Candid musings of a Gay, Black African:
Burning the insidious African closet.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou. I’ve always been drawn to storytellers — those channels that could carry me away from my tumultuous childhood to far away lands where people lived curious lives. Whether it was through a charismatic auntie who just arrived from London with tales of snow, the South African based Multichoice media conglomerate that delivered broader stories on my wealthy cousins’ TV, or the dusty books I found in my father’s wooden trunk, I cherished those moments of escapism.
Among other identities, I am also an out and proud gay Ghanaian man. Whew! Got that out of the way. Many Africans, including my own family members will bristle at this statement. Irate responses include, “There are no gays in Africa,” “‘A gay’ can’t be a real man,” “These white people have corrupted him! I told you not to send him to America!” and even more mystical, “Homosexuality is unnatural and demonic!” (Ladies, gentlemen and others, therein lies the source of many of my haunting traumas.) Due to the toxic anti-gay propaganda of the land of my birth, I’ve spent most of my life pretending to be who I am not in order to survive. Internalized homophobia and identity crisis pushed me to avoid shaming my family, country and religion (Hark! Conservative Christianity!) by making myself smaller to accommodate a flawed and narrow view of the wonderful diversity of the human experience.
But my story isn’t that unusual — According to the United Nations’ global campaign against homophobia and transphobia, UN Free & Equal, there are about 70 countries around the world that still criminalize private consensual same-sex relationships. Most African Nations criminalize homosexual activities. In the last few weeks, Tanzania has targeted LGBT+ people who face 30 years in prison. In Ghana, “unnatural carnal knowledge” is criminalized under section 104(1)(b) of the Criminal Offences Act, 1960 — a lovely gift left over from colonial era laws. (Thanks, Great Britain!) As a result, LGBT+ Ghanaians who face violence and abuse from society, including members of their own families, do not have legal recourse since, they could be jailed if they went to the cops to file a complaint.
Growing up in Ghana, I knew that I was different. It was clear that everything about my world — family, country and church instructed me towards finding only the opposite sex attractive. When I was 6 years old, relatives used to point to the beautiful twin girls I walked home with from school and beam with pride, “Zusong is going to be a lady-killer. He already has two girlfriends at such a young age!” (I know right? Talk about early indoctrination of the heteronormative behavior with strong hints of misogyny.) The truth was actually quite ‘homosexual’ — the reason I was always with the twins was because they let me play with their pretty hair! They weren’t my girlfriends, they were my gurlfriends. The twins wore their loosely curled shiny locks in matching shoulder length braids that were adorned with multi-colored plastic clips. Braids that I was allowed to rearrange in what I decided were the latest fashions. These poor girls arrived at their home at the end of each day with some monstrous hairstyles because some gay 6-year-old boy had seen Akan Drama on TV and was inspired by Grace Omaboe’s new coif.
“Don’t you see how pretty you look?” I’d proudly fish for compliments after untying their pretty locks with my bare pre-school hands and then transforming them into disheveled survivors of sandstorms. (Honestly, you wouldn’t have wanted to bump into them looking the way they did on a dimly lit dirt path at night. For that, I apologize to ma gurlfriends, wherever they are!)
“Hmm. I don’t know.” The skeptical twin would say. (Dear God, I hope she is now a Supreme Court Justice. She knew what was up.) “Our maa says we have to always use a comb to look like neat ladies.”
“But, I used my hands. Can’t you see that my hands are as good as combs?” I would insist, wriggling my dirty fingers in their faces, trying hard to save my endangered art.
“True, your hands do look like combs.” The less skeptical twin would say. (I bet you she is now an avant-garde fashion designer.)
In the end, though, they usually gave in. Mostly because their braids were already gone, they didn’t know how to replicate their mother’s art, and I was very sure that their new hairstyles qualified them for starring roles in Ghana’s most watched drama. My daily marring of their hair aside, the twins indulged me — probably because I was the only boy in school that wasn’t interested in terrorizing them.
What was harder to explain to society was my deep emotional connection to a beautiful boy in my class who had bushy onyx eyebrows and gleaming skin the color of mahogany. He was a rambunctious child who had the mischievous habit of peeping under the pinafores of girls. The girls shooed him away, many cried, and the teachers scolded him, but to no avail. Still, I could not help being fascinated by how beautiful he looked when his sly smirk furrowed his dense eyebrows. I was in love. I didn’t care that he was a terror. (Table this to explain some of the questionable characters I dated in my twenties.)
One day, at breaktime with the twins at my flank, his eyes met mine and my little heart skipped various gay beats when he broke into one of his trademark smirks. Later, he cornered me:
“Hey you!” He was inches close to me and smelled like dusting powder and cocoa butter.
“Hello!” I shrieked nervously.
“Do you want to join me to look under the skirts of the twins?” His eyes twinkling with mischief.
“Erm..No thanks. Could I rather look under your shorts?” I asked curiously.
“That is bad! Don’t say that again!” He balled his fists and stormed off. Leaving me with my first real introduction to shame and its close relative, internalized homophobia.
The irony is more obvious to me now — the peeping Tom had a moral compass, which allowed for spying under girls knickers, but he drew the line at a boy asking to see under his.
Back then, I didn’t have the perspective of society’s hypocrisy. I wish I did because, from that day until my late teens, I assumed I was the only person who had these “bad” same-sex feelings and so I endured many years as a lonely and anxious child.
To be fair, anti-gay laws, religious groups and the general population also built on that quicksand of self-loathing. (Thanks, Guys!) This effectively made for a very difficult childhood for me — I lived on high alert that someone would find me out and I would be punished. It seemed that I was an adult trapped in a child’s body — I knew things that other kids didn’t. I believed that God hated me, and he would set me ablaze on judgment day the way he did Sodom and Gomorrah. (By the way, who knows the name of Lot’s wife? Did she have a name other than ‘Lot’s Wife?’ For the life of me I can’t seem to find records of her name anywhere in the Bible. Weird.)
Anyway, I shudder when I think of all those years as a conscious child trying to play the role of a heterosexual, which meant mimicking masculinity, but failing miserably, if those chants of “Hey girly! Obaabesia!” in school were anything to go by. Looking back, all I really needed was just one openly gay, black adult to tell me that I was OK just the way I was. It would have saved me a childhood of pain. I thought I was the only gay person on Earth!
The first time I saw a portrayal of a gay man was in the 1997 romantic comedy, My Best Friend’s Wedding where charming Rupert Everett played the trusted friend to Julia Robert’s character. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie thoroughly and was encouraged by Rupert’s character — an out gay man who wasn’t being chased by the torch-bearing village mob. However, Rupert is white and as far as I knew then, he seemed like a rich man living in America — a land where milk and honey flowed freely and homosexuals befriended Julia Roberts. (I’ve since learned of some painful truths about America’s milk and honey situation, I now know Rupert lives in the UK and Julia Robert is still on my list of friends to make. Introductions, anyone?) Still, Rupert’s seemingly comfortable life and white complexion did not resemble mine at all. What did he know about my life? I needed a black gay African who was boldly living an out and open life to give me a lot to look forward to — I was drowning in the quicksand of homophobia.
In 2003, after some miracle, I received a full scholarship to a lovely University founded in North Eastern Pennsylvania. At 18 years, I could finally begin to imagine a life of freedom! Safe in America, I swore that I would live an open life to set an example of freedom to LGBT+ Africans who could hopefully see themselves in me and be encouraged that there is nothing wrong with them. Still, though I attempted to live an out and open life here in America, the shadows and traumas of my experience in the closet never really gave way to new beginnings. In fact, in the New World, I developed a whole new set of traumas that built on previous pain. (More of that later.) I was still afraid. So, over the last 15 years, my fear of vitriol from Africans, including members of my own family, kept me from scaling up my coming out experience to reach as many people as possible who are also struggling with their sexual and or gender identities.
All that changed this past year. After some really great therapy and courses in mindfulness and self-care, I discovered, dear reader, that all those years in the closet pretending (and failing) to be anything other than who I was (on top of other societal limitations) did a fine number on my nerves and my self-worth. I have since come to believe that the process of self-love can free me and move me closer to living my fullest potential or as Oprah calls it, my best life! I believe each one of us arrived on this planet with a purpose and we cannot fulfill this when we are encumbered by fear or hate. I cannot move towards my purpose unless I honor the promise I made to myself when I got that privilege to come out in America — reach as many LGBT+ Africans as possible to let them know that they are beautiful just as they are regardless of what society says.
For me, sharing the stories of my life, struggles and triumphs on this public platform is a journey of healing that takes away the power of the haunting shadows of the insidious African closet. The same storytelling that gave me moments of escape in my lonely childhood will now allow me to offer some respite to other LGBT+ Africans. How many pieces do I intend to author in this series, you ask? Gurl, who knows? Let’s see what comes up from this cathartic purge in the coming weeks.
Though I am fucking scared, I need to speak out now. My name is Zusong and I am a proud Gay African.