/ 20 March 2009

When gay is not happy

As part of her introduction, Margaret told us that she liked girls and was proud to be a lesbian.

Cheers followed and then more cheers as another woman echoed her sentiments. This was all in the confines of the classroom where I was holding my workshop with about 10 local lesbians. Everyone in the room knew one another except for the two interpreters who had been hired to help with language barriers. They were told in advance about the group and one of the conditions of getting the job was the importance of openness, confidentiality and non-judgmentalism.

As the day went on, it became clear to me that the issue of living openly as a lesbian was a luxury and something I had taken so much for granted when living in the Netherlands and even in South Africa. The young women dream of a society where they are not judged or discriminated against and where the law of the land protects them.

We have a long way to go in Dar es Salaam. My own experiences of living here with my partner is one of tacit acceptance (if known) and non-disclosure except to a select few. The forced closeted life at times gets to me. I feel I am constantly filtering what I say and how I say it. At work a couple of my colleagues know and are cool with it. They are young professionals who are either non-Tanzanian or have spent a considerable amount of time overseas. I sometimes joke with them about my closeted life or gossip light heartedly about whether so and so “bats for both teams”.

Tanzanians are some of the most friendly and welcoming people on the planet. They are gentle and well mannered. One hardly ever experiences aggression in the shops or on the streets. It’s just not part of their constitutional make up.

Why then do we feel unsafe about being more open and vocal about who we are? In other countries there are similar laws but there is still a thriving community.

At a recent dinner with some gays, one guy shared his story of telling his colleague he had been married once but was now alone in the country because his wife had died. A similar story was told of a lesbian couple with children who also spoke about losing husbands. All these bizarre tales to hide one’s natural identity.

My partner works for an international organisation that supports the gay and lesbian sector and yet she’s not comfortable to say she’s a lesbian and I am her partner. I exist as they see me go in and out of the office, but no questions are asked and there is no open discussion.

At Christmas we returned to South Africa. One of the best parts of the holiday was living out of the closet and being free and not afraid of being affectionate in public. Back in Dar, we are known by many of the smaller shop owners who often ask about rafiki yako (your friend).

So, while such things are positive, why is it we feel unsafe to be open and disclose who we are? Why do we stigmatise ourselves? Is it because we don’t know what to expect in terms of reaction, or is it because we don’t know how to handle ourselves in the case of a hostile reaction?

We discussed this issue with a Danish lesbian couple we know. Our conclusion was that, because it’s something unspoken, everyone keeps it under wraps, thereby perpetuating a culture of silence.

A bit like adultery or a corrupt government, it happens but no one speaks about it beyond venting in a daladala (taxi) or a bus. The heresay and dialogue is not developed into a critical discourse in the media for example.

Often the media report on events, like gay marriages, which are printed verbatim from other countries.

The lesbian group was critical of the press over the negative publicity it received after a couple of girls were caught kissing on camera in a bar. This sparked a riot in the media.

The negative reporting was scathing and led to the women going deeper into the closet.

Perhaps the moralistic code of Christianity or Islam is a factor in the equation. Most citizens are considered very religious and with that comes judgmentalism — the power of the church in this society is strong and influential.

Whatever the reason, the culture of silence prevails and, for now, no one is willing to expose him or her and suffer the unknown consequences. We remain gay and proud in the safety of our homes and our relationships.

Dolar Vasani is a correspondent in Dar es Salaam