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I was 24 and deeply, erroneously, in love when I decided to come out to my very Kenyan, very African mother. The majority of my siblings already knew that I was dating women and I was relatively out on my social media but I was living a lie when it came to the most important person in my life; my mother. Both of us living in the U.S. at the time, she came to visit me and I decided it was time to be honest with both her and I. My coming out conversation with her went something like this:
Me: “Mom, I have something to tell you. Will you still love me after I tell you?”
Mom: “Of course, I’ll always love you.”
Me: “Are you sure you’ll still love me? You promise?”
Mom: “Yes. There’s nothing you could do that could make me not love you.”
Me: “Are you sure you will love me because what I have to tell you is really big?”
Mom: “Yes, yes. What do you want to tell me? That you’re a lesbian?”
Me: “Oh my God, yes mom! And this is my girlfriend.” * hands girlfriend over to mother *
When it came to coming out to the rest of my extended family, my older sister on a jaunt back to Kenya had the brilliant idea to come out for me “to make things easier.” This made me angry at the time, but admittedly, now that I’m back living in Kenya, it was one of the best things she ever did; most of my family already knows I identify as queer and the conversation, when it does come up, is almost always organic and positive. But let’s be honest, most coming out stories go nothing like this. It’s one of the hardest things most of us, as a community, will ever have to do and has the capacity to irrevocably change our lives… for better or worse.
And if you are the child of African parents, coming out as anything on the spectrum of LGBTQI or as gender non-conforming can seem even more intimidating. Particularly if you are living on the continent, the repercussions of coming out can be dire given that existing laws throughout most of Africa criminalize same-sex relationships or expressions of intimacy between same-sex persons. But even farther from home, in the diaspora, homophobia still remains deeply ingrained in many immigrant African communities. A product of colonialism and Western Christianity that labels homosexuality and gender non-conformity as both “un-African” and a sin.
But let my story serve as a testament to the fact that things can actually go much easier than you anticipate, that our parents, family members and friends have more capacity to love and understand than we may give them when we are in our most doubtful moments. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare or fret or bite your nails down to their nubs when you are ready to come out to your African family.
If you think you’re ready to come out but don’t have a Master Plan figured out yet, here are a few tips on coming out in 2017. Yay for you and for us!
If you do not feel safe coming out, do not come out until you have a safety plan whether that involves your employment, housing, social life, and other important aspects of your life. If you’re doing research on the internet, clear your browser often or use a computer you can trust. Housing discrimination, employment discrimination, harassment, and sometimes even violence occur more often than they should for gender and sexual minorities living in Africa. Make sure you have thought through each of these things and made a plan for the areas you feel most vulnerable about.
Have a Strategy
Coming out means lots of planning: when to come out, where to come out, who to come out to first, how to come out, etc. Sit with your decision; think things through and come up with a plan. Think of coming out as one of the most important events in your life (sort of like your wedding day, if you are the marrying kind); you want to make sure everything goes right and that you and your guests are comfortable, while also acknowledging that not everything is in your control and things may go differently than you had imagined.
Before I came out, I knew the lay of the land when it came to LGBTQI organizations and safe spaces where I lived. If you are overseas in the West (i.e. North America, Europe, or even Australia) these will be easier to find, but even within Africa, there are various organizations working to advance the rights and lives of sexual and gender minorities. If you don’t know of any, a quick google search should help. Become familiar with the services and resources they offer, pay a visit to their offices, talk with someone if you need to. These organizations may come in handy as you plan to come out or even afterwards.
Know the Law
Before you come out, know what the law says with regards to being a gender or sexual minority where you live. For instance, in Kenya, it is not outright illegal to identify as LGBTQI or gender non-conforming but same-sex intimacy (particularly between men, legislated through anti-sodomy laws) is considered illegal. Knowing your rights may prove important when it comes to your safety.
Find the Right Words
It can be difficult to explain your sexual orientation or gender identity to someone who hasn’t had the time you have had to become comfortable with your identity. Find simple language that normalizes you, your experiences and your desires. Practice speaking or writing down what you want to say so that it doesn’t come off like a thesis. Remember, this is about love, and love is universal.
Prepare for Resistance
When heteronormativity is the norm, identifying as anything other than straight, cis or within the gender binary comes as a shock to the people in our lives who think they know us. After all they’ve known us our whole lives, surely they can’t have missed this huge part of you, can they? You know best in what ways your family and friends may resist your identity. If you come from a religious background, prepare for a resistance based on whatever religion you prescribe to. If you come from a more traditional background, prepare for arguments based on tradition. Whatever those arguments may be, come ready. Remind yourself often, and eventually your family and friends, that who you are is not separate from them but innately African, Kenyan, Ugandan, Ghanaian, Christian, Muslim, Kikuyu, Yoruba, Twi, Shona, etc.
Speak it, say it, live it, do it. Make the decision to be true to yourself, your partners (future, current and past), your family and your friends. There are few things more liberating than not having to carry the secret of your sexual or gender identity. If it is easier, come out to a close friend or family member first, someone you feel you can trust. They can even be helpful in creating a safe space for you to eventually come out to more and more of your family members and friends.
Give Them Time
For some of us, discovering and accepting our gender and sexual identities took time and work. Remember this when it comes to your family and friends. Give them time to begin to understand and accept this new identity. Be open to conversations and questions that may seem ridiculous. When I came out to my mom she told me she was okay with it as long as I didn’t have children like normal people. Normal? I was hung up on this for about a week before I realized the larger point was that rather than freaking out, my mom had mostly accepted my sexuality and besides, I had no intentions of having kids so did it really matter right now that she thought I shouldn’t have any?
Remember that analogy about coming out being like having a wedding? There needs to be a celebration for what is a momentous event in your life. Regardless of the response you get when you choose to come out, positive or negative, take a moment to celebrate your courage to live your truest you and to welcome your family and friends more deeply into your life. Go pop open a bottle of champagne, treat yourself to a nice dinner, skip rocks on a river, romance the hell out of your partner, or do whatever it is you do to make you feel happy. You deserve it.