Saturday, July 7, 2007

Small Awakenings

It is in the US, having moved there for higher education, that I came in contact with gays. My first year in college, I had a philosophy professor who was out. Strangely enough, or so it was to me, he was just like everybody else. And though homosexuality did not come up in the class, I remember him talking about his partner of some 15 years. That was the first time that I came in close contact with somebody attracted to the same sex. But it was not the catalyst that made me reconsider and question the values and ideas that I held concerning homosexuality. Coming from a religious family/nation, the encounter was not enough to make me shed my homophobia. Though around that time, I was becoming more secularized and challenging the “Christian” principles that I had been taught, I still continued to claim that homosexuality was an abominable sin that would most assuredly lead one to go to hell. There was no argument about it because it was clearly written in the Bible. The story of Lot, where God destroys the whole city of Sodom and Gomorrah, is still the passage cited by Christians, Jews and Muslims in affirming the horrific sinfulness of homosexuality. It is this chapter that is interpreted as God’s condemnation of such acts. I, of course, coming from a tradition that accepted the preacher’s words, did not myself investigate or questioned such contentions.

My political science class on Class, Race and Gender in the US, was the turning point for how I viewed homosexuality. It was one of the most informative classes where I was exposed to thoughts and ideas that were mostly new and all interesting. Hierarchies that were based on economic status, sexual orientation, gender ascriptions and race were constantly being challenged. Social norms and the status quo were not only contested, but shown as to whose interest they promote. The privileges that were accorded to some based on their specific identity, whether a heterosexual or Caucasian, while others were marginalized, colored or female, signified to me that I myself was part of the disadvantaged group. And this marginalization was in part due to the societal ascription of values that favored some over others. Not only that but the interconnectedness of these hierarchies and how one promotes and sustains the other became clear to me. for example, though at that time I had not come out to myself, how homophobia aids the strict construction of gender roles became evident. Being androgynous, and not adhering to the classic feminine behavior/interests, I started to question my own believes. Further, being someone interested in promoting minority rights, I was compelled to reconsider my homophobic attitudes. Gradually, with further contact with gays and lesbians and learning about feminism, gender and sexual orientation, I begun to shed most of my negative attitudes.

The years of course were marching on and I had turned twenty. But in all this time, I had never really felt an attraction to men and never had a sexual relation with one. I hoped to find someone not only befriend but fall in love with, that special someone meant for me, but it never happened. I did go out on dates with a couple of guys but there was nothing more than friendship that interested me. Now all the guys that I went out with were really wonderful and would totally want to hook them up with my female friends, but I felt no chemistry or deeper connection with them. And would strangely get turned off by their attraction to me. It complicated the situation and I would be forced to explain that it was purely friendship that I wanted. And in one case, that sort of ended the burgeoning friendship. And there were times where I wondered if there was something wrong with me. if I was cold hearted or incapable of loving another. Because I wanted to be in a relationship, and there were guys who felt the same but never the right ones, so it seemed.

In all of this there was one incident that could have enlightened me to what my “problem” was. One summer I was working at a lobbying organization with a bunch of other young people. One of the girls was a lesbian. We got along fine and sometimes after work we would all hang out and get a couple of drinks. After two months or so, she was leaving to go back to school and we were going to a bar to say farewell. Now, I had noticed her flirting with me from time to time, but never really gave it much consideration. Same thing with her compliments, I just took it as her being nice. But this last night, it was just me and her in my car going to the bar and she told me that she knew I was straight, but that she was attracted to me. that she understood that there were a lot of taboos within the society that I come from, but she would still like to try something out with me. I was caught off guard and all I could muster was “I’m not gay, sorry”. But all through out the night I was somewhat elated that someone like her, who was attractive, outgoing and one of the best workers at the organization would be interested in me. the next day, when I was telling my sister I got hit on by a lesbian it was with a big smile and flattery. Of course, her reaction was quiet the opposite. She was curing at the girl who hit on me and telling me avoid her. When I was talking to a friend of mine over the phone, I told her about the incident and realizing my delight, she told me to sort of watch out and that she would pray for me. of course, not being the reactions that I wanted, and having no one to share my strange joy with, I stopped talking about it and it soon started to fade from mind. Through out it all, I never questioned why I got excited and the fact that I turned down kissing her cause of my insecurities about being an inexperienced kisser. There was a part of me that was oddly curious, but it was a side that I not only repressed but refused to ponder over.

The Beginning

Just the word lesbian is a good place to start. Obvious definition is that of a homosexual woman. Homosexual being a person who is attracted to someone of the same sex. For a long time I had difficulty with this word and even now there is still a feeling of discomfort associated with it. Though I no longer cringe when hearing or being called a lesbian, I still have to take a step back and sort of remind myself that it’s ok. Make a mental note that it is part of my identity and I’m proud of it, or at least try to be. Which of course is very difficult initially. Homosexuality, in Africa and most places around the world, is associated with all kinds of negative values and sinful transgressions. In Ethiopia, where I grew up and am currently residing in, it is something that most do not want to be, look down upon or have negative feelings towards. In most cases, homosexuality is not even a subject that is talked about. There is this notion that it does not exist within Ethiopia, that there are no LG individuals within the country. The mainstream culture being hostile to same sex relations, it negates the possibility of its existence. And in instances that such behavior is witnessed or talked about, it is portrayed as a western phenomena that goes against the values and traditions held dear within Ethiopia.

Growing up, probably until 14 or 15, I was never really aware that homosexuality existed. There was essentially no representation of gays or lesbians within Ethiopia. And when I realized that there was such a thing, it was clocked in secrecy and disapproval. Being something so out of the norm, I did not need any encouragement to instantly perceive it as shameful and appalling. It was just one more example of Western decadence and something that ought to be rejected and outright condemned. To my mind, whether it was biologically, morally or legally, there was no room for accommodation or acceptance. There were people that are wholly in the wrong and thus needed to be shown the correct path. Now of course, never really having had any contact with gays or lesbians at that point, I didn’t really think that much of homosexuality but homophobic ideas and feelings were clearly ingrained in my mind. And thus, the possibility that I myself could be a lesbian never came to consideration.

In high school I was sort of the boyish one that dressed in baggy jeans and t-shirts. When my friends started showing interest in boys I was curiously not intrigued. Dating and getting to know someone of the opposite sex intimately did not even cross my mind. I would say that till around 17, I was somewhat asexual. I did not experience any attraction to either sex. In part it was the family I came from, which stressed education and tried to limit our contact from boys. But even if that was not the case, I can’t really imagine myself doing what those around me were, going out on dates, having sex, fooling around……..