Invisible Leash: Realities of Living Abroad as a Queer African (Pt 1)

When I moved abroad four years ago, above all things, I craved anonymity. Even though I come from a fairly large country with a population of 50 million as per the last national census, it is still a country with strong cultural, filial, and communal ties, such that even in the largest cities, one is simply unable to disappear in a crowd. This provides a useful social net in a country where the government has largely failed to provide its citizenry with access to basic services and amenities.

Communities take care of their own. But with that comes the burden of conformance. As a community takes care of its own, so too is it invested in the lives of its constituent members, with the actions of one meant mainly to benefit the group, and if the actions of one are considered to be against the collective bounds of propriety, then they are believed to affect everyone in the community.

“Being useful to others is not the same thing as being equal.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

This is a massive burden to bear for LGBTQIA+ individuals in countries like mine, who go through life suppressing, concealing, even outright denying their true identities for the sake of the “greater good” and for fear of retribution, be it legal or social. One’s good name and standing in the community is social currency, worth far more than a good education and experience. In countries with socially complex networks, it is not what you know, but rather who you know that gets you ahead in life.

Such societies aren’t meritocracies but rather kakistocracies governed by nepotism where one needs to be looked upon favorably by someone in a position of authority in order to get ahead in life. For LGBTQI+ individuals, the option to be one’s true self is hardly available when the odds are already stacked against “ordinary” members of the societies they also inhabit, without the added complication of perceived sexual deviance in largely homophobic cultures.

“The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

So, with this in mind, I got on a plane and bid farewell to a life I’d built fairly well despite my being openly gay, thanks largely to working in the media industry and its perceived tolerance for the “odd”. I moved because, despite being “allowed” to be myself at work and within my circle of friends, I still feared walking down the street, family reunions were a particular source of anxiety with me constantly recalibrating myself to ensure none of my gayness overflowed, despite it not being a secret within the family.

I was terrified of taking public transport and was terrified while trying to date because the blackmail of gay men was and is still a real and constant threat in my country.  I left because I longed to embrace the full spectrum of my identity without fear of retribution or violence. I had never been violently attacked, and had gotten away with relatively mild verbal attacks, but who is to say that isn’t likely to change in the future? But most importantly, I needed the weight of an entire society off my shoulders. I wanted to live for me. I wanted nothing more than anonymity; another face in a crowd, with nothing special to offer. I wanted to be left well enough alone.

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Four years on and I can say it has mostly worked. I have had the space to fully explore my identity, have expanded my circle to include everyone on the gender and sexual spectrum, and continue to be judged, not by my love of a wispy lash to open up my tiny hooded eyes, but rather on what I can do as a professional. One would think that my fears from the past would have all but disappeared by now, but that is far from the case.

Every day lived outside my country is a constant reminder of the inevitability of a return. It is a day closer to a visa expiry. It is a day closer to an uncertain future, particularly within the Chinese context where permanent residency isn’t an option for many foreigners on any other grounds other than heterosexual marriage and being a person of extraordinary abilities. 

Though it is mostly dormant, this fear threatens to erupt at every turn. Most recently, it erupted thanks to a conversation I had with my mother prompted by a post on my personal Instagram account of me in a slinky black dress and heels at a party in Beijing.

“Everyone _shouldn’t_ have a say in whose life is worth fighting for.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

Moments after posting pictures from the event, she contacted me, frantic. Her first message to me read, in part, “please, for my sake as your mother, kindly take care with whatever you post on any of your walls. I didn’t know you would do the kind of things you are doing now. My friends are asking me what you do dressing like a girl. I know you don’t care what people say but I do and it really affects me very much. God have mercy on you and bless you.”

I was instantly transported back to my teenage years when I was “outed” and had to constantly justify my gayness. The “you don’t care what people say” sentiment is nothing new. It is one I have had to deal with my entire life – the idea that my living my life authentically translates to my disregard for public sentiment, when my life has consisted of nothing but the constant consideration of what people thought and still do think of me, and finding a passable middle ground where I could live authentically with enough deniability should things take a turn.

“You pretended to hate him because you were a coward. But you eventually loved him, and he is a part of you now, because you have since grown brave.”
― N.K. Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate

It was the rest of the message that troubled me. Like most African Queer people living not only in China, my social media accounts are an extension of my safe space, where I continue to be as authentic to myself as possible; posting my candid thoughts, pictures, and life updates to those to whom believe I can entrust these parts of my life. And in order to do that, it was important for me to carefully curate my followers, making sure to delete family members and close family friends save for a few who have always accepted me for who I am. But years away from home have softened me to re-adding such people back to my social media circles, lulled into a false sense of comfort at being so far away and thus insulated from the “but what will the neighbors/ family say?” mullet that so effectively hobbles authenticity and self-expression.

I, at once flew into a panic. Just last year I was faced with the real possibility of returning home thanks to the willful inaction of my country’s embassy in Beijing in solving a passport issue I had. I would later come to learn, thanks to an acquaintance at the embassy, that it was because of my social media posts. Someone at the embassy had somehow found me on Instagram and had proceeded to make sport of lambasting their compatriot, this gay man who was “the wife of a white man”. My mother’s message hit home because I am aware, whether at home or abroad, there is no real escape from identity politics and how, at times, it might mean the destruction of a life so carefully nurtured.

Photos: Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Invisible Leash: Realities of Living Abroad as a Queer African (Pt 1)

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