It’s a Saturday morning. Just after 4am, possibly headed for 5am. I’m not sure. My walk is unsteady. I’m hungry. I’m dizzy and heavy from copious amounts of alcohol and the possible madness swimming in me. I eat and pass out. Alone. I wake up mid-morning, the box of half-eaten fast food next to me. Crumbs and wine stains are the only constant company my bed knows. Oh, and tears.
I grew up in isolation. Little gay black boys grow up in isolation. Mostly emotional isolation. This isolation stems from the awareness of your difference from your family and friends.
We compartmentalise our social lives and ourselves, constantly negotiating and performing in these different compartments depending on what we hope to achieve, which tends to be survival.
We broken boys enter adulthood, having mastered the art of hiding parts of ourselves from the world. Even our loneliness. And anxiety. And discomfort. We become lonely gay men searching for a sense of belonging.
At the recent Open Book Festival, one of the panel discussions, Queering Beliefs, with Haji Mohamed Dawjee, Siya Khumalo and Chike Frankie Edozien, an audience member asked a question that struck me: “How do we archive this moment and our interior lives, so that we don’t lose the work we’ve done?” She explains that she means the routine everyday moments, not through an academic lens, but a personal documentation of queer lives.
What many don’t see is how our interior lives are sodden with loneliness.
I remember very well when a friend sent me a link to Michael Hobbes’s article, Together alone: the epidemic of gay loneliness. It cites many studies that seem to “quantify” loneliness as a result of minority stress.
Minority stress is what people are subjected to by merely belonging to a marginalised group.
The manifestation of this stress is people having to overextend themselves and predisposes many to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Even though the article highlighted universal themes that I resonated with, it failed to consider the particular experiences of gay black men.
The article raised valid points, and highlighted a slow-burning dilapidating condition prevalent not only in the gay community but across many groups of marginalised people. Existing on multiple levels of oppression, blackness and homosexuality, gay black men’s apparent social acceptance or integration has fooled many into thinking we are okay.
Yes, most days we are okay. We do laugh. We have built a quiet resilience. Persevered in spite of odds not being in our favour.
But under the #BlackExcellence, #BlackGirlMagic, trendy outfits, colourful personalities and weekends spent partaking in some kind of intoxication — liquid, vegetation or sexual — we are subject to an impaling loneliness that comes in penetrating waves and annuls the accolades and sunny personalities we wear outside of our homes.
We are in therapy to quell demons that repetitively feed our despair, on medication to be functional and downing antihistamines with wine to have a peaceful night’s sleep.
Many black queer bodies carry a virulent unfulfilment, which I can’t trace to a particular source but can only suggest that it bears the stains of children who never got to be whole. The unfulfilment of teenagers who never experienced a full, open teenage love affair. Adults who still fear holding their partner’s hand in public.
Women and men, stuck in careers to ensure financial security and independence rather than alignment with their passions and fulfilment, ensuring that if rejection comes from their family when they learn the truth they can survive.
The irony is I’m describing familiar human moments that go beyond straight or gay, black or white, or Christian or Muslim. They are human experiences. But at times it feels as though they come at us queer people harder because denial of our humanity is our first education. This denial is the very basis of our isolation.
Even if we don’t experience rejection by our families, we enter into a hostile society that has us in a perpetual state of “holding back”.
The grim picture I describe seems void of any hope, but life is complex and some days are better than others. We cope, just like other people do. But when the loneliness comes, it’s choking. The narrative of loneliness is disturbingly common and a remedy remains elusive for many gay people.
The idea of documenting our interior lives begins by discussing these issues of loneliness, depression, sex, debt — all of it, not just the parties and trips. The macro issues of rights, marriage equality, access to healthcare and so forth are just as important as the little daily experiences.
The honest conversations begin by demystifying these daily lives, because it’s not always rainbows and unicorns.