Coming out, the act of announcing, publicising/disclosing or declaring your sexuality has been a staple of LGBTI activism and advocacy since the 1970s. As a political tool it was used to declare that LGBTI people are everywhere.
The idea was that if more people came out, the less likely families with gay members would be inclined to attack and support homophobic laws.
Fast-forward to today, when LGBTI rights are part of a bigger global change, the act of coming out is different for black queer LGBTI youth.
The context in South Africa is so different that I feel it is necessary to tell LGBTI youths – sometimes even older – that in fact, NOT coming out is political. Not coming out allows you to use silence as a strategic tool for survival.
In a world that often tells black queer youth they are abominations and do not deserve to survive, NOT coming out as a tool for survival becomes political. I want younger people to know that staying in the closet does not make you any less authentic/true/real, but is part of a radical practice of self-care that ensures your physical and mental well-being
Staying in the closet as survival
Not everyone has family members who love us and all parts of us. For many families, religion still plays a decisive role in determining their values. The values prescribed by “God” are used to figuratively and literally beat religion into “homosexuals”. When “praying the gay away” does not work, families resort to kicking their children out onto the streets.
This has meant that black families who adhere to Christian values often choose religion over their children. And while people have the freedom to choose whichever religion they want, it is also true that religion is a key reason families reject their children.
This has left LGBTI youth who have lost financial and emotional support vulnerable and unable to achieve the financial stability and independence to provide for themselves as adults.
A report by the Love Not Hate research released in November 2016 found that LGBTI youth in South Africa experience disproportionate amounts of violence. The report states that “many LGBTI individuals [55%] have had to endure verbal abuse while at school, with threats of violence also common [35%].”
Being kicked out means being unable to access educational opportunities, making access to employment and other financial means of self-empowerment difficult. Being rendered homeless creates a domino effect of vulnerability and insecurity in other parts of your life.
Always assume your parents will choose religion over you
We’ve always grown up being told that “blood is thicker than water” but what they forgot to mention was that “religion or church is thicker than blood”.
To protect yourself from experiencing the additional trauma of being rejected emotionally and financially by your family, I always advise younger queers and lesbians to not disclose until they’re financially independent.
I only came out to my parents when I felt I was in a safe space emotionally and financially because I was not sure if my mother would choose religion over me. And even today, as a financially independent 29 year old, I doubt whether she would’ve chosen me over her religion.
Although South Africa has progressive laws and it is against the law to abandon your child, it is very difficult to ensure that those laws are enforced. And even when they are, it is difficult to force a parent to love and provide when they do not want to.
The decision to come out or remain in the closet is a personal one. I am here to let you know that not coming out is a perfectly valid option and it does not make you any less of a queer or lesbian. Sometimes, your silence will protect you.
By Busisiwe Deyi
You can read more from Busisiwe Deyi on her blog Mathoko, a space created by the lawyer and Queer/Lesbian activist. Through MaThoko, Busisiwe deals with everything from mental health to celebrating Black Queer Love and lesbian representation in pop culture.