“Are you queer yourself or are you an ally?”
Any other place, this question might have made me nervous and perhaps defensive. But coming from a fellow African who had been thrown in jail, tortured, and molested for being gay on the continent, I felt I didn’t have the right to be nervous or defensive. Plus it came at the end of such a pleasant evening during which I was surrounded by close to thirty queer, black men who were all very loving and supportive. It ushered me into my coming out quite smoothly.
“Yes, I am queer myself,” I had answered him.
But this morning, the question still lingers. Would I a fellow queer African still answer the question the same way if asked again. Would it depend on who was asking? Would it depend on if I was on the continent and where on the continent? Or had I reached the point of coming out no matter what, who, when, or why? Of course, I know coming out is a gradual process but it is also a continual process. You gotta keep claiming that visibility especially if you pass.
For years I have been billed as an ally, and I have just settled for that. Sometimes with some of my more precarious careers, I felt this was the best I could aspire to. It wasn’t that staying in the closet was fun. Or that I didn’t fully comprehend the benefits of being out. Or that I didn’t want to serve as a role model and help cut down on the bullying by being out and proud. It was just too risky, and even foolish on some occasions.
But on the real, how many people live and die in the closet? And I’m using the proverbial closet as a blanket for all levels of the spectrum of sexuality be it queer, trans, kinky, polyamorous, you name it. Even if you can’t name it, I am tossing it under the umbrella of the sexual desire spectrum for now. How many people never ask for what they need sexually because they are deathly afraid of scorn or rejection, have been told to remain silent, and in some cases, receive punitive action, including death? How many take their partners’ innocent lives because they live in the closet about a part of their sexuality and the side effect is a disease they knowingly or unknowingly pass on, or abuse, or…?
As a survivor of child sexual molestation, most people dismiss my queerness as a reaction to my past wounds. My best friend said, “but Mel you’ve always had issues with men!” Going on to say she didn’t comprehend the importance of my coming out. What was different now? She then proceeded to say she would pray for my soul, but that’s another story altogether. As a survivor most people immediately discount my story blaming my sexual fluidity on my history of abuse. But what if my story is just as valid as my good friend who grew up knowing that although he was in a girl’s body, he really was meant to be a boy? What if my story is just as valid as the girl child who was attracted to women’s skirts and legs from as early as age two and knew deep down it was more than fascination but couldn’t come out as a lesbian until age forty?
A month ago a friend invited me to join him and his partner to speak to a group about being gay in Africa. I didn’t feel confident about this mission. In fact, I felt like a traitor. I wasn’t queer on the continent. While I was there for those six months, family members and friends were setting me up on dates every day in sheer desperation and I stayed in the closet about the kind of person I was looking to date. How could I possibly speak on such a topic, I thought. Whatever would I say? In any case I went and ended up not formally speaking but just networking with folks to increase awareness of the issue of queerness on the continent. It turns out being immersed in a community of gay black men was just the medicine I needed. It did wonders for my spirit.
Varying shades of brown, varying presentations of gender performance, varying ways of speaking but everyone sharing the commonality of a sexual identity that was loudly and proudly proclaimed and lived out in the space. I don’t know what their individual stories were nor how they lived or performed when they were with the rest of the world but I have to say no matter all this, being in that room for three-plus hours was euphoric. We do exist! We are real despite what the rest of the world might try to do to silence or erase us. It is not that queer people in Africa are copying western cultural values and norms as the anti-gay/fundamentalist movements will have you believe, but the reality (part of it at least) is that queer folk on the continent are empowered by the strength of the movement everywhere and are finding the voice to demand their right to live a visible life. This act of transgression is what is causing folks to literally turn cartwheels. How dare they demand rights?
So is it a wonder then that I’d come out of the closet (all the way out and stop being the honorary ally) in such a space? I hear the questions. I hear the assumptions. Or perhaps it is all in my head. I get ready with my retorts feeling defensive. No this isn’t why I don’t believe in marriage. No this isn’t the reason I don’t want children. I am aware of several happily married/partnered non-hetero normative couples with kids. I just don’t know if I buy into the institution itself and what it stands for as well as how it excludes some people.
When I first came out of being a “fulltime” ally, I identified as Bi for a long time before shifting to Queer. Queer now holds the space for me to stay single, date, or not date men, women, trans and all the other representations of human in between, marry or not marry, produce or not produce…in essence, be all of my true self. Queer creates space for me to be thirty-five, a blend of African and American, oldest daughter of a mother who has yet to marry any of her three daughters off, unmarried and not looking to fulfill anyone’s dreams of the perfect life. Claiming Queer is political for me because it crosses boundaries and attempts to live at the intersections of things. It is reclaiming the use of the word in its various forms including negative ones. At this point I don’t know the ultimate partner I will end up with but in the meantime, I just need to say, I’m Queer. I’m from the Motherland. I’m Black. I am Proud! I am a Feminist. I am striving to be my truest self each day.
I know it’s risky to put this out there. I admit it’s been a while coming. This manifesto has been sitting in the closet but Whitney Houston’s death made me dust it off. Her death did something to me that words cannot explain yet. It hurt so bad that we watched her destroy herself. In society, we matter to only a select few. Those select few have the responsibility to help us reach our creator-given potential and answer our creator-given call. We failed her. Maybe not me in particular but those to whom she mattered, and who could make a difference in her life, failed her.
Why do I say all this? Addictions often begin as mini coping mechanisms when we are unable to be our truest selves. Some people create alter egos and live in virtual worlds just so they can be all of who they are. Some people write fan fiction under pseudonyms so their favorite characters can make love. Some people imbibe a whole range of substances. Some people take more wives, some take mistresses. Some molest children. I hope this doesn’t come of as a negation the universal issue/conversation around TSQIQTLBG[PKA] identity/orientation. All I’m advocating for is that people allow everyone to be their truest selves all of the time.
What would this world be like if people could be all of themselves with the people who matter the most to them? I’ve noticed that my Bipolar symptoms are generally more active when I am denying a part of myself. Not dancing when there is a beat. Not writing when my brain is on fire and my fingers itch. Not cooking that gourmet meal because I feel there is no one to serve it to (discounting myself). Remaining a silent ally when I know claiming my identity could save a student’s life. Whenever there is dissonance in my life, there are BPII symptoms manifested. In order to stay “clean” or “sober” I must remain honest and truthful about every part of who I am.
So this manifesto is for you too. I encourage you to start over today and give someone the gift of being their true selves. Or better yet, go ahead and give yourself that gift. I dare you to publish your own manifesto about how you want to be in this world!Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 13 so far )
Hello Dear Blog Family,
You have been on my mind at least once a day for the last month. I am sorry for not keeping you posted on what’s been happening. Quite a bit has happened and it’s all occurred so fast that I’ve had to do all I can to physically keep up. Blogging about it to share has been high on my priority list but I haven’t been able to make that happen until now. Thank you for checking in and reading and liking posts even as it’s been silent on here. I’ve missed hearing from people, perhaps you have as well?
Forgive me for the silence. You will find though that I have been writing. Working very tirelessly on the memoir, as well as a lot of other social commentary pieces that I will share with you soon. I also finally got off my behind and turned in close to 5000 words for two contests and a residency application. Keep all those appendages crossed for me!
So where to begin to catch you up…
With the now…
I am seated in my PJs perched a-top my free leather sofa writing to you. It’s 7:20 am on the West coast. I hope Mother Earth is planning to send some California sunshine my way today because right now, it is quite cloudy and chilly. The weather patterns in the U.S. have been quite unreal the last three weeks. I visited an 80-degree Maryland/DC for a few days in mid-March and returned here to find a foggy and rainy 50-Degree California. I keep saying we should be praying for forgiveness for all that we have done that’s messed with Mother Earth’s rhythms.
It has been a month of adventure beginning with AWP which was held in Chicago this year. I LOVE Chicago! I’ve never had the privilege of living there, but when I worked at Notre Dame, I visited quite often, taking the South Shore train up whenever I had a weekend off. In addition, some of my closest and life-long friends who have become family live in Chicago. So I planned to spend a week in Chicago even though AWP was only 4 days long. I had an amazing time. Despite the tight and insane AWP presentation schedules, I managed to see all seven of my friends and spend some individual time with each of them. What a blessing to be so rich in friends! It was great to see them all because generally we see each other at least twice a year but because of my time in Ghana, I hadn’t seen some of them in almost a year. I had so much to tell them about my time in Ghana, the students, my love-disgust relationship with the politics in Ghana especially when it comes to women & queer folks, my family pestering me about marriage, you know…everything about how I had grown in the last 9 months since I last spoke to or saw them. The biggest blessing of all was that everyone was so generous with their time and money and didn’t make me feel as though not having a job made me less of a human being. I crashed with my one friend and her boo in the West Loop and on the first night when I arrived, they had blown up my mattress and made my bed so cute and cozy, it brought tears in my eyes. So thoughtful. Ours was an unlikely friendship but we have nurtured it for twelve years and it has grown. A white girl from the UP and an African girl full of racial politics at every turn. I returned to Cali with an overflowing heart, quite grateful to have such wonderful friends in my life.
AWP itself was a blast as usual. This year, I challenged myself to attend more sessions and offsite programming because thanks to my one friend I was just within a 20-minute walking distance of the conference hotel, and I had purchased at CTA 7-day pass for the train. I went to sessions mainly on getting residencies and fellowships because I felt that’s where I was in my writing career. I’m ready for some of the free money out there to help me finish writing this first book. I learned quite a bit about the process and the many options out there. I sat in on a Fulbright discussion that was quite enlightening. I also challenged myself to be supportive of panels that were mainly led by either Black women or People of Color. When I looked in the AWP Bible, there weren’t but a handful, and they were occurring simultaneously almost as if to make sure attendance was low. This was also the case for Queer issues’ panels. It reeked of the Divide and Conquer mentality. It felt as if someone was afraid there would be a revolution if only one Queer Issues panel or POC-led panel was held per time slot. And maybe there might have been because folks would have shown up in their numbers. Who knows? We didn’t have the opportunity to find out. As it stood, everyone apologetically said: “well you know we are competing with this other POC panel or Queer panel so thank you for choosing to come here.” We shouldn’t have to compete against each other for participants. There aren’t enough panels as is, why should they all randomly happen to be scheduled simultaneously? My favorite off-site event was the Lamda sponsored Queer Writers of Color (yeah!) event held at the Center on Halsted. I ferried my little happy behind on over there as soon as the last panel was over, inviting all my friends in Chicago to come. It was surreal. We do exist! We sound amazing, like brilliant! And we are so beautiful. The room felt cozy and I felt I belonged. Finger snaps and ululations kept me grounded. Yes this was POC culture; we showed appreciation when something sounded good. At an not-on-purpose almost all white women writers’ offsite event, I got mistaken for the server three times even in my dress slacks, nice sweater, and name badge (saying the same thing as theirs)! After the third woman asked me to pour her some wine, I cracked. She stuttered in her blindness, turned red, composed herself and then decided to tell me that she too had been a server before and I was standing behind the table just as a server would. Let’s just say I had to leave the event soon after. Ugh! We do have such a long way to go sometimes.
Anyway, I wrote some pieces while I sat pondering the shortage of POC panels as well as the unfair arrangement of them. I will share it with you soon.
After 6 days in Chicago, I returned to Cali Tuesday morning at the crack-o-dawn to welcome a new friend into my life. We were soul sisters from ancient times. The Ancestors have been telling me, but I am often stubborn so I don’t listen well. She stayed for a week and we had a fun exploring the Bay and soaking in the warm sunshine. I had two cooking gigs that week she was visiting and I must say she passed the test of being able to handle me under stress. There will be more on her later.
Since I returned to the Bay, I’ve been contemplating starting a catering business. I have been cooking for a long time, and catering at random moments for different people. But this time when I returned, it felt like Ancestors were telling me that in addition to finishing the memoir, I should cook. It hasn’t been easy juggling the two loves. But I have decided to try my hands at it. I have catered four receptions for The Contemporary Writer’s Series at Mill’s College, and will be doing the last one for the semester tomorrow evening. I did the Generations Literary Magazine Launch, and that was a great accomplishment; I realized that unless I go commercial there is no way I can pull off that many dishes for that many people (11 different items for 75 people). I have not made much money because most events have small budgets and I’m spending some on groceries as well as renting a Zipcar to cart things around. So I am at a crossroads of sorts needing to make a decision to move forward about beginning a small business and perhaps buying a car. I’ve been invited to participate in SF Small Business Week in May so I have to get serious soon, I think. I’m beginning with a brand new website. Stay tuned for more!
I made a trip back to Ohio after all this to visit with my mom and sister and to fly out to Maryland for my cousin’s wedding. So even though my cousin is Ghanaian, it was not a typical Ghanaian wedding with the traditional engagement rituals because he married an American woman. It got me thinking about culture, loss and preservation that is, and how somehow certain things are ok in Diaspora. We adapt to Diasporic (made it up, yep!) rules and create new customs as a result, yet even within these new customs there is rigidity about what passes, what gets ok’d, and what doesn’t. I know I’m being very cryptic at the moment but I will post a piece I wrote on this later.
I am chipping away at the memoir steadily. I have to turn in a reasonably sized thesis on the 12th of April. I am determined to be ready for this because the closer I am to a clean copy, the easier it would be to find my agent and publisher.
Finally, the biggest news of all is that I am going through the process to become an U.S. citizen. I am learning things I didn’t have the chance to learn because I didn’t do high school in the U.S. I feel rather proud and excited knowing all these founding principles.
Thank you for reading and commenting and I hope you will enjoy some of the pieces I post next. I promise not to be gone for so long next time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )