An African Lesbian Makes U.S. History (Part 1)
Kelebohile Nkhereanye and Renee Boyd confidently walk up a flight of stairs inside Brooklyn’s Municipal Building City Hall one sweltering Sunday morning. The same-sex lesbian couple are among a group of gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer folk in New York making U.S. history by breaking social taboo, vowing to cement their lifelong commitment through marriage, illegal in New York State before July 24, 2011.
Both Renee and Kelebohile, a native of the mountainous southern African country Lesotho, sustained a committed relationship for over 20 years, which Kelebohile admits had its ups and downs, just like any other relationship. Getting married wasn’t a testament to mutual commitment in the face of uncertainty; it offered their relationship legal opportunities that honor their journey as a couple with a shared history based on 20-plus years of rock-solid, tried and tested love.
A few months following their intimate ceremony, I spoke with both newlyweds during a candid interview discussing their decision to marry; its impact on their relationship as a lesbian couple of African extraction; what their marriage, and marriage at large, mean to queer Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora; how their decision redefines them, if it all, as a minority within a minority within a minority beyond labels and categories. Themes that surfaced repeatedly throughout the interview included a very real, even vital war between culture, tradition, and desire.
Nick Mwaluko: What does marriage mean to you?
Kelebohile: It’s for people who love and are committed to one another, people who honor one another, people who are ready to share their life together as long as they can. You shouldn’t be with someone if you’re not 100-percent happy. All the emotional stuff, personal and within the relationship, should pretty much be in place before you decide to marry.
Nick Mwaluko: What does marriage mean to you as an African lesbian?
Kelebohile: It’s one aspect of who I am. It doesn’t mean I will follow the traditional African ways, like automatically change my last name or have a child, all of which wouldn’t make sense. We are two women, so whose last name should I take? Who is the father of the supposed child? What I appreciate about being a lesbian, specifically an African lesbian who is married, is that I don’t have to do what my culture and tradition taught me to do just because I’m an African woman. Why? Because I am an African lesbian, and so the same rules don’t apply in the exact same way, because it’s not the equivalent of what my culture or tradition defines as “marriage.” For one, I am married to a woman, so who is the African man in this relationship? Eh, where’s Mr. African Romeo? In my marriage drama it’s Juliet plus Juliet! Number two, my wife Renee is of African descent as an African American, so which African tradition should I, we, honor: mine, hers, or a combination thereof? Third, my lesbian marriage is outlawed in nearly all parts of Africa, including my own country, so which African tradition would work if our marriage is illegal, if we face death by execution, torture, stoning, rape for being together, leave alone married? Even though my grandmother raised me to do certain things once I marry, I don’t have to do them as an African lesbian who is married. I must leave out some things because they don’t serve me or my understanding of what marriage is, of what a relationship is between me and my wife Renee. It doesn’t apply, and I went into the marriage with this in mind.
Nick Mwaluko: Did marriage solidify your love?
Kelebohile: Solidify in the sense that I can make important, meaningful, legal decisions in a hospital, at funeral arrangements as her wife — finally. Before, I wasn’t allowed in the room, leave alone participate, even though we shared a meaningful life together as lovers, lifelong partners. Now I am her woman, her wife, hers, and she is mine. So in that sense it solidified something; otherwise, I still loved her even before we got married.
Nick Mwaluko: You had two ceremonies. Can you describe them in detail and explain why you decided to have two weddings rather than one?
Kelebohile: Well, we didn’t plan on getting married on July 24, 2011. Bad timing. It was summer, and we both love the fall, right, Baby? Look how cute she is, Renee, smiling at me. Anyway, so we entered the lottery for fun, to try our luck.
Nick Mwaluko: What lottery?
Kelebohile: Look it up. How? Google.
According to online government sources, New York State issued a lottery for same-sex couples wanting to marry on July 24, 2011 to make U.S. history, but the lottery option, which included picking from 764 available slots, was expanded to include everyone, all 823 couples who applied to marry on that historic day.
Renee: We won — like everyone else. We were excited. We were making history and herstory. It’s as if our whole lives had come full circle. We both went to Albany to advocate for marriage equality in 2009 and 2011, so our wedding day was proof that when you fight hard for what you believe in, stay committed to the cause, one day you’ll win.
Kelebohile: We were there with other same-sex couples, trans folks, queers, on a long line inside Brooklyn’s Municipal Building, getting married. Even if your friends couldn’t show up for your big day, you had your gay brothers, lesbian sisters, trans siblings — they were and are your queer family, making the exact same statement about equality. Staff and public officials were supportive. The judge smiled. When we left the building, marriage license in hand, plus a sign that read “Just Married,” it was a breakthrough, historic moment for us.
Nick Mwaluko: What about the church ceremony?
Kelebohile: It was the highlight of my African spirituality, because I grew up in a church, and my love for God is pure, no matter what people think of my sexual orientation. As a spiritual African woman of deep faith, I regularly attend Middle Collegiate Church, where our pastor, a fierce advocate for marriage equality, invited us to share our commitment along with two other gay male couples a week later, on July 31, 2011. Our families came to that ceremony, where, in front of an affirming church community, three homosexual couples renewed their spiritual commitment through marriage. I praise God that my family and church family were able to witness my special love for my wife, because God wants everyone to feel special in a house of worship.
Nick Mwaluko: “Special” to a point, right? Describe your family’s reaction.
Kelebohile: You know what a big, big, big deal African weddings are; especially celebrations the night before the big day are enormous. Entire villages celebrate for days because of marriage. My wedding wasn’t celebrated at all, and I can’t help but think if I were marrying a man, my family’s reaction would’ve been very different. My mother, my sister, they didn’t invite anyone, not even one friend. No food was made. No big fuss or big event was made of one of the biggest days in my life. Nobody volunteered to do anything. Nobody spoke about it to those outside my immediate family. When my sister married her husband, it was a big, over-the-top wedding event for every family member plus African friends in the United Staes plus Lesotho, for what seemed like an eternity. Celebrations for my sister lasted for days after days after days; talk of her marriage became headlines. Why not for me? The lesson is this: don’t expect anything from family the moment you [come out as] LGBT. Family has expectations that I haven’t met as a lesbian, especially being an immigrant. They are so worried what others within the African immigrant community would think because of lesbian me that they forget I’m their daughter, their child, their sister who would do almost anything for family, so why cater to judgmental outsiders who know nothing of my personal business?
Nick Mwaluko: You said your marriage is illegal in most African countries yet champion its benefits. Is marriage the answer for queer Africa?
Kelebohile: No. It’s an individual choice. But if you think by not getting married you’re going to make decisions for your partner — medical, AIDS, legal — really, seriously think what might happen to you and yours in crisis.
Nick Mwaluko is a Tanzanian playwright and journalist. Nick’s latest play, “Are Women Human?”. Retitled “S/He”, the play is published in “Plays and Playwrights 2009” edited by Martin Denton. Nick is a member of the inaugural EWG (Emerging Writers’ Group) at the Public Theater, the U.S.’ largest non-profit theater. Other plays include “Asymmetrical We”, “Trailer Park Tundra”, “Brotherly Love