Interview with Selly Thiam from None on Record

By Ryan Thoreson

Selly Thiam (right) interviewing Yvonne Onakeme (left) in New York City. Listen to audio profiles of LGBT Senegalese from IGLHRC's recent collaboration with None on Record »

RT: What inspired you to do oral history, and what inspired you to create None on Record?

ST: Well, right before None on Record started – None on Record was started in 2006 – FannyAnn Eddy was murdered in 2004. She was sort of the catalyst to make me think about what kind of media work and what kind of media activism I was going to do around LGBT African issues, particularly from an African context. When she was murdered, at the time, I didn’t know any Africans who were LGBT, although I was doing a lot of work in LGBT communities in Chicago. I was a high school teacher, and also a mentor to a lot of young LGBT youth, I also taught a lot of documentary, audio and video, to LGBT youth who would document their experiences in their high schools, and coming out to their families. It was a lot of media activism, but mostly with young people, and mostly with African-American and Latino communities in the United States. So when I heard of FannyAnn Eddy’s murder, it really shifted the way I was thinking about LGBT issues from a US base – meaning immigrant-related issues with LGBT stuff in the US and people of color and LGBT issues – to a more international mindset about it. That’s partially because my mother is African-American, she’s from the South, and my father is Senegalese, and he’s from Matam, but he lived in Dakar for a very long time. So when FannyAnn Eddy was murdered, it was the first time I’d ever seen a West African lesbian, and it was in this context. That was really how I even began to think about the lives of queer Africans, and wanted to know more about what our lives were like. Not so much just our activism, or the tragedies around our deaths or around our lives, but just, what was the simple day-to-day like? You know, the idea of visibility – how did this person come out to their African parents? I just wanted to know some of these stories for myself, really. So I met Notisha Massaquoi, who’s from Sierra Leone – she’s an activist in Toronto – at a conference in New Orleans. It was an Insight conference. She was holding a workshop called African Women Organizing Across Diaspora, and I was like, “oh, this might be a good place for me to start thinking about how I’m going to work with African women transnationally.” And so she starts talking about the work she does in Toronto with immigrant populations. She’s an HIV/AIDS – she runs one of the largest HIV/AIDS clinics in Canada, which predominantly works with African and Caribbean women. And she started to talk about her friend who was murdered in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Association, and it was FannyAnn Eddy. And she started to just have this emotional breakdown in the middle of this workshop. And I realized, this is the first time I’ve seen a living, breathing West African lesbian, and I was like, oh my God. And I looked around the workshop, and everyone was queer! I think everyone was having that realization, we were all looking at each other. It was this kind of bizarre moment of intense, oh my God, we’re all in the same space kind of thing. Now, four years later, I’m around so many queer Africans, but at that time, it was such a profound experience to finally see some people like me. So I remember going to her afterwards, and just being like, “I’m going to come interview you, I’m going to come to Toronto.” And she said okay. And so I quit teaching, and I got like fifty bucks and borrowed my friend’s car and took a mini disc recorder and drove to Toronto and interviewed her for a couple of hours. And that first interview was then put on public radio in Chicago two or three times for some of their activism series. And so that really began my relationship to audio and story collection and interviewing and oral history, and that’s actually how None on Record began.

RT: And how has it sort of grown and evolved since 2006?

ST: Notisha was the first interview, and then I just started searching because I thought I would stay in diaspora, really – just North America, primarily – and do this collection and maybe write some stories or some articles about it. And so I was meeting people, and the same feeling of isolation kept coming up – people being like, “I don’t know anyone here who’s African and queer, and I can’t come out to the community here because it’s too small.” It was intense to meet people who really needed you to be there. In some ways, because I was recording their history, I was kind of validating their experience. So this very intense and intimate community across the US and Canada began to form out of the six people I met in the first six months. So then, I started thinking about the power of the oral histories as I started to edit and produce them, but I also started thinking about oral history as a way to create networks and to deal with isolation that we feel as LGBT Africans in diaspora. And then I started to think about what was going on again on the continent. I was thinking, you know, we have FannyAnn Eddy who was murdered, so there has to be more activism going on here. I wrote a grant to do my work for a year, and also to travel to South Africa to collect oral history there. And that’s what I did in 2007. When I arrived in Johannesburg in 2007, I met Bev Ditsie, Pumela, a lot of the people you see, the people who are in GALA, and started to realize that they had this rich, archived history of the LGBT movement in South Africa, which kind of began to shift the way I was thinking of the continent and LGBT organizing there. I interviewed as many people as possible – I think I did over 25 interviews while I was there, which is crazy, because when I landed, I didn’t know anyone at all, and thought I’d maybe come back with 3 or 4. I got so plugged into the community there and the issues that were going on – the rapes of women in townships, and the idea of class, and basically, class being a variable in the protection of rights for LGBT people in South Africa because that was really how people could live openly – for example, a same-sex married couple, if they moved out of the townships and into the suburbs. So it was very interesting to start to see how, in an African country like South Africa – it’s similar to some around there, but it’s a very specific kind of place, I think – how civil society was dealing with the fact that their Constitution protected the rights of gay people, but still, there was all this violence happening in the townships. So it was a very intense trip, for sure. But also, just to hear about all the apartheid activists who were fighting for inclusion in the Constitution of LGBT rights – well, gay rights at the time – you know, Bev Ditsie’s story about being part of the organizing for the first pride march in Africa. It was just so rich. So after I got back from South Africa, I began to think about how we can form transnational networks of people who are African and doing activism in all of these different kinds of ways, or just living their lives as LGBT. And so I really started to think about how to link Notisha to Bev to Thokozani to Nick, people in New York, because everybody was doing something, wherever they were, and it was really amazing. After that, I went back to Toronto and did a series of interviews, and then I began to make relationships in East and West Africa. But before I got back to the continent I started a project called Seeking Asylum, which was really looking at asylum seekers and refugees, people who were looking for refugee status in the US and Canada, and to interview them, who were – I don’t want to say the victims, but I guess that’s the easiest way to say it – the victims of persecution because of sexual orientation in their home countries in Africa. So I started that project as well. And then, have moved back into the Continent, and people who are not necessarily leaving their home countries, but are still doing the work there, or living their lives openly, or not openly, however they want to describe themselves. So that’s kind of how it’s grown. So next, I’m getting ready to leave for Kenya in June to do media trainings with organizations there about collecting oral histories and also the production of oral histories. It’s a None on Record project with Minority Women in Action, but the really fun part of it – for me, at least, the exciting part – is that Thokozani, who does our South Africa None on Record work, is coming with me to Nairobi to talk about how we work from different countries, and even though we’re coming from different perspectives, how we see a story as a way to transform and heal, and to create visibility and space for LGBT African people, and how this archive is really being built by people within the community. It’s kind of a nice way to sit down with our Kenyan brothers and sisters, and Thokozani is representing South Africa, and I’m representing New York City, diaspora, and Senegal, but how our stories all sort of relate and intersect.

RT: Yeah. And too, to highlight some of the common things that people face, but also the specific things that people face. Because I think so often, the idea of homophobia in Africa becomes such a monolithic thing in Western media or in activism.

ST: That question of homosexuality being unAfrican is so funny, because I actually interviewed Naomi, who’s a Rwandan activist and who helped to start the Rwandan LGBT organization, earlier this week. And I asked her, how do you respond to that? And she’s like, “I don’t really know. They always say that. I was gay before I met any white people.” [Laughs.] And it’s funny, because it really is that simple. But we always need to come up with these long, thought out, academic explanations. It’s almost to the point where you’re so tired of even answering the question, you want to ignore it, because it seems so ridiculous at this point. I feel like every panel I’m on, and every time we do this, someone is like, “How do you deal with this idea that it’s unAfrican?” And I’m like, you’re looking at a whole panel of Africans telling you they’re queer. I don’t know how much more we can do.

RT: Your answer is sitting here!

ST: Right! Like, do we have to go back to pre-colonization? We’re queer. That’s just it.

RT: In addition to activists from Rwanda and South Africa, what areas and communities has None on Record engaged with? And has there been a conscious decision to reach out to those communities, or has it just been the activists that you’ve found?

ST: At first, it was kind of accidental, and kind of word of mouth. I don’t know if we had a strategy – but it was like, who knew who, like, oh, I know this guy from Nigeria – you should go interview him. And he’d be like, I know this girl, blah blah blah, I’ll talk to her. In the beginning, that’s how it was. And that was kind of fun. It was really, really grassroots, and fun – it was exciting, that period. And that was more in diaspora. Now, we’ve gotten to the point where – at least me, as the founder, leading strategies on how None on Record grows – I think that we’ve linked up with a lot of activist organizations. I think it was Victor who said this project is all about documenting an LGBT movement in Africa, and I had never thought of it that way. I never thought of it that way! I just thought we were documenting people’s lives and their experiences. But I think as we’ve grown, we have been documenting all of these amazing activists who are doing this incredible work. But in my mind, I’m not thinking that they’re more important than someone who gives us an anonymous interview. Or someone who may not be an activist in the marching down the street kind of way, but still have a story around how they’ve lived their lives as an LGBT person, or an LGBTQ person, or however that goes. So I think the activist communities have allowed us to have access, access to more community, because they organize – they organize people – and so they are a good place to go and create collaborations in order to build an archive. In some ways, I think that’s why in this past year, we’ve had more activists. But also, I think the climate of African LGBT organizing, at this point – particularly with Uganda and Senegal – it has kind of revolved around the activists a little bit. They’ve been sort of pushing the civil society, the government to think about things differently. I think the documentation of these people in this moment is super important. And I think as we grow and change, I definitely want to do one about families. I have a friend who has a daughter, and she’s dealt with – they live in South Africa – and she’s dealt with the daughter being harassed because her mother is gay. And her mother’s not an activist, her mother’s a lesbian. And I’d love to do an interview where they interview each other. We have interviews with Victor, and Naomi, and Bev Ditsie, and all these really important LGBT activists. And then we have this really beautiful interview with two Cameroonian cousins – one was like ten years older than the other, and came out, and the other one knew that her cousin was gay, and the family would never let them hang out, but she would watch her at family events and think, “Oh my God, I just want to talk to her so bad.” So there’s all these diverse stories in the archive, and I think that’s the really powerful thing about the project.

RT: What about the identity terminology for same-sex practices? What was it like deciding to use “queer” in the title, and has that expanded your reach as an organization instead of using lesbian and gay, or avoiding that terminology at all?

ST: It was tough in the beginning, because the way the language – I opted out of making any decisions about what to call None on Record, except I guess I kind of made all the decisions at the end of the day – but the actual title itself came from John, who I interviewed in Chicago. He’s a priest, a Nigerian priest, who was seeking refugee status for political reasons, not for homosexuality, actually, but he’s gay. And he was like my third interview, I think – third or fourth – and I remember I asked if he had any words in his ethnic language for, you know, gay, lesbian, trans, or bisexual. And he had this long pause, and he said, “I have none on record.” And for some reason, the way he said that, it always stuck with me – none on record, he had none on record. He was very regal, too – “I have none on record.” And I was like, “okay,” and I named the project that. And I had the first interview with Notisha and I said, you know, what do you call yourself? And she said, I don’t really call myself a lesbian or gay, I call myself queer, because I am all of these things, and she had this long explanation. So I decided to call it “Queer Africa” because of how she had described so many different things being part of her identity. And in some ways, her identity, even though she was a lesbian – which I think she would say, at times – she wasn’t like a lesbian in a Canadian context. I guess you could say in a Western context, let’s just say that. So she was sort of responding to what it meant to be, I guess, a white Canadian lesbian versus a black African lesbian. So she called herself queer instead. And so I kind of used the language of participants in order to name the project.

RT: And how many interviews have you done thus far?

ST: I have to do a recount, but I think we’re at 100 now, because we also have people who are just constantly sending me interviews – some I can produce, and some that I can’t. But I still keep them and put them in the archive.

RT: But all worth having.

ST: All worth having. And eventually, I think we just have to do more of a funding push. It’s important to say that None on Record is a labor of love for a lot of us. We’re not getting paid to do it. We do it because we think it’s really important. We get funded to do travel, and to do all this stuff, but I think this year, I really want to focus on – we have so much material we haven’t been able to distribute yet, because of manpower, and because of time – that I just want to focus on looking at all of the stuff and exhibiting it. Exhibiting it to its fullest capacity, and having different pages, and having an online exhibition and really being able to take the stuff and say, wow – because it’s a lot. Sometimes I just sit in that office and think, “My God.” It’s a lot we have here, at this point. It’s kind of exciting to be at four years, at four years old. We’re getting to this point where it’s like, okay, it’s time to step it up and take it to the next level.

RT: And to have collected all of that in four years, too, when there was such a dearth of that out there in the public sphere before None on Record.

ST: Yeah. And now we have so much. For an organization like ours – and I don’t know what it’s like for other organizations – when you take a moment and look back at all the people who are now connected to it, from where it started, from just driving to Toronto, and you look at all the people in all the different countries who are connected to it, and all the people who just write us constantly thanking us for doing this work, and the fact that we get put in media sometimes, it’s kind of a moment where you have to step back and look and what you’ve done and be like, “Wow.” It was because people felt like it needed to exist, really. Because we didn’t have any money in the beginning at all. It was just because of Africans who were here, who were like, we need this, and it happened. I feel like I’m in a reflective phase in our growth, and I just want to take a second before we plunge into more stuff, but I’m really excited.

RT: Have you found yourself getting pulled into some of the activism and mobilization going on in sub-Saharan Africa right now? It strikes me that in one sense, this is an archival project, and a compilation of voices – but on the other hand, the people you’re interviewing are involved in politics, involved in activism – has the archive been used in that, as an activist tool?

ST: That’s the next part of what I think we have to find. We’ve made relationships with people who are like, we really want to use this as an advocacy tool. We’re very careful, though, about who uses it and how they use it. So I think this year, going to Kenya and doing these trainings is the beginning of that happening. Because not only will people be able to use the media we’re bringing for their own archive, but we’ll be able to produce media with them for their own campaigns. It’s also important to say that being a transnational organization, as we are, we still have to deal with regional politics, we still have to deal with the diversity of issues in the African community around language, place of origin, ethnicity, and things like that. So I think that in the four years of building the network, it’s been more important to me that people in communities find it important to become part of it. And then to like create, and distribute. So it’s a little bit of a different model than to go and document and produce and hand it over, even though that’s part of it. It’s more of a community buy-in into this ideology around oral history and story collection and archives for archives’ sake and also to be used for your campaigns, to document human rights abuses, to get a different, alternative voice on the radio. But I think that that terrain hasn’t – there’s no clear path to that yet. And so as we go forward, it’s like we’re constantly finding ways to do this, to build those alliances.

RT: I think that’s one of the powerful things about this kind of work. It can be used in so many different ways. Some of it is letting people give voice to their experience, whether or not it is ever used in activist or political settings. Some of it is just challenging the notion that there are no queer Africans to speak of in certain contexts. There’s the idea of documenting human rights abuses. All of those are different things that this can be used for. What do you consider the most powerful part of oral history as an activist tool?

ST: Oh, I think the most powerful thing is the empowerment of the individual who tells the story. That’s the most important thing. Even Notisha, who’s now super-out, on-the-board, and does all this stuff – she was really not engaged. She was working with African women, but she was not necessarily engaged along LGBT lines until FannyAnn Eddy was murdered and she had to think, oh my god, I’m in Canada, and what have I done, and how has this happened? I think Keely said to me once, you know, the fact that you sat down with me – because she lived here for thirty years – and you asked me about my life, it made me feel important. For the first time, someone thought I was part of any kind of social movement at all. And then she became part of None on Record. So I think people sometimes – especially in activism – sometimes we have a tendency to fight all the time, and we don’t take care of ourselves, sometimes, and we fall sick, and all these things happen to us. And we don’t have a moment to feel empowered, because we’re always fighting being disempowered, and so you get into the motions of fighting that, but you have to have something there that fills you up. You have to have something that keeps you going when things are really difficult. And I think a project like None on Record is one of those things. I remember watching Nick listen to Carlos’ story about not being able to go back to Cote d’Ivoire after he had come to Toronto, and he didn’t realize that was part of the immigration process. And he’s always thinking of Cote d’Ivoire even though he’s in Montreal doing work with African men who are gay and French speaking. He’s always thinking about going home. And I remember listening to that and thinking about how intense that must be. But then I looked over at Nick and Nick was crying, and Nick was like, “I can’t go home either.” I think that’s the most transformative thing. There’s that quote that says, you know, a story is the shortest distance between people. I think that’s truly some of the most empowering work. To be able to see someone’s humanity is what we all have to try to inspire in people who fight against us. We work so hard to be seen as people, so our rights will be protected – that’s the basis. I think oral history has that power, but it also empowers the individual to feel like they’re part of something, and in some ways, that their humanity is important. I know that’s a long way to say something kind of simple – it seems simple, but it’s something that’s so important and necessary, and it’s sometimes forgotten.

RT: Yeah.

ST: Because it’s not fundable. Some people say it doesn’t have a physical manifestation, you know? It’s not a report.

RT: Like a tangible outcome.

ST: Yeah. It’s like someone saying, “I feel better.” I think in our society, we tend to think of products, or end results. But I really think about the person and how that person is being transformed by the process, and I think that’s the most important thing. I do have to produce things, though.

RT: Yeah.

ST: [Laughs.]

RT: And what are the biggest challenges you face doing this kind of activism?

ST: I think some of our greatest challenges in the beginning were because most of us were in diaspora, to be able to find ways to actively work at home, or in our home countries, or home countries of our parents, or however we want to describe it. I think that was hard. In the beginning, I feel like it wasn’t easy for people on the continent to see how we were related. I think a lot of times the myth is that once you come to the West, everything is fine for you. It’s so much easier to be here, you know - there’s no struggles, there’s no hardships. In some ways, some of the hardships, people in the West, we don’t face on a daily basis. But some of the hardships are still present. There’s still that feeling of isolation. There’s still a lot of mental health issues that LGBT Africans are dealing with in diaspora. Also, economic issues. But it was kind of like going into situations and saying, you know, we really need to not ascribe to this hierarchy around oppressions at this moment. We have to find ways to utilize each other’s resources and work together. So that was the beginning. I had to find ways to communicate this so we can work together. Now, now it’s not like that at all, actually. Now it’s gotten to be so much easier to express this idea of pan-Africanism. People get that. In the past year, it’s been a different experience working with people on the ground. And I think it’s because we – Notisha and I, and Thokozani in South Africa – made a serious effort to really make people look at our lives honestly. And we made an effort explain our experiences, honestly, and I think that’s also part of that sharing of experiences and sharing of stories, so that you know that this myth of the West is not what you think it is all the time. I think that was a great challenge. I think… It’s not challenging to get people to understand the importance of the work. I think once people sit down and hear it, they get the importance of the work. So that’s not so much of a challenge. I think the challenge for me personally is that I want to do this all the time. And I have to do other things, like I have to maybe work sometimes. But I have such a blast. It’s challenges that are totally… we’re dealing with them. I don’t know. I don’t know if I would describe them as challenges. I don’t tend to describe things as challenges. So I think it’s just not moving as quickly as I would like. I would describe it in that way.

RT: Well, and them being productive, too. Being able to articulate experiences across national borders and with other people – developing that skill and developing the language to do it – isn’t time wasted. It’s a productive challenge.

ST: Exactly. That’s a really good way to describe it. That’s a great way to describe it, because that’s exactly how I felt. So now it’s so different. I think it’s because I’ve been doing it for four years. I don’t feel that same sort of tension. I just sit down in a room. I think it became a level of being comfortable with myself, and who I was in this whole sphere, of being a person who’s born in diaspora and is working in diaspora but working on the continent as well, and figuring out these two different identities that I even have. I think this process helped me also, because I had to challenge myself to say, no, I fit, this is where I belong too, this is part of my life, this is who I am. So I think that was kind of a personal challenge.

RT: And do you have a favorite interview that you or None on Record has ever done, and then maybe your most challenging or most difficult interview?

ST: I can’t say I have a favorite. I really love Bev’s interview, but I really love this last interview I did with these two Cameroonian cousins. That was so awesome. They were so great. I can’t wait to produce it. It was just so sweet! I think it was one of the best interviews I’ve ever done. I mean, I was sitting there interviewing them, and one was saying how she would watch her cousin come in with her girlfriend, and she was like, “oh my God, she came here with her girlfriend? She’s so fearless!” And the other one being like, “I thought she might be gay, but I didn’t known for sure, so I couldn’t assume.” You know, just these two generations – they’re like a generation apart, and now they hang out together, and one is mentoring the other – I just love that interview. There’s so many different ones there, I just can’t pick.

RT: It’s such a human, relatable interview. Everyone has experienced some variation of that.

ST: Exactly. It was just, they were so adorable. I mean, I’m a sucker for families, though, so I was like, oh my God, I love this. So that was really cool. But yeah, Bev’s is one of my favorites, Notisha’s is one of my favorites as a diasporic interview. I love Nick’s interview, I love Keely’s interview. I love Pape’s interview. I really love Carlos’ interview. Victor’s interview is really good – it’s hard, it’s really hard. I love 3Sum’s interview, too, but that was a really challenging interview. Because the entire time, I was in – I can’t remember the neighborhood I was in in Johannesburg – but there was a man who was in the next apartment over, who was suffering from complications due to AIDS, actually. And he kept screaming because he was in pain, and beating on the door. So throughout the interview, we would stop and call the ambulance – and I was there for two hours – and the ambulance never came. Throughout the interview, you would hear Amstel being like, “this is Amstel, we’ve called for this ambulance, this man is dying, you need to come and get him.” If you hear the interview, they sound so cheery. You’d never think there was this crazy situation unfolding. So we had to leave the apartment and go next door, and this man was on the ground, and he was covered in sweat, and he was freezing. It was pretty warm. He was freezing. We had to cover him with the blanket. We tried to give him something to drink because his stomach was on fire, from what we could gather. He was just screaming, and I remember Jeff explaining it to me – I mean, I figured out what was going on – but he said, “Yeah, he has AIDS and he hasn’t been able to get any healthcare. And so we’re just going to try to take care of him.” But I remember leaving, and they were still trying to call the ambulance. But in the interview, they’re like, “oh yeah, we love it, being out as a gay pop group.” I mean, they’re an openly gay pop group in Johannesburg, and they’re called 3Sum, and they sing, and they’re always in the papers, they’re real fabulous. So in the interview, they’re like, “oh yeah, we just do what we love, we’re really empowered.” And in real life, there’s this man screaming and we can’t get the ambulance there. It was really intense. And I think that was kind of one of those experiences about Johannesburg, where you couldn’t get the ambulance to come into the black neighborhood. But it was such an interesting place to be, especially for someone who’s mostly traveled in West Africa, where you really don’t expect the ambulance to come at all. But there’s an ambulance in Johannesburg, and it’s just not coming!

RT: What are your hopes for the future of None on Record, or what do you sort of envision as the next steps for the project?

ST: Definitely more satellites, and having more people in different parts of the world who are collecting oral histories. Definitely creating a more comprehensive online archive, and having those satellites feed into that. But I really want None on Record to begin finding ways to challenge the ways that media deal with LGBT people. As we’ve traveled and collected oral histories, media has played a huge role in creating situations of violence against LGBT African people in these different countries. In almost every story – Bev’s story, Pape’s story, Victor’s story, Carlos’ story – the media was either outing them or creating these homophobic narratives or transphobic narratives and things like that. So I would eventually like to be able to be part of the movement that’s already going on there to counteract that by having a different voice. If that means we move into different types of media, that’s fine too. More specifically, just building the archive and helping people to have skills to create media is really important to me. As someone who didn’t have the skills before I started this project, I know. I was a writer, I was not an audio producer – I could teach documentary, but I didn’t produce any documentary. Starting this project, that pushed me into having to learn tech skills really quickly, having to learn recording skills really quickly. Just having people who have that skill set and are armed with it, it’s kind of a cool thing. So that’s what I hope – and also that we’re around for a long time, doing something important and useful for people.

Listen to audio profiles of LGBT Senegalese from IGLHRC's recent collaboration with None on Record »