Daily mo­ments of lone­li­ness

We queer black men have learnt to hide our­selves and present a front of gay aban­don

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis - Zanta Nku­mane

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 mid­morn­ing, 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. T

The hon­est con­ver­sa­tions be­gin by de­mys­ti­fy­ing these daily lives, be­cause it’s not al­ways rain­bows and uni­corns.

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