To a younger me – “Don’t come out, if you don’t want to”
Coming out – the act of announcing, publicising/disclosing or declaring your sexuality has been a staple of LGBTI activism and advocacy since the 1970s. Promoted by the Gay Liberation Front – a collective of gay groups – coming out was utilised as a strategic political tool in order to declare WE ARE EVERYWHERE! The idea was that the more people came out of the closet, the less likely families with gay members would be less inclined to support legislative and policy reforms attacking LGBTI folks politically. It can be argued – and I agree– that coming out in the 70’s was a practical implementation and practice of the saying “the personal is political”.
I lead in with this explanation because I understand why the “coming out” narrative, as a solidarity building mechanism, has been argued as a necessary part of visibilisation and legitimization of the struggles of the LGBTI community in South Africa and the rest of Africa. However, the implementation and practice of coming out within the South African socio-political and economic context is different for black queer/LGBTI youth and adults. So different is the context that I feel it necessary to tell young LGBTI persons – and older – that NOT coming out is political and enough. I want young people to know that “staying in the closet” can be and is a political decision that can ensure your physical safety and mental well-being.
Staying in the closet as survival
Not everyone is blessed with family members who love all parts of us. Unfortunately religion still plays a decisive role in determining people’s values. The Christianity South Africa inherited through colonialism is based on anti-blackness and of course archaic value systems on sexuality. The church has interpreted biblical values as stipulating sexual intercourse and sexuality as an act of reproduction. This reproduction is seen as only legitimate before the eyes of “God” if it is within a heterosexual monogamous relationship. Of course this is not true and we know that even within heterosexual relationships there are dynamics which do not conform to this ideal. Nevertheless, the values prescribed by “God – as interpreted by the Church” are used to figuratively and literally beat religion into “homosexuals”. When “praying the gay away” does not work, families resort to kicking their children out onto the streets.
This has meant that Black families who adhere to Christian values often choose their religion over their children. Of course people have the freedom to choose whichever religion they want but it is also true that religion is one of the key reasons families reject their children. This has left LGBTI youth who have lost financial and emotional support vulnerable and unable to achieve the financial stability and independence to provide for themselves as adults. LGBTI youth in South Africa experience disproportionate amounts of violence, are kicked out of schools more often and excluded from various spaces such as employment and communities.
Unfortunately because of the lack of homeless shelters and homeless youth programs catering to homeless youth; being kicked out of your home or subjected to abuse to the extent that you run away from home creates a multi-layer of dis-empowerment. Being kicked out means being unable to access educational opportunities, making access to employment and other financial means of self-empowerment difficult in a struggling economy. Being rendered homeless creates a domino effect of vulnerability and insecurity in other parts of your life.
Always assume your parents will choose religion over you
We’ve always grown up being told that “blood is thicker than water” but what they forgot to mention was that “religion/church is thicker than blood”.
To protect yourself from experiencing the additional trauma of being rejected emotionally and financially by your family, I always advise younger queers/lesbians refrain from coming out until they’re financially independent. Growing up, I did the same; I only came out to my parents when I felt I was in a safe space emotionally and financially. The reason for remaining in the closet was because I was not sure if my mother would choose me over religion. And even today as a financially independent 29 year old I doubt whether she would’ve can make that decision – If I must tell you, she mostly ignores my sexuality.
Of course there are people who cannot “hide” their queerness because of how they walk, talk and express themselves and remaining in the closet for them can be an act of psychic and spiritual trauma. If you’re a person who’s expression “outs” them or are visibly gender transgressive it might mean that you use silence strategically. By this I mean do not address “rumours” or “gossip”, simply let people make their own assumptions. Of course this might mean that your family scrutinizes your actions more.
South Africa has progressive laws and it is against the law to abandon your child, but it is very difficult to ensure that those laws are enforced. Even when they are, it is difficult force a parent to love and provide when they do not want to.
The decision to come out or remain in the closet in a personal one. I am here to let you know that not coming out is a perfectly valid option and it does not make you any less of a queer/lesbian. Sometimes, sometimes your silence will protect you.
Tell em MaThoko told you so!