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The decision to ‘come out’ as a homosexual is ultimately a personal one – even when this helps the gay community as a whole. Whatever the considerations, one must carefully try to gauge the consequences in a world still gripped by moral hysteria

I am vaguely embarrassed to admit that my foremost concern before coming out as queer to my family was economic. From a young age, I was aware that my Haitian-Beninese diaspora parents regarded homosexuality as an abomination. Having carefully hid my orientation and relationships from them for a number of years, I was worried about the material consequences of owning up to an identity that might repel them and in turn ostracize me. That is why the moment I became financially secure I wrote a matter-of-fact revelation email and pressed send with little hesitation. ‘Either way, I'm eatin',’ I thought. In doing so, I ruefully considered myself to be late to the party, slightly mercenary, and kind of a wimp. This is partly because I grew up in a Canadian province which had legislated same-sex marriage when I was still a teenager, and where there was plentiful access to state-sponsored social benefits, had I needed them. It was also because the queer heroines I looked up to did not explicitly hide their orientations in more complicated scenarios; for example Audre Lorde in the US in the 1950s. Nevertheless, I just didn't have it in me to come out at age 16.

In my mind had I done so, and had they reacted negatively (which they ultimately didn't) it might have constituted a ‘courageous’ act, but would have left me stranded, financially and emotionally. And I doubted that some utopian urban gay village would have supported or guided me as much as my family. If anything, I was an awkward kid and didn't enter the dating scene until much later in life. But that's my anticlimactic story.

For many, it gets worse. Coming out early means being automatically shut out of education and livelihoods and further marginalized. A particular transgender woman in Kinshasa, DR Congo, went through this situation exactly. Dismayed by her gender identity, her parents cast her aside from a young age as ‘useless’ and never invested in her education. As a result of her lack of formal schooling, she could neither read nor write, but had the good fortune of eventually being hired by a local LGBT organization. Subsequently, her parents stormed the office and demand that they hire her brother instead, a straight man whom they had put through school and who spoke three languages. ‘Why don't you give work to the ‘normal’ one?’ they asked, revealing that they had completely missed the point.

Another woman at the same organization whose gender presentation was read as uncomfortably masculine from an early age, was utterly shut out of educational opportunities and thus literacy, though her middle class family had the means to send her to school.

A high number of LGBT people are barred from other economic opportunities and restricted to sex work, an occupation which exposes them to additional vulnerability.

Globally, informal queer spaces, usually in urban centres, are celebrated for the relative security they offer, but it is uncertain how far that support extends. To some extent, they are places in which a sense of community and protection prevails. To another degree, they can tend toward consumerism and partying. When seen as the exclusive measure of social protection, an overemphasis on these communities can undermine the importance of existing family networks and communities to LGBT people.

Months earlier, I wrote about Léonie, a lesbian activist from east of the DRC whose wooden home sheltered young people who were rejected from their own family homes for their gender presentation and sexual orientation. Unfortunately, this same house was left in a ramshackle state after outraged neighbours destroyed it overnight. In discussing her work, she explained the value of providing alternatives for people who were excluded from their social networks, but promoted another equally important part of her work; mediating the family exclusions of dispossessed queer teens. She would approach parents and reason or even plead with them to take their child back.

Sometimes her project failed, sometimes it worked. The same week I met Léonie, I sat in a restaurant with one of her colleagues when a woman approached our table to effusively greet him. As she walked away, he whispered to me that she was one of the parents Léonie had persuaded to reconcile with her gay son. Consequently, the woman became her son's biggest advocate in their community.

We live during a time when the clergy prompts moral hysteria and hate, and Uganda and Nigeria brandish laws that threaten the human rights of their LGBT populations. For the most part, this homophobia seems to operate as a political enactment, rather than a personal objection-- insofar as it accepts funds from the U.S Christian Right, makes a statement against neocolonial imposition, or distracts from government corruption.

And then we applaud Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainana for his poignant coming out essay and journalist Kevin Mwachiro for his book 'Invisible,' about the coming out stories of his compatriots, characterized as ‘the young or the old, city dwellers or men and women in the countryside, the poor or the rich.’ These stories are beautiful. They represent defiant milestones for the pan-African queer community, and for the Kenyan queer community in particular, a will to make itself more visible.

But to view coming out as a political act is to imply that it yields collective benefits, and just as importantly, shared risks. To aim for a critical mass of out queers does not change the class and gender imbalances that inform our social interactions. What does it benefit an at-risk gay male sex worker who caters to a closeted middle class clientele that he is seen both as a fetish and easy prey and has no alternative income source? What satisfaction does the transgender woman reap from her visibility if she is turned away from most public venues? It is problematic to see it as a political statement when the consequences are mainly personal. The global wisdom on coming out seems to be that it is liberating and beneficial to all, but that is a simplistic assessment. It is cathartic to shed the feeling of shame that comes with hiding relationships and identity, but without support and a sense of security, that initial sigh of relief gives way to panting fear.

My aim here is neither to promote or discourage the act of coming out. And how could I? It is an intensely private decision that does not require the counsel of an internet stranger. I would rather draw attention to the fact that the safety net under those who come out as LGBT is usually lined with cash, celebrity, or a caring community, and that it is remarkable when we see more of the latter.

* Valérie Bah lives and works in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and writes creative nonfiction as well as journalistic articles about the lives of other LGBTI Africans.



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