addicts, and others. Something quite important seemed to be at stake in the recurrence of diapers as media for imagining certain bodies as “troublesome.” That day, at the office of the Mtwapa NGO, I told my two interlocutors about this realization and about my plans to look at this object more closely for a while. They began laughing profusely. They were laughing so hard that I started laughing with them. It wasn’t because they hadn’t encountered these rumors until then. In fact, they later shared many such rumors with me. Rather, from their point of view, diapers might not have been a “serious” research topic, especially for a university professor from abroad. Their organization carried out extensive biomedical research on HIV infection rates and patterns of STI transmission among “vulnerable populations,” and here I was planning to spend time understanding . . . what? Rumors about diapers, of all things.

But this is precisely what, to me, makes such “queer objects” fascinating: the expectation that their seeming vulgarity or indecency should disqualify them from being serious objects of research. It is, in part, this expectation that sustains their efficiency as means for disciplining desire. It is important to remember that the reification of any normative framework—say, of intimate citizenship, for example—depends on and is constituted by the things it disavows as shameful, unserious, or perverse. Hence, one might want to ask: What does it mean to take these “unserious” things seriously? And what can such an approach show about new forms of “heteropatriarchal recolonization” (Alexander 2005) and the deployment therein of anti-homosexual discourse and sentiment? To be sure, a sensationalizing focus on objects such as diapers may easily undermine a politics of respectability that seeks to counter older colonial paradigms of racialized sexuality, a risk I take very seriously. So, it is important to experiment with modes of writing and analysis that foreclose such potential Othering effects and sensationalist imaginaries, while attending very seriously to how autochthonous utopias of a national (hetero)sexuality are currently produced. The critical question for me then should not concern that one looks at a particular undignified thing, but how and why one does so. After all, the two public health workers I talked to that day were themselves working hard to educate the local population about MSM issues. So, at the end of our conversation, we agreed that such rumors do require careful attention precisely because they are oppressive. And, along the way, we had also enjoyed a good laugh.

Public health announcement board in Mtwapa. Photo by George Paul Meiu.

JF: Your fascinating article brings to mind Sara Ahmed’s (2006, 107) description of “queer orientations” as “those that don’t line up, which by seeing the world ‘slantwise’ allow other objects to come into view.” What “other objects” came into view over the course of your ethnographic work in Kenya?

GPM: I should mention that this article is part of a larger book project that takes various “queer objects” as alternative points of departure for understanding the historical reconfiguration of intimate citizenship. In particular, I am interested in thinking of new ways to historicize anti-homosexual violence, while troubling racist liberal ideologies of an “African homophobia.” During my research, I noticed something quite striking: that, despite the global proliferation of homophobia as a tactic of ethno-nationalist governance, among other things, the “homosexual threat” that its rhetoric so saliently invokes is often very difficult to pin down or identify in everyday life. And so, to make the homosexual body a more stable target of outrage and violence in the collective imagination, leaders, media, civil society groups, and citizens often deploy a vast set of unlikely objects. Objects such as diapers might appear trivial to the violent politics of homophobia. But, I suggest, they aren’t. Quite the contrary: their poetic deployment in rumor and political rhetoric informs the construction of the homosexual body as a target of repudiation. I call these objects “queer”—drawing on Ahmed (2006)—because they help me decenter homosexuality (and sexuality, more generally) to show how its salience as a fetish of contemporary politics rests upon—co-opts, condenses, and congeals—struggles from other domains of social life. In other words, at particular moments in time, such objects facilitate the displacement of desires, fears, and anxieties over the changing meanings of work, wealth, the body, and kinship, and mobilize them in opposition to, say, the homosexual.

I could, of course, give you a whole list of objects I explore in my book, but, without some explanation for each, that list would not make much sense. So, instead, let me offer just one other example of such queer objects: plastics. I am exploring these kinds of objects in a recent article in American Anthropologist (Meiu 2020). There, I depart from a simple homophobic rant I came across on social media describing homosexuality as “a fatal plastic import from the West” that does not fit “the chemistry of Africans.” I then place this statement in a wider context in which, over the past ten years, the Kenyan state’s attempt to ban plastic bags as an environmental measure has coincided with moral panics over “foreigners”—refugees and migrants—and “foreign” commodities . . . all deemed, in language, as being “of plastic.” People worried, for example, about “plastic rice” imported from China; “plastic boys,” or unemployed men without lineage ties; or, in rural areas, “plastic in the womb,” a new form of infertility with symptoms akin to those of AIDS. Kenya’s “war” on plastic waste, I show, has thus resonated with everyday struggles over bodily health, ethno-regional autochthony, and various possibilities for imagining a future. Making homosexuality akin to plastic condenses these wider social anxieties and makes homosexuality’s repudiation as urgent as the securitization of ethnicity and citizenship or the environmental preservation of an “African nature.”

JF: There is such a rich, longstanding body of anthropological scholarship on secrecy and concealment in Africa. How do you see yourself extending and/or breaking with this body of work?

GPM: That’s a great question and, in hindsight, I wish I had done more in this article with this literature, especially because it can teach us very much about sexuality and governance, past and present. There is very important work, for example, on how, in African contexts, secrecy imbues the sexual with a particular kind of power. This power is less akin to what Foucault (1976) meant by this term and closer to a spiritual concentration of energy—fertility, life force, a certain vital exuberance—that people can mobilize for various purposes. I am thinking here of Audrey Richards’s (1956) classic ethnography on Bemba girl initiation rituals, but also of more recent work on ritual, sex, and secrecy (Beidelman 1997; Heald 1999; Nyanzi et al. 2011; Nzegwu 2011). This literature’s more general point about a vital excess generated through customary modes of concealing (and revealing) the sexual has important implications for a late capitalist context. This is a context when, as many anthropologists have shown, concealment has become somewhat emblematic of widespread modalities of value production—whether “the bluff” (Newell 2012), a “politics of pretense” (Archambault 2017), or a concern with “the underneath of things” (Ferme 2001). This has, if anything, intensified as of late and found expression in new technologies and new forms of commodity consumption and self-making.

But what I am interested in here is less the secret of a veiled intimacy (or even of illicit forms of moneymaking). I am rather interested in the act of the exposure of the secret as such. What I call, in my article, intimate exposures—that is, “performative attempts to unmask signs of social failure hidden beneath the appearance of respectability” (578)—are not just ways of pastime, enjoyment, or amusement. They are also, quite importantly, technologies of citizenship, ways to realign desires with normative imaginaries of intimacy. According to this logic, it is okay for me to expose intimate things from your personal, intimate life for, if what I expose is morally troublesome, my act of exposure becomes an act of good citizenship; through that act I come to see myself recognized as an “exceptional citizen” (Grewal 2017). This is by no means just a Kenyan phenomenon; it is a global political tactic informed by humanitarian rescue and anti-trafficking ideologies. But I think that the literature on secrecy can help us reflect further on that power or exuberance that accrues when someone exposes something intimate as troublesome; on why this act can so easily captivate an audience, mobilize affect, or seduce people into action.

JF: I was struck by one interlocutor who, after being outed as a sex worker on television, performs an “intimate exposure” of her own. If concealment can both protect or break social ties, does intimate exposure share this double edge? How did you make sense of the often ambivalent role of intimate exposure in both aspirational visions and everyday practices of relatedness?

GPM: I think you are absolutely right to point out a certain “double edge” in acts of intimate exposure. As grammars of social action, I think, intimate exposures are neither inherently oppressive nor merely empowering; indeed, to classify them thus would be to miss their quite complex and sometimes contradictory implications. Four or five years ago, a quite fascinating instance of intimate exposures took place in the Kenyan public sphere. Using the hashtag #ifikiewazazi, which in Swahili means “let it reach the parents,” a few people started posting on social media photographs of youth caught engaging in sexualized behavior in public spaces. Some were kissing, others danced with erotic postures, and yet others dressed “revealingly.” The point was to use this hashtag not just to shame youth but also to make sure that images of them would literally “reach their parents,” who would then supposedly discipline them. As more and more parents started scrolling through images tagged #ifikiewazazi in search of their teenage offspring, the hashtag went viral. It soon produced an immense archive of erotic public behavior that, instead of leading to the disciplining of youth, lead unexpectedly to the sexualization of public space. Youth then also appropriated the hashtag to circulate imaginatively staged, witty images of such behavior to further scandalize the disciplining gazes of their elders. This is one example of how, as a grammar, intimate exposures can be mobilized for otherwise contradictory purposes and activate sharply distinct possibilities.

Interestingly, because this “double edge” of intimate exposures permeates everyday life, it can also be turned against the powerful. For example, as part of the Diaper Mentality art project I describe in the article, the activist organization PAWA 254 also depicted several political leaders as wearing adult diapers. On Kenya’s fiftieth independence anniversary, these activists also organized a march in which they portrayed both the nation and its leaders as “fifty-year-old babies in diapers.” So, the protest mobilized the logic of intimate exposure to reveal something secret and disturbing about power—that it was ruptured, corrupt, and incontinent. In a fascinating recent article, Peter Geschiere and Rogers Orock (2020) show how, in Cameroon, the citizenry has been accusing a corrupt political class, the so-called les Grands, of engaging in anal sex and homosexuality for occult purposes. This is yet another way of exposing something intimate about leaders to delegitimize their hold on power.

An important set of questions then emerge. Why have intimate exposures become such normative and widely efficient modalities of political engagement? What other forms of political participation do they displace, efface, and occlude? These questions also posit an interesting challenge for ethnographic writing: How does one describe intimate worlds nowadays without reproducing the prevalent logics of intimate exposures? And this in a late capitalist context that imbues the sensationalism of such exposures with market value.

JF: You quote one interlocutor who experienced diaper discourses as consequential factors in his life. What else can you tell us about the effects of diaper discourses on those recruited to embody the figure of the “anti-citizen”?

GPM: You are referring here to Kent (594–95), a young gay man who told me that, growing up, his mother, among others, continuously warned him that, were he to practice gayism, he would end up in diapers. The two public health workers I mentioned earlier recalled similar warnings, as did many others. One gay male sex worker explained to me that diaper discourses “are myths supposed to make you fear.” It is thus that, for many young gay men, public health discourse came to feel truly empowering, for it allowed them to debunk such “myths” and focus on the “scientific truth” about anal sex instead. Indeed, many gay men, including Kent, were now very invested in public health workshops and volunteered for so-called “community sensitization programs,” where they tried to educate a wider public about same-sex intimacies and deconstruct harmful popular ideas, such as those involving diapers. That being said, I hope to have shown that the seductive quality of diaper discourses did not revolve around their offering explanations that are fully commensurable with the “science” of public health. Rather they mobilized imaginaries about bodies, work, and reproduction that resonated far beyond the physiological technicalities of anal sex. And it is this resonance I seek to pursue by tracing diapers as queer objects. Indeed, I see this project, if you will, as complementary to—rather than critical of—the work that Kent and other Kenyan gay public health workers do. For, in addition to rejecting diaper discourses as “myths” and laugh at their vulgarity, it is also important to attend to the resonances that make such discourses appealing and recuring.

Everyday scene in Mtwapa. Field notebook drawing by George Paul Meiu.

JF: You argue that “sexuality is never a distinct, fixed domain, but, if anything, an upper, outer layer of citizenship discourses. Just one layer below—to pursue metaphors related to diapers—things look messier: the sexual subject, the citizen, and its myriad threats are all unstable, ambiguous, shifting, always emerging anew in different forms” (597). The ways in which mercurial queer objects link diverse sites beyond any reified domain of “sexuality,” remind us that, while discouragingly commonplace, the displacement of broader anxieties onto sexual Others is not obvious, and often fraught with uncertainty and ambivalence. What are the implications of this argument for studies of exclusion and belonging, both for scholars who do and do not self-identify as scholars of sexuality?

GPM: This is a really important question. And I very much like how you refer to queer objects as “mercurial”: it emphasizes so beautifully their near non-visibility, the ease with which they can be ignored, either because they are not sufficiently “serious” or “dignified” to merit attention or simply because their ties to questions of belonging, citizenship, or sexuality is not readily noticeable. This question also takes us to the core argument of the article and to a key thread of the book I am currently finishing. Thinking that sexuality revolves merely around bodily pleasures, practices, and orientations can too easily reify it as a distinct domain of life. This would be a major loss for understanding emerging dynamics of belonging and citizenship because the politics of such attachments themselves require the fetishistic reification of sexuality; they require us to think that there is something called sexuality that can make or break worlds. So, what I am proposing here is my own version of a longstanding queer theory project: namely that, if we are to understand the political centrality of sexuality, it is essential that we decentralize it analytically. Attending ethnographically to objects that come to constitute various kinds of sexualized, but also racialized and ethnicized subjects helps me do precisely that. I am inspired here by a psychoanalytic emphasis on sexuality’s different elsewheres—what Freud (1913) calls “the other scene”—its constitutive outsides that are nevertheless central to its historical salience and political fetishization. Unwrapping diapers ethnographically takes us to some of these constitutive outsides: struggles over work, over the body’s productive and reproductive capacity, or over how to secure intimate worlds. The evocative symbolism of diapers then shows how and why the repudiation of something like “homosexuality” becomes a key modality for the production of intimate citizenship.

Indeed, as you suggest, this argument has wider implications for studies of belonging and exclusion. The political reification of ethnicity in ethno-nationalist movements, as I show elsewhere (Meiu 2020), works in very similar ways, regardless whether sexuality is implicated or not. Ethnicity too comes to be constituted through objects and events that remain illegible if we study it simply as identity. So, the decentralizing move that queer objects perform for sexuality can certainly be expanded to other categories of belonging and citizenship.


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