I’ve lived in the same house, in the same suburb of Denver, Colorado for the past twelve years. Denver, especially, has a condensed Ethiopian community where we all attend the same church, go to the same schools, and take part in community activities. Most of the first generation immigrants, like my parents and most other Ethiopian parents here, consider themselves Christian Orthodox and follow strict regimes of church-going and periods of fasting. We can account for any of the good that happens as a swift gesture of God’s hand.
This hyper-Christian, impermeable community that I grew up in didn’t leave room for the exploration of sexuality. There’s my mom, who, as I was growing up — and still now — talks to me about getting married to a “nice man” and becoming “fruitful” so she can have grandchildren to keep her busy. And, then, there’s my dad, who still can’t hold in a scoff or stifle unnecessary snide remarks as we drive past pedestrians he suspects may be queer.
I’ve often wondered to myself: what if I was born into the same household where I wouldn’t be accepted? Although I identify as being heterosexual, being part of my small Ethiopian family and community in Denver, I’ve often wondered to myself: what if I was born into the same household where I wouldn’t be accepted? What do LGBT Ethiopians (and others) living in such prejudiced communities do?
I fear to know the answer to my second question because the issue of homosexuality isn’t just a shallow disagreement among the first generation Ethiopian-Americans I know, but a inflammatory debate over deep rooted beliefs that loving someone of the same sex as you is an act against God.
Don’t get me wrong– both of my parents work jobs where they must encounter a variety of people outside of our Ethiopian community everyday (and they are of course cordial — you’d never know their beliefs). But as they often expressed that they believe homosexuality is a type of “defiant” behavior, gay or queer persons were certainly not welcomed into our lives or home. It is because of this extreme, I believe, that when I started to further examine my community, all I could find was one out queer person.
I remember seeing this boy for the first time at my high school. He was Ethiopian but I’d never seen him outside in other community settings. A scarf with the bright green, yellow, and red of the Ethiopian flag hung around his neck and he had a little bit of sway in his walk — the kind society keeps suggesting one cannot associate with a straight man. I didn’t question it. I immediately perceived him as “gay” (and a friend later on confirmed it). I was passive in my support of him, then, in simply acknowledging him.
I began to wonder, do his parents know? I mean, how could they not — it seemed a bit obvious. But then I thought, if you raise a child, and the child has always been the same, can you see the child objectively in order to define him outside of the scope of your own experiences? More importantly, it’s not a parent’s job to define their child or label them but rather accept the definitions and identities through which the child sees themselves.
It’s not a parent’s job to define their child or label them but rather accept the definitions and identities through which the child sees themselves.
As you can tell, my first “moment” of enlightenment didn’t come as a big a-ha! Yet, as I look back at my journey to more proactive alliance and advocacy of LGBT Africans — here I am, doing my part as a social media intern for an organization that’s solely committed to supporting LGBT women of color — I realize that moment was the catalyst that brought about the stepping stones which have led me to this point. Even though I grew up in a small town with a traditional Ethiopian community, I have always questioned societal norms, and believe it’s important that other Africans should do the same.
I have always questioned societal norms, and believe it’s important that other Africans should do the same.
It’s really easy to disregard homosexuality when it isn’t talked about or accepted in one’s community. But this perceived false irrelevance of homosexuality to African communities cannot (and should not) be justified by the idea that gay Ethiopians do not exist. LGBT Ethiopians do exist but being born into hostile conditions relative to those terms of being doesn’t exactly create the most encouraging environment to express themselves, and come out.
Once the first wave of gay Ethiopians can break the barrier of silence that the community has built up so high, the second wave will surely follow. And though I have much to learn, when it happens, this Ethiopian intends to stand in support alongside them.