“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 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!