If queer Africans know anything, it is that you cannot escape your culture. It follows you everywhere and is at times the source of your joy − we know how to throw a party − and at times the source of your frustration and sadness.
Being the child of African immigrants in the UK puts you in a strange position. At first, the need for assimilation forces you to reject your culture. You westernise your taste; shorten your name… You disassociate yourself from Africa with jokes and judgements because you are searching for the approval that white supremacy has told you that you need.
As you grow older and learn more of your history, you understand the importance of colonised bodies and colonised space and so attempt to reclaim your heritage and identity. Music by African artists becomes a source of pride, as if listening to it somehow mends all the other connections you have severed. The shame that you won’t be able to pass down your mother tongue. The rage that family members so willingly accept a religion that was not theirs to begin with, though with each passing day you are reminded how important it is.
But when you have spent years reconciling your African heritage with your British identity and understood that these two very important parts of yourself needn’t conflict, where does queer identity come into that?
To demand that queer Africans be ‘proud’ and storm out of the closet is to risk isolating ourselves.
‘Heteronormativity’, ‘queer liberation’, ‘cisnormativity’ – these are words many cannot imagine sitting their parents, let alone immigrant parents, down to explain. Not because they won’t understand but because it is hard to ‘come out’ to parents who have their culture tattooed on their hearts. It’s hard to explain that queerness is not a ‘western’, some foreign, idea but simply a state of being.
But here, it must take a backseat. For members of the diaspora, our first priority is to make our parents proud because they have laboured to get us to different ‘lands of opportunity.’ An African knows the fragility of familial relations. And a queer African cannot simply adopt the ‘ultimatum’ that whiteness dictates. You cannot abandon your family because everything you know is tied up in them. Your sense of belonging, the rules, food, smells, morals.
Your queerness becomes a brick, ready to shatter everything that you have worked so hard to build. To demand that queer Africans be ‘proud’ and storm out of the closet is asking us to risk isolating ourselves from our community in a world that has already deemed us less because we are not white.
You have friends who want traditional weddings and who have reconciled themselves to the fact that their partners, if they are white, will also embrace the traditions that have shaped them. Our cultural tolerance extends just enough to celebrate and embrace cross-cultural marriages but it ends there. We have yet to confront what a traditional, same-sex African wedding could look like. Even the thought of it is blasphemous to some. We have yet to recognise that being queer needn’t mean the end of our relationship with our culture or families.
You must weigh the prospect of being your parents’ disgrace alongside the feelings you become afraid to explore.
Queer Africans living in the UK are erased from every conversation. People cannot fathom that you might be able to exist comfortably, amidst your different identities clashing, colliding and rubbing against one another. Instead of confronting this, you are forced to construct elaborate lies, completely different identities, to split your consciousness because there is an understanding that culture always wins; it always dominates.
You feel forced to live in a constant state of uncertainty, vacillating between the thought of losing family and being with the person that makes you happiest. You must weigh the prospect of being your parents’ disgrace alongside the feelings you become afraid to explore. Which weighs more? Which has more consequences? And even if your parents accept you, will your community?
When searching for solidarity, you will consider the persecution of people like you in Africa and feel guilt that you could ever openly express fear when others face death. There are few resources, YouTube channels, essays, poems that specifically address the intersection of balancing African culture, queer identity and Britishness. So pretending becomes easy and necessary. This makes it no easier to hear pastors, parents, aunts and uncles talk about the queer community as a perversity, a disease. Suddenly, the culture that you have worked so hard to be proud of begins to suffocate you. You have watched your humanness be devalued because your feelings are ‘un-African’. As if such a thing is possible. As if, in order to be acceptable, you must slip yourself into a skin that has been already made for you.
I am proudly African, British and a queer individual.
But just as we have learnt to reconcile magically our cultural identities, we must do the same thing with our queer identities. The reclamation of space by queer Africans is glorious because it shows that our existence is not an anomaly or any kind of deviation from the norm. The more we talk and write about our experiences, the more recognisable they become. What is important to remember is that being queer makes you no more or less African because identity is series of performances; there is no way to be *authentically* ‘African’ or ‘queer’ or ‘British’ because the people who claim these identities are not all the same: they come in a number of different forms.
It might take culture and tradition some time to recognise this but by refusing to reject your African culture and simultaneously embracing your queerness, you show that you can be more than one thing at the same time.
I am proudly African, British and a queer individual; there is subversive potential in celebrating that. Even if many cannot ‘come out’ in the traditional sense, recognising those differing identities together is radical enough.