I was told by one of my church’s elders that I was possessed by a male demon because I wore pants to church when I was 23 years old. By then, I had already known I was attracted to women. As a teen, I would see women and girls I deemed beautiful but there were some women whose beauty I seemed to admire in a rather intense way.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t act on those feelings. Queerness was — and still is — deeply frowned upon in my Zimbabwean community. Anyone, especially among men who dressed or carried themselves in ways that defied gender expectations, was perceived as gay and ridiculed. Sometimes, words about how they were gay were whispered as they passed by a group of folks who would uncomfortably stare at them. Sometimes worse happened.
When I moved from Zimbabwe to South Africa, my “special” feelings only seemed to be getting more pronounced. I had fooled around with guys here and there, but the attraction towards women intensified while any attraction towards men lessened. Being the Christian I was, it didn’t bode well for me that I was being consumed by what I believed were sinful or demonic feelings. And yes, I resorted to praying about this; I wanted to pray the gay away. But the feelings only got stronger. Finally, I came to accept that they were more than just fleeting feelings that could be wished or prayed away. Those feelings revealed a part of my identity; I was attracted to women — sexually and romantically.
Even after this realization, I stayed in the closet. My closest friend in college, Joseph, didn’t know I was queer. Coming out to him was most difficult. I was scared he wouldn’t see me the same way. That was worse than a stranger’s reaction; I didn’t want to lose my best friend.
So I looked for other queer people at school. One girl, Monique, stood out for me. She wore traditionally men’s clothes and comfortably talked about her relationships. I decided to approach her since I didn’t know anyone else who was (visibly) queer. So I got the guts to talk to her, and she made me feel less alone.
I started thinking about the process of coming out and what being out actually meant. Was one still “out” if only a few people knew about their sexuality? Another queer woman I had gotten to know as time went by believed there was no need for LGBTQ+ folks to come out. “If heterosexual folks don’t come out then there is no need for queer folks to do the same.” That was a fair point though I still wonder how much of this perspective is actually driven by an innate fear of facing the negative repercussions of coming out.
I decided I wanted to come out to my family. I didn’t want my family’s blessings. I simply wanted them to know that if I ever talked about being in a relationship or even getting married, it would be to a woman.
Monique, who had been fortunate enough to be accepted by her family after coming out to them, gave me some helpful coming out tips. Since my siblings and I were in different locations, I had resorted to sending an email. Besides, an email also seemed to be the safest way to go about this.
I carefully chose my words, taking care not to “shove” my sexuality onto my family. I explained how it had taken all my might to come to them with something I had battled with for a while before accepting it as a part of my identity. When I hit that send button, I knew there was no turning back from there. I was relieved. That feeling was short-lived, because I then anxiously awaited the responses.
The next day, my heart palpitated as I saw my inbox fill. I imagined the contents of the emails. My heart palpitated, and I couldn’t read them alone. Monique came over to read them with me. I was bombarded with Bible verses condemning homosexuality. I was advised to steer clear of any gay people in Cape Town, South Africa. I was also told to find a pastor to pray for me. Obviously, coming out to my family didn’t go very well.
I had sent this email in my final year of studies for my undergraduate degree. Even though I managed to secure permanent employment after a successful internship during that year, my application for a work visa was painfully unsuccessful. What ensued was a nosedive into depression as I struggled to come to terms with my life being involuntarily reorganized again. It was also during this time that I denounced my relationship with God and dissociated myself from Christianity. I was angry at the way my life just seemed to be a turbulent rollercoaster. My family told me that I was suffering as a punishment from God for being gay.
During that time, one of my aunts sent me videos of “ex-lesbians” who had apparently found Jesus and denounced their “sinful nature.” I needed support, but all I got was condemnation.
So I had no choice but to keep a healthy distance. I chose to focus on people or things that helped me heal and find my firm footing after having my life reshuffled. This also meant removing family and relatives from my social media accounts. I wanted to — I had to — focus on relationships that edified, relationships like the one I have with my mentor of eight years. With all the chaos within and around me, my mentor provided much-needed peace and stability, and this made life’s challenges bearable. She unwaveringly loved even the parts of me which my family struggled to accept or even tolerate. Her love, together with Monique’s support, boosted my confidence as I continued to navigate life as a queer person.
While some Zimbabweans are pro-LGBTQ+, many continue to show contempt for the marginalized community. According to Zimbabwe’s Constitution, same-gender marriage is illegal. The country’s Criminal Law [Codification and Reform] Act, while being quiet on sexual relations between women, outlaws sexual relations between men. Such anti-queer policies were staunchly and overtly championed by leaders such as the late former president Robert Gabriel Mugabe. This state-sanctioned hatred has left us vulnerable to various forms of violence with no recourse to justice.
Despite this, I had crawled out of the closet, and now, I was ready to smash it to smithereens. I wouldn’t be silenced by my own fear or the intolerance of other people. It was risky and liberating all at once.
Robert Mugabe, former president of Zimbabwe, once said, “Homosexuals are worse than dogs and pigs; dogs and pigs will never engage in homosexual madness; even insects won’t do it.” His staunch and brazen hatred of homosexuality enabled the intolerance LGBTQ+ folks continue to endure in Zimbabwe. It is this intolerance that resulted in a teacher receiving death threats and being forced to resign after he came out about his sexuality to his school. All he wanted to do was let any queer kids know that they weren’t alone. All that was lost when we were all reminded that being (openly) queer Zimbabwe can result in death threats.
GALZ and the other LGBTQ+ organizations have made commendable strides in ensuring inclusivity in spaces such as Zimbabwe’s health institutions. Public institutions like Population Services International (PSI) have become safer, and this allows LGBT+ folks to access their healthcare services. Still, the lingering intolerance means LGBT+ continue to face degrading treatment. Recently, a closeted member of Zimbabwe’s LGBT+ community asked me how I mustered the courage to be open about my sexuality in Zimbabwe. I told her coming out to my family and being able to live with their reaction gave me a boost. I also told her that I’m fully aware of all the risks that come with being visibly queer in Zimbabwe. I want to be visible even when I know some companies aren’t willing to hire anyone perceived to be queer. I want to be visible even when, deep down, I still worry about my safety and am always mindful of the areas I live in. I know the risks of being harassed are relatively higher in the high-density suburbs where communities are also close-knit and everyone is likely to know a thing or two about the next person.
I want to live openly, even when I know that some visibly queer folks living outside of the country have been receiving hate mails from several Zimbabweans. I want to be visible, even if it means dealing with constant stares from people who wonder if I am a man or a woman. I want to be live openly, even as some of them invade my body with their quizzical eyes as they look for clues. I want to be visible, because my happiness now overrides the fear of what could be.