Freedom for all: coming out in Africa

2017-12-10 06:10
Growing up was torture: Jay Aeron is finally living his best life in Namibia

Growing up was torture: Jay Aeron is finally living his best life in Namibia

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From Botswana to the Seychelles, coming out as LGBTI brings the chance of freedom – but for many it also brings the pain of having nowhere to go. In our ongoing series on queer life in Africa, Nazlee Arbee uses digital communication and social networks to connect with others across Southern Africa to listen to their stories of breaking down the closet walls – if coming out is even an option.

I had seen American teens in sitcoms on TV do it, but it wasn’t the same for me. Coming out was more complex than that.

I couldn’t have a sit-down conversation with my family around my gender identity and sexuality because power doesn’t operate like that in my community. One does not simply call your parents to a “family meeting”. For me, there was no single dramatic statement: “Mum, dad, I’m queer.” No I’m Coming Out by Diana Ross playing through the speakers as I waved a rainbow flag.

After spending my teenage life in Durban, I moved to Cape Town and found a space for more open dialogue around sexuality and identity. But Cape Town is no land of milk and honey for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people of colour, and I began to mix with a like-minded community across the diaspora.

A lot of my affirmation and growth as a queer person has come through seeking and finding community. In the digital age, many LGBTI people find each other through secret online groups and hashtags. I searched for “queer community” on Instagram and met Jay Aeron.

‘I’m that moffie’ – Jay from Namibia

Jay introduced me to his life in conservative Windhoek through his Instagram feed, texts and audio messages. Our WhatsApp conversation opened up raw expressions around self-identity.

“I’ve always known I was gay, since I was a young kid. But growing up queer in Namibia was painful ... I come from a small town where people don’t understand your preferences, and people want you to conform to what they expect ... They may look at you funny or call you names.”

But Jay encountered more than just funny looks.

“I had an uncle who was bullying me at home. To me, it felt like, when I’m at home, it’s torture. When I’m in the streets, it’s also torture ... Wherever you go, you’re scared of expressing yourself. I decided to just go with the flow, I expressed myself, but kept it a bit conservative,” the now flamboyant Jay explains.

High school proved no easier and Jay did not feel safe to come out. But people knew. His closet was packed with complexities.

“In Grade 9, this cute guy was bullying me in school. One day, I went to the bathroom ... When I came out, he was standing there. I asked him what he wanted and he didn’t say anything. He pushed me against the wall. He kissed me. It was so intense. It felt so wrong, but it felt so right cause I had a low-key crush on him. But he’s a bully, so how can you have a crush on a bully? It felt so wrong, but yet so right and liberating.

“After that day, I was like, f*ck it, I’m going to live my best life. I’m gonna be as gay as possible. Just be me. Be free. Everybody needs to serve a purpose and if you don’t start as soon as possible, when will you start? After that day, I knew I was coming out of the closet.”

Later, Jay and his kissing bully started dating and he came to understand the bully was trying to mask his own gayness by being a bully.

“That was very liberating for me,” Jay says.

“Nowadays, I look up to myself, most of the time. If you don’t look up to yourself, then who will? It’s amazing how you can be your own role model. If you went through so much and you’ve still survived.”

Our conversation stirs him up.

“In terms of sexuality and orientation, I’m gay. I’m a moffie, man. I’m that moffie. I’m gay and I’m part of this beautiful community and that is it.”

The secret lesbians of Facebook – Odinah from Madagascar

Trying to develop bonds with the LGBTI community in Madagascar is tough. Aside from fear caused by deeply conservative political and social structures, the island was also experiencing an outbreak of pneumonic and bubonic plague during my research.

My colleague Domoina Ratsara, who has been doing research in Madagascar for the Freedom For All series, shared her meeting with Odinah, a Malagasy woman who identifies as lesbian.

It’s hard to be out in Madagascar and, says Domoina, digital communication is key. Odinah is a member of a secret group of lesbians on Facebook, where she tries to share her experience with young people.

Odinah is out. On her profile, she displays a photo of her girlfriend and herself.

“It seems that she doesn’t hide the way most Malagasy lesbians do,” says Domoina.

“Odinah was at a cybercafé with her romantic partner when I came to meet her. Short hair, she’s wearing a cap and a large T-shirt. Her dress is masculine and she’s sensitive and tough at the same time, a complex character,” says Domoina.

She asked Odinah what it was like to come out in Malagasy society. Odinah responded: “I didn’t do any ‘official’ coming out because I found out I didn’t need to. There is a kind of tolerance in some Malagasy families, like mine, where there was no particular concern about my sexual orientation.

“I am lucky! I did things slowly so they could get used to it. And it did work.”

Odinah’s unapologetic self-expression is evident as she shares her love story in a profile picture.

Coming out could mean that we might die – Boipelo from Botswana

Sometimes there is no need to make a big announcement, but that’s not the case for Boipelo from Botswana.

“Being queer in Botswana is like being thankful for being able to breathe,” says Boipelo over tea in my room in Woodstock, Cape Town. She’s a queer cisgender woman from Botswana whom I met in activism spaces.

‘Cisgender’ is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth.

“I felt like I had to apologise for my queerness,” Boipelo says. “Women friends of mine interpreted it as me wanting them or wanting to be with everyone else.”

I nod in agreement.

“Stereotypes of LGBTI people as hypersexual still remain prevalent in conservative minds. We agree that our experiences of intimacy had to become much more calculated and careful since ‘coming out’ because of people’s underlying queer antagonisms.”

She left Botswana, where it is illegal to be queer.

“You internalise your emotions and tell yourself it’s just a phase – or a joke. I did that internalisation most of my life until I came to South Africa and saw people like me.”

Boipelo explains that coming out is simply not possible for everyone.

“I had a fight with my partner because they were upset about me not coming out to my family. I was explaining that there are different power dynamics in my context.

“For some of us, coming out could mean that we could die. In some countries, maybe you could come out. But in other countries, coming out means you go to jail.”

In a recent interview with a gay Zimbabwean man for this series, his family were so angry when he came out that they called the police. The police beat him so badly – in front of his family – that he lost an eye and was chased away from home.

In my own context of growing up queer in South Africa, I experienced a lot of shaming from the LGBTI community for not having sit-down conversations with family members about my sexuality.

Boipelo says: “It’s not that I’m not proud of who I am and that I don’t want to live in my truth. I also just don’t want to die. And I also don’t want to go to jail.”

It became too much for her.

“We often have to leave home to live in our truth,” says Boipelo. “At the same time, it feels like I’m cheating on home in the sense that I’ve left other people to do the hard work.”

She says that friends from Botswana who have moved to the US and Canada are now open about being queer.

“Every morning, you wake up and you realise you’re queer and no one came in to do anything to you and you are grateful. But, that said, after coming to South Africa, as time went by, I realised that even here, queer people are dying every day.”

Boipelo is clear: “You owe no one your truth. Don’t feel pressured to ‘come out’ for it to be real. You are who you are and that’s the truth.”

I have been on an identity roller coaster – Arlana from Mozambique

My perhaps malfunctioning “gaydar” (the ability to spot other LGBTI people) had led me to assume that Arlana, a Mozambican colleague of mine, fitted into a neat category within the LGBTI+ alphabet soup.

She proved me wrong and offered a unique perspective: “This year, I have been on an identity roller coaster and my foundations have been and are still being shaken.

“This is highly related to my sexuality and gender identity, and I am in the never-ending process of healing. With that said, to be plain honest with you, I have no idea at this very moment what and who I identify as.”

She continues: “I have been battling and resisting a lot the idea of going back home to Mozambique permanently, simply because I have no one that side who can hold me or even provide me with a space to find things out for myself.

“I left Mozambique six years ago, and have been there sporadically on holidays, so I am sure that the picture of Mozambique I have at the moment might be different to what it really is. My experience there is that a lot of people are homophobic, sexist and conformist, but also simply not open to what is outside the norm.”

Arlana explains that, up until the end of last year, she identified as a cisgender heterosexual woman, disregarding and repressing her feelings.

She is “coming out” slowly.

“I have avoided having a conversation with myself on this topic, until it basically exploded in my face and it became evident that if I ever want to heal, I need to dive into myself more honestly. So yah, I don’t know anything.”

Religion is also a factor – Ronny from the Seychelles

For some time, I had been reading about Ronny, a trans woman from the Seychelles. As an activist, she played a central role in decriminalising act 151 of the Penal Code of Seychelles – the sodomy law – and she co-founded LGBTI Sey, a nonprofit organisation for LGBTI rights in Seychelles.

Ronny pointed me to a YouTube interview she did with Iranti-org. In it, she says: “The law is one thing, but the living reality did not change much. Although the good thing I could say about it is that it brought the dialogue to the next level.”

Chatting over the phone, she explains that she did not face any stigma or intolerance from her family as she grew up. However, it’s a society that seems to mainly have tolerance towards a binarist understanding of queerness: “You are gay or you are a lesbian. Even in the Seychelles, most of the time, I would say I am gay, not trans.”

When she travels abroad and is with other trans people, she dresses as a woman in a way that is more explicit.

“In a conservative country that was once 99% Catholic, I think I have had a good overall journey.”

Catholicism, she says, had been interpreted to demonise homosexuality and make comparisons of sodomy and bestiality. Religion is just another factor that influences the decision to come out or not.

‘The future is faggots’ – Jay

“I want to live in a world where we as queer people can be respected for our art and craft, and our energy and our visions that contribute to this whole culture,’ says Jay from Namibia.

“A lot of people don’t know what the LGBTI community stands for and what we go through. I think there needs to be a lot more education about the community, especially focused on the youth. So many children grow up knowing that they are gay and are told to be otherwise by their parents or community.

“We as the LGBTI community need to uplift the young community because the future is faggots.”

That future can be arrived at “with a simple picture, a simple caption, a simple post, a simple poem. Otherwise, how are we going to feel at the end of the day when policing happens to a younger you?”

He also knows that safety cannot be created by fairy godmothers.

Boipelo’s dream of the future is to return home one day: “We’re coming back. I love travelling, but I refuse to not be able to get married in Botswana. I don’t even know if I want to get married. Maybe it’s a pride thing, but I refuse to not be able to get married to my partner in a place that I love and the land that calls me home.”

None of the stories I have heard looks anything like those American sitcoms.

This series on LGBTI life in Africa is made possible through a partnership with The Other Foundation. To learn more about its work, visit theotherfoundation.org.

Read more on:    gay rights  |  freedom

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