Safety first: tips for navigating homophobia
Restrictive laws and cultural norms means African queer reality is rife with cases of psychological & physical trauma. The queer individuals’ stories below outline some tips to help you keep safe as you navigate queer-phobia.
Queer-phobia manifests in many ways that leave queer folk vulnerable in their daily lives. Homophobia, like any kind of bullying, can include physical violence, verbal violence, sexual harassment, forced exposure, threats or damage to property, social exclusion, or online bullying.
Until society becomes more tolerant there are some tips we can take away from other experiences to help in navigating homophobic environments.
1.Express and Evident shared interest
Whenever in doubt, always err on the side of discretion. Non-verbal cues are subjective and may, therefore, suggest undertones that do not reflect reality. As with consent in sexual situations, it is always best to get express and evident permission to proceed.
It’s still hard to talk about… I thought he liked me. We became friends during the long period between finishing our final exams and waiting to enter university. He would go out of his way to spend time with me and we talked all the time. I don’t think I was wrong in thinking he liked me but now that I look back, I may have pushed him before he was ready… One day as we played video games in my family’s living room, he reached out to give me a celebratory hug and held on longer than he needed to. I thought that was the signal to go for it and when he finally leaned back, I kissed him.
It was instant pandemonium. He pushed me back and kicked me when I fell, before running out of the house shouting, “Shoga! Mwenda ni shoga! Kujeni muone! (Gay! Mwenda is gay! Come and see!) Luckily there were few people around but enough that the news reached my parents.
What followed still feels like a nightmare. I was bundled into the car that weekend and taken upcountry to my paternal grandparents. Even before my parents had left the compound I was grabbed by my male relatives and dragged into one of the smaller huts used by my younger cousins. What followed were two days of beatings broken up by a mixture of prayer and ritual cleansings. It was terrifying and I still have the scars to remind me it happened.
2. Use the resources at your disposal
In cases of physical or sexual violence and any instance that requires legal or authoritative intervention, it is advised to contact the LGBTQI+ organisations in your country. These organisations are often a wealth of resources including legal counsel that can assist you in taking action even in countries that discriminate based on sexual orientation.
3. Find an Older Wiser Learner (OWL)
The fact is older people are more likely to know what to do based on their lived experiences. They can be a wealth of knowledge for anything from relationship advice to what to do in an emergency. Curating your own ‘council of elders’ will likely impact your quality of life positively.
Listen, it gets lonely sometimes and everyone needs human contact once in a while. I’d been on a dry spell both emotionally and physically for longer than I care to share so I got onto a gay dating site to find some companionship. After a few failed attempts I hit it off with *Njoroge. We talked for a while and got to know each other, all the regular things – what we did for a living, where we worked and lived, etc.
It was going so well until 2 weeks in when things took a dark turn. I went in to work as usual only to be informed that a gentleman who had identified himself as a police officer had come in looking for me and asked that I contact him immediately. I was dumbstruck at first, but I got even more confused when I keyed in the contact number and it matched *Njoroge‘s. As I made the call, I was convinced it was probably an ill-advised prank on his part but I was sorely mistaken. He gleefully informed me that he was now sure of where I worked, and should I want to keep my job I had to pay him xxxxxx amount or he would ‘out’ me to my employers. I was terrified! I had built my career from nothing and although unmarried I was my nuclear family’s main breadwinner. But I also knew that once you pay a blackmailer you enter an unending cycle of extortion.
I didn’t know what to do and considering the laws on homosexuality, going to the authorities wasn’t an option I was willing to explore. Instead, I called an older gay friend to vent my frustration and he advised me to reached out to an LGBTQI+ organisation to discuss how to go about the situation. What followed was something awe-inspiring! Not only did they provide me with the legal counsel they also knew how to get the authorities involved without endangering my freedom. With this joint effort, they tracked *Njoroge’s number and he soon went underground never to be heard of since. He may not have been caught but I’m more confident now in what to do in similar situations.
Try and take stock of your surroundings at all times. Make note of the general tone of the environment and any violent language. Language can often be used as a weapon to attack, humiliate, or inflict harm and learning to identify it will help you avoid volatile homophobes. As for physical locations make note of the exit and distinguish any possible allies around you.
Be proactive in fostering relationships at the places you frequent. Building a rapport with the staff and regulars will give you a good buffer should anything happen. If the places you frequent are not queer-friendly environments, then bring along friends for safety in numbers.
I’d always been so careful… I would keep all displays of affection indoors and never even graze the hand of my significant other in public. It was almost to the point of being unnatural. Girls are usually very affectionate towards each other in general, but I don’t have the privilege of letting my guard down like those girls. Unlike those girls, I’ve never been girly and quite frankly I present in what can only be described as masculine. In an ideal world, all girls matter but in this one, girls like me get slurs thrown at them and have to get into fistfights with men that feel threatened by my presence.
But I know how to handle myself and I’ve learned how to adapt to my situation. Most days I come through the other side slightly bruised but not battered and luckily, free. This particular day life just took over. My then girlfriend and I got into a fight at our regular spot and she stormed out. She was the love of my life and I wasn’t going to let her leave that way, so I followed her, and we continued our heated exchange. Wrapped up in this lovers’ quarrel I unconsciously broke all my PDA and exposure rules…
We were so engrossed, it took a while before I noticed the small group of men that had surrounded us. I immediately knew we were in danger, even before I heard what they were saying. Before I could react one of them pulled me by the collar from behind and asked, “Wewe ni dame ama chali? (are you a girl or a boy)” At the same time, one of them stepped in front of my girlfriend and leered, “Mrembo unafanya nini na hiki? Sisi ndio tuko na virago! (What are you doing with this ‘thing’, beautiful? We are the ones with the goods.” He said this last part grabbing his privates with one hand and her with the other.
I was wrapped up in a physical scuffle whose numbers just kept increasing as more and more of the male onlookers joined in. The numbers were against us as my girlfriend was now pressed up against a car by 3 men who were taunting her as they blatantly felt her up. But then the unthinkable happened – one moment I was in the thick of things and the next the mob of men had disappeared in different directions…
Turns out I had left my car keys at the bar in the hurry to leave and when the bartender noticed he came outside to find me. When he saw the situation, he convened all the bouncers on-site and their numbers and show of force are what scared the mob away.
What was already a terrible situation would have been doubly worse if I had been anywhere else… To this day I feel anxious about going to new places where I can’t rely on my cultivated network.