From one end of Africa to the other, coming out as LGBTQ+ brings the chance of freedom – but for many, it also brings the pain of having nowhere to go, pain of social exclusion, and pain of abandonment. This has caused many queer Africans to remain in the closet and conform to the heteronormative culture they do not identify with.
“For the most part, growing up queer means compartmentalising your identities.” Award-winning journalist and activist Vincent Desmond tells me during our conversation on WhatsApp. “There’s a part of you that’s the real you. Your identity. Then, there is the part which is not the real you. The part you’re presenting is Which is ‘heterosexual’ just to ensure you don’t turn into a subject of homophobic violence. Growing up queer meant pretending to like things you do not like. Pretending to be someone I’m not in order to just avoid being taunted or being the subject of homophobia. It’s so funny because you spend so much time, so much energy trying to pass as heterosexual, trying to not be the subject of homophobic violence but you still end up being because no matter what, your true self will always shine through. That other layer of presence, straight presenting and every other thing wears off.”
One thing that many people do not realize about coming out is that it is not a one-time occasion. It is something that has to be done repeatedly, over and over again. Each time is different because it’s hard to tell how the person you are coming out to will react or what the result and fall-out of the situation will be. Sometimes, it goes well and other times it goes horribly. In Africa, horribly can be defined extensively, from disowning to violence or even death.
“I feel coming out is a process. It’s not something that happens BOOM!” Desmond said as our conversation progressed. “It’s something that you go through every time. After you’ve had that first mental coming out to yourself, it’s something that happens with everyone you meet because people unfortunately assume everyone is cis-heterosexual. So when I came out to myself, I started coming out to people who asked. Some of them go ‘oh, we suspected.’ Some people get preachy and I’m like that’s your business. It has nothing to do with me.”
Most African LGBTQ+ individuals cannot have a sit-down conversation with their family around gender identity and sexuality because power doesn’t operate like that in African communities. One does not simply call their parents to a “family meeting”. There is usually no dramatic announcement, no I’m Coming Outby Diana Ross playing through the speakers as rainbow coloured flags are waved. The reality of coming out in Africa is very different from how it is on other continents.
What there is though, is the existence of an in-between point where it becomes the elephant in the room or a rift between queer people and their parents, friends or colleagues.
It has been referred to by a few as a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy’. A parent, colleague or friend decides that they will keep pretending that a person is not queer. They do not talk about it; and when they do, it’s to refer to ones sexual orientation as a spiritual or psychological condition; and they internally nurse hope for change and conformity to the norm.
This was Desmond’s reality.
“For me, coming out was more of a mental decision as opposed to sitting everyone down and saying ‘look, I’m queer.’ I just accepted that I was queer to myself. I accepted that people will always be able to tell so I stopped trying to hide it. I feel like once I came out to myself, that was it. When people asked I stoped saying no or deflecting. I came out physically first. When I came out online, it was like one day, I just woke up and stopped saying things like ‘this one’ or ‘they’ – when referring to romantic partners – I started saying ‘I’m this. What are you going to do?’ That was literally it for me. The last time I came out was when I came out to my mum. It wasn’t a proper coming out. It was me trying to get her to address and accept the fact that she knew and to stop trying to pretend otherwise. We had a conversation and it did not go the way I hoped. But it kind of went the way I expected. Nigerian parents, homophobia are like five and six.”
Just last year, Rwandan gospel singer Albert Nabonino revealed in an interview on a Christian YouTube channel that he was gay —in a country where such a public assertion of homosexuality is unheard of. This news sent Rwandans into shock. Although the central African nation has been relatively free of the anti-gay rhetoric commonly heard in some other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, homosexuality is still widely despised, and LGBTQ+ people keep a low profile. When asked about the reactions of his family and friends to the news, he replied “It has been mostly horrible. Everybody sees me as an abomination. But there is no going back, because I have to live my real life. It’s so sad to see people you know abusing you.”
Traditional family values play a greater role in the coming out experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals as well. This is because families with high traditional values place great importance on religion, marriage and having children. In Africa where strong emphasis is placed on traditional values, families of LGBTQ+ people are usually less accepting when a member of the family comes out. This is why LGBTQ+ individuals need support in the coming out process because they may encounter stigmatization and disapproval not only from the larger society, but also from their families, peers, and sometimes the gay community itself. A lot of affirmation and growth as a queer person in Africa usually comes through seeking and finding an accepting community. In the digital age, many LGBTQ+ people find each other through online groups and hashtags on social media.
There is no specific way to come out, neither should anyone be pressured into doing so. But one thing is and should always be a constant; coming out to oneself. This is a sentiment Desmond also shares. When asked what advice he had to give people still in the closet, he had this to say:
“Take your time, do not feel the rush to come out, but at the same time, please come out to yourself because a lot of times, people in the closet think people who are out or people who have dealt with their own internalized homophobia have it all figured out emotionally, psychologically and physically. You can be in the closet but don’t be homophobic. Don’t try to gain points from the society by throwing your own people down. If you’re in the closet, use that time to educate yourself on queerness and transness so that when you come out, you have all the resources and everything you need to be the very best version of yourself. No pressure, but don’t be that internally homophobic person everyone would hate or would mark as a threat to the community.”