TO BE YOUNG, GAY AND AFRICAN
BY DIRIYE OSMAN
When I first came out to my family, most of them stopped talking to me. My father, who I was very close to, stopped speaking to me for two years before picking up the phone late one night to let me know that my being gay was not only an amoral form of psychic and sexual corruption but also an act of perverse, Western mimicry. I was not only going against my Islamic upbringing but my African heritage as well.
I was born in Somalia, and I spent my formative years living in Nairobi, Kenya, before moving to London. Somalia and Kenya may have many sociological and cultural divisions but both states stand firm on one soil when it comes to the issue of homosexuality. Any form of sexual difference is considered not only repugnant, but also devious precisely because sexual difference in Somalia and Kenya, like most African states, is a narrative best kept to oneself. If you want to spin this story publically and share your experiences as an LGBT person, you had best buckle up and brace yourself for physical abuse, ceaseless harassment, imprisonment or death. Things are considerably more lenient in Kenya than Somalia amongst the cultural elite, but both nations still have a long way to go when it comes to ensuring basic rights for their respective LGBT communities.
When I came out to my family I did not flinch. I spoke my truth and stood my ground knowing that I would be punished in some way for having the audacity to assert my identity. What upset my family the most was the fact that I was proud of being gay. They could not configure the possibility that after years of silence, timidity and self-doubt I had finally cultivated courage and the kind of confidence that comes with a hard-won sense of comfort in one’s own skin.
I come from a community that has been emotionally and psychologically traumatized by decades of civil war, mass migration and dislocation; a community that has through sheer collective willpower and survivalist instinct managed to rally together to form the tightest, most close-knit networks, with family life as the nucleus. In order to fully belong you must live up to absurd standards of virtue, honour and piety. The reality is no-one manages this, but the trick is to try or act like you’re trying. There are multiple degrees of scorn poured on any form of transgression: a girl without a headscarf is a harlot-in-training, and a teenager with a rebellious streak is ripe for daqan celis – a return to a grim part of Somalia for some much-needed ‘re-education’. All these taboos become miniscule in comparison to homosexuality. The fact that I wanted to write about my experiences as a young, gay Somali did more than grate on my family’s nerves. They were incensed enough to threaten me with violence, but I was smart enough to know that as a citizen of the UK there are laws that protect my rights as a gay man. This is a position of privilege, but it’s only a position of privilege because I fully understand and exercise these hard-won rights.
I arrived at this point of self-acceptance by doing what came best to me, what generations of the Somali community have always done in order to sustain themselves when crisis kicked off, I told stories. I told stories of what it meant to be young and endure struggle. I told stories of what it meant to fall in love with another man and for that love to be reciprocated in the face of rejection and familial disapproval. I told these stories repeatedly and I wrote them down by drawing on the gorgeous history and culture of the Somali people. It’s a natural human impulse to denounce the traditions of those who have rejected you, but I refused to do that. I wrote these stories down and compiled them into a collection of short fiction called “Fairytales For Lost Children”. These stories follow young, gay Somalis on the cultural and social periphery of both their adopted homelands of Nairobi and London as well as their motherland, Somalia. These characters experience a wide spectrum of dilemmas whether it is mental illness, civil war, immigration or complicated family histories. But they still hold on to their sense of humanity and optimism without the need for apology or victimhood.
When I published this book last year I received emails from young LGBT men and women from Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda telling me how much the stories meant to them, and how they felt a sense of solace knowing that I was telling these narratives without shame or fear. Shame and fear are the most potent weapons in the homophobe’s arsenal. If one rejects the notion that one has to be ashamed of being gay or lesbian, then half the battle is won.
With each email that I received I would not only encourage and motivate these young men and women as best as I could, but I would also tell them to go out into the world and form meaningful friendships and support networks where they could be themselves without fear of judgement. At a time when LGBT youth across the world are losing their lives to homophobic stigma it’s important to remind them that they are worthy and their lives have value.
As for me, I’m wise enough to know that struggle will always happen. That’s just the general texture of a life’s pattern. But I keep moving forward in the knowledge that I’m simply a voice in a chorus of voices united in the belief that equality on all fronts is not a privilege but a basic human right that we must continuously fight for and defend.
As for my young fellow LGBT Africans, I will say this again and again because it bears repeating.
It’s a beautiful thing to be young, gay and African.
Diriye Osman is photographed by Boris Mitkov.