“We’re not old boys, we’re black boys. We play different tunes with our tongues to crowds, to teachers, to friends, to taxi drivers, to pastors and parents, to ourselves. Yet the bangs of our desires have no song.”
– From the short story ‘My Body Remembers: A War Cry’ by Zukolwenkosi Zikalala as published in Queer Africa 2: New Stories
Coming out is such a deeply profound act of self-love, defiance, bravery, fabulousness, vulnerability, liberation, pain, fear and anxiety. It is both a gift and burden which we as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) people bear. Coming out is also an act which LGBTIQ people are constantly required to perform throughout our lives’ journey: to family, to friends, to work colleagues, to strangers and even to ourselves. It’s also an act which despite being so intensely private is inevitably political because queer bodies the world over are policed, silenced, ridiculed, beaten, raped and killed.
Despite the legal gains for LGBTIQ people in South Africa, the high levels of violence, particularly the targeted rape of black lesbian women and transgender people means that ‘being out’ often comes at a great cost to one’s physical safety and psychological well-being. Although South Africa has some of the most progressive legislation pertaining to the protection of a person’s gender identity and sexual orientation, in practice the criminal justice system often does not possess the mechanisms to support victims of gender based violence and hate crimes. Thus people are often afraid to report crimes to police, particularly as they may be further harassed or victimised by law enforcement officials. It is in instances such as these where ‘coming out’ can be particularly traumatic and debilitating.
It’s also important to bear in mind that in many parts of Africa, the threat associated with ‘coming out’ is all too real. During the past month in Egypt, citizens were arrested for raising a pride flag during a concert of the band Mashrou’ Leila, which was held in Cairo on Friday, 22 September 2017. The local media supported this crack-down by publishing articles and interviews which encouraged hate speech against groups and individuals that have gender non-conforming identities and sexual orientations, especially targeting LGBT people in Egypt. As a result, there has been a wave of arrests of activists and citizens who are charged with “inciting immorality” by attending the concert. Egyptian law enforcement officials, political figures, government officials and religious groups have taken this opportunity to put pressure on the state to put an end to what they see as attempts to corrupt the youth.
I was recently asked whether I look forward to the day where coming out doesn’t have to be a thing anymore. I’m not so sure about that. During the time of the #RhodesMustFall protect at the University of Cape Town, I came across a placard which read: “Dear History, this revolution has women, gays, queers and trans. Remember that.” This is a powerful reminder that coming out is critical to ensuring that our histories as LGBTIQ people are never erased and that our contemporary lived experiences are shared on our own terms.
I think what we should wish for is a day where people are afforded the agency to express their gender identity and sexual orientation in environments which are safe and supportive.
Keval Harie is the director of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect The Daily Vox’s editorial policy.