One thing that many straight people don’t realise about coming out is that it is not a one-off occasion. It is something that has to be done over and over again. Each time is different because it’s hard to predict how the person you are telling will react or what the fall-out of the situation will be. Sometimes, it goes well and other times it goes horribly.
There is also an in-between point where it becomes the elephant in the room or a rift between parents and their children, 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 gay or bi. They do not talk about it; they refer to partners as friends; and they internally nurse hopes for change and conformity to the norm.
Here are a few coming out stories from lesbian and queer Africans living on the continent and in the diaspora.
‘I got fed up with being unable to talk to my mum about my relationship. At that point, I was terribly heartbroken and lonely so I wrote a letter to my mum telling her how I felt unloved and alone because I couldn’t speak to her about being separated from the love of my life. My mum replied by asking me to fly down so that we could talk about it face to face.
‘We didn’t live in the same country. I flew over and spent the week with her and we talked about everything on earth except that. I got over my heartbreak and dated other people. I never spoke to my mum about it again although she would ask questions about pictures I posted online.
In our lives, we talk about everything but the fact that I love women.
‘The next time I spoke about being in a same-gender loving relationship was two years later when my girlfriend and I were going through a nasty break-up. I didn’t know who else to turn to so I turned to my mum who gave me a lot of support and objective advice and did not for a second cast any blame or judgment on me. I got through the rough patch learning that she would always be there for me.
‘We still have not managed to figure out how to navigate speaking about my relationships under normal circumstances. I, for one, have not picked up the bravery to casually mention someone I’m seeing or a love interest because I am not sure if I will get the same kind of support and attention I would like.
‘I know hearing any kind of condemnation would kill me and cause irreparable damage to our relationship. So, in our lives, we talk about everything but the fact that I love women.’
I, 29, Nigeria
‘My mum came to my room in uni and nearly caught me with my then girlfriend in bed. Luckily, she didn’t see her. After that, I decided to come out myself. My mum basically said that this was something she would have to accept.’
S, 30, South Africa.
‘I like to share the coming out story with my dad because that was very positive. When I came out to him, that was around the time he’d been working on the play Zhe. At that time, I was living in Nigeria doing my NYSC. I came to Yankee (US) for Thanksgiving. I had had the conversation with my mum a few days before so then I thought, I need to talk to my dad about this now.
‘Both of us had just been chilling, resting and then somehow it came up. The first thing my dad did was smile quietly. He then asked if it was something I had been hiding for a while, and it was. While I was in school, my dad was a professor and my brother was also in the same school. I had gone through a period of attempted straightness in Nigeria because of all the shit that people had been talking about me.
It was more positive than I ever expected.
‘Because my dad and brother were in the same school, I didn’t want them to have to deal with all the shit and have people asking questions or talking. So, his response was that it saddened him that it was something I had to hide. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it some more and then he told me about the project he was working on. A book and a play about gay Africans. He was working on it with some artists that I already knew and he told me the play was going to happen in London.
‘It was more positive than I ever expected. And he asked me if it was OK to reference it in the book and at the show, you know, being a parent of a gay African. That for me was a pretty positive and bonding experience.
‘Now, my mum, that was very different.’
S, 30, Nigeria/U.S.A.
‘There are people I haven’t come out to even though I am very publicly out. I’m out to everybody in my family. Everybody in my social circle. Well, most people. I haven’t come out to my best friend’s dad. It would break his heart.
When I meet people, it’s the first thing I tell them.
When I meet people, it’s the first thing I tell them. But there are some people I don’t come out to. You meet them and you know that this guy is a pastor so you don’t tell them. There are some people you meet and you know, those annoying people, they see you wearing a ring and they ask you, “Where is ‘Oga’?” So I don’t bother saying anything.
‘I came out like a 21st-century girl to my mum on BBM. I came out to my siblings on BBM. My mum said, “Are you girls getting married?” I said no we’re just dating. My sister said, “Eww, why are you telling me? I already knew.”
‘When the law passed, I wrote an article and my cool family members suddenly went crazy. So, it’s fine to be privately out but publicly, that’s another thing to them.’
X, 32, Nigeria
‘My mum had my phone and my Twitter was still logged in. Someone @‘ed me and said that if S wasn’t my Valentine then they would be. So, my mum asked me what the tweet meant and eventually, I came out and told her that S and I were together. My mum took it very badly. She freaked out hard.
‘I would say that this is something my mum is still working to accept. Sporadically, she still has son-in-law hopes.’
K, 29, Kenya
‘Every process, article, and guide to deal with your sexuality offers coming out as a magical solution and a happier ending to this dark closet. It’s been four years since I told my sister, partner, some friends and co-workers, and then I moved through life thinking, “I did it now, I am not afraid anymore.”
‘The thing about coming out that no one tells you is that it’s a constant process. You will do it for the rest of your life; sometimes not only with new people coming into your life but also with the ones who already knew because ‘acceptance’ should not mean people are just fine with it and then just continue their lives without ever having to deal with what it really means.
I have grown to hate “coming out” as a statement that should lead to closure and happiness.
‘What does it mean if this friend, sister, daughter, or partner chooses to tell you about their lesbianism in a world that hates lesbians? By doing that, there is always the risk of the “what if”. What is the reaction is rejection or hate or violence? What if their reaction didn’t come with an understanding and learning and protection? What if it offers nothing but an illusionary safety?
‘I have grown to hate “coming out” as a statement that should lead to closure and happiness. I now prefer coming out- or whatever the hell we are going to call it- as the gate to a mutual learning process. Where this process carries within it a deliberate effort to understand, protect, love and support. Maybe then, this loneliness will cease to exist. Yes, it’s still there; it never went away no matter now many people know about my sexuality. Sometimes I feel it less when I’m having a conversation, dance, or sex with a woman who is just like me, living in this country where we live in constant fear even though we should feel safe by the fact that we are out.
‘Coming out did not stop this accepting man/friend from squeezing my breast and asking me, “What if you were into men?” Coming out did not get me the same respect from my friend after a heartbreak, as they would give to a heterosexual relationship. Coming out didn’t help explain my sexuality or my relationships better because you are still assumed to be heterosexual, a woman, monogamous, and many other things, no matter how many times you shout them out.
‘But, I still do it sometimes as a statement, a matter of fact, a surprise, sometimes as a fuck you! Sometimes to get the attention of a beautiful woman who could become many things or nothing to me. And sometimes with the young queers who think I can’t see them. Just to let them know, you are not alone. I believe we need a new term because we can’t keep deceiving ourselves collectively that moving from the closet to the rainbow will less harsh or lonely.’
M, 28, Egypt
As we commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia (IDAHOT), we celebrate the little victories we have won in form of human rights and we also remember that being LGBTQ or gender queer comes with the burden of having to constantly retell who you are.
I would like to end with a few wise words from James Baldwin on coming out: ‘Best advice I ever got was an old black friend, who said you have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all. That’s the only advice you can give anybody. And it’s not advice, it’s an observation.’
To read more experiences of LGBT Nigerians, check out Blessed Body by Unoma Azuah.