Love: On my queer identity, Blackness and leaving home

“People don’t understand that living in a foreign country is NOT as fun and as glamorous as it looks… The pictures are dope, but the loneliness and non_verbal racism will have you missing the potholes in front of your Mama’s house.” — @imTheException | Twitter

At the airport, I smiled. The feelings of loss washed through me in waves, never really settling, my heart an empty shore. I did not look at my mother. My relationship with her growing up had been cordial but under our sweet conversations lay an air of secrecy. Around her, I carried the air of someone who was hiding something (my sexuality), and she carried the air of understanding, both ready to accept and reject, to love and hate, equally. Our relationship was cordial. There was no room for depth.

Stanford was beautiful, at least from the pictures I had looked at online, and I tried to remind myself of that to keep the memories of my mother at bay. Regardless, I thought of her. On the 6-hour plane ride to Dubai, and during the 6-hour layover as I struggled to guard my carry-on. As my stomach ached, waiting eagerly for my next flight to eat, I thought of her. There was… loss. A loss that I didn’t understand, that I didn’t want. After all, wasn’t this my dream realized? To be removed from the physical bullying I underwent because of my sexuality? To live a life free of the homophobic attitudes of the communities that shaped me? Wasn’t this what I had worked towards all those years in high school? As I woke up at 3 A.M to deal with my tormentors and slept at 12 A.M to face them again in my dreams. Wasn’t this what I had lived for? Walking around high school two years back, running towards my goals, all bone, no flesh. 48 hours after I had left home, I went to sleep in my room at Stanford. In my room, I was almost naked, except for the loss that covered me.

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My first week was a week of struggle. Although I was jetlagged, I overexerted myself, trying to bond over conversations. The feeling of loss stayed with me, and as I navigated this new space for the first time, I struggled with finding happiness. For so long, I had convinced, myself that my struggles would end once I was removed from, homophobia. That was a lie! ‘Having spent ten years moving from boarding school to boarding school, adjusting was not going to be hard’. It was! No amount of lies that I told myself could make up for the toll that adapting to my new environment took on me. Even after school started, and I felt like my adjustment period should have been over, I still struggled. I didn’t get enough sleep because of all the courses I was taking, and during the day I’d work endless hours to send money back home. The cycle of depression had started again, and this time there was no dream to keep me going because I was living my dream.

I struggled with even the simplest of tasks, like communicating only in English, and during Icebreakers my voice would tremble with anxiety. Back in high school, I had restricted myself to a close circle of friends out of the fear of being outed. Although in hindsight it was a good idea, I struggled to make friends. For the first time, I also had to navigate my experiences as a Black person, in a country that had been built off the dehumanization and profitization of Black struggles. My summer roommate did not make things better. He bombarded me with microaggression after microaggression, asking me if I lived in forests in Kenya and explaining to me even the simplest of things. I had to do a lot of cultural labor, struggling to explain experiences that were commonplace in my country. At work and in my classes, I had to constantly navigate microaggressions (I’ll address this in a separate blog post). Coming into Stanford, a part of me thought I’d have to change my behavior or adapt to being Black. I now realize that this was wrong. I was Black in Kenya, and I am Black here. The cultural differences between Black Africans and African Americans do not make one culture superior, and I don’t have to assimilate to a culture if I haven’t lived those experiences. In a way, I was able to understand just how diverse the Black community is, enabling me to view Blackness in a new and diverse lens. I now understand that Blackness is multifaceted. This is turn helped me be more respectful and accomodating to people who had previously not shared my views on Blackness.

Initially, my analysis had been simple. If I had been struggling in Kenya, and if in Kenya my community’s homophobia was my problem, then living in the US should have been easy. If I ended up struggling here, then the only common factor in both locations would be me, and thus I would be the problem. I came to realize that this logic was fundamentally flawed. Back home, America had been painted as a safe haven and a model republic for other countries. However, there were a lot of things that were fundamentally wrong with the country as a whole. I quickly realized that I’d have to adjust to new forms of oppression, while also battling the homophobia that I had struggled to escape.

Queerness, I also came to realize, was diverse. I struggled with finding a sense of belonging within the LGBTI community on campus. I felt like none of the LGBTI centered programs highlighted my experiences. For me, my first quarter was a period of feeling. Feeling like I didn’t belong within the queer community, that I was in a way ugly because I didn’t fit the body stereotypes that queer Americans fetishized, or when a boy I liked started ignoring me… I felt like there was no room for me in a community that I expected to welcome me. It’s not that I have currently started taking up space in the queer community, instead, now I understand that I have to take up space and to be visible if I want my experiences to be highlighted. In the words of Olivia Hill, ‘the rigidity with which we consider issues of identity alienates potential allies and allows potential enemies foothold in our spaces’. Although I understand that currently, there aren’t enough programs that focus on highlighting my experiences navigating my identity, I’m more concerned about finding the ways to change that, rather than burning bridges and being right. When I’m ready, I will make the effort.

I recognized how my initial logic did not stop me from struggling but instead stopped me from admitting that I was struggling. Later on in my first quarter, while I was swamped with homework that I did not understand, I realized that I was not being kind to myself. I had persevered 10 years of physical and psychological bullying, depression, lack of resources, and even discrimination from faculty and staff at the school I was in. I wasn’t just going to be okay. It was okay if I took time to adjust, to breathe and appreciate just how far I had come in this short period. I realized that simply leaving Kenya did not erase years of trauma that I’d been subjected to because of my sexuality.

I also started to be kinder to my mother. Around the fourth week, I caved into the guilt I felt from ignoring her and decided to call home. I remember crying on the phone while I explained to her how much I was struggling. Here, the sun didn’t touch my skin with kindness, the people didn’t warm my heart with laughter and conversation, the ground didn’t smell the same as home after it rained. I explained to my mum that I missed the sound and taste of home, and she understood. I realized that I had in fact not been kind at all to my mother. Growing up, I had always felt like she didn’t deserve my love if she could not love me unconditionally, and wholly for who I was. But how is she supposed to love me if she doesn’t even know me? I had made the assumption that my mum would hate me even before I gave her the chance to know me. It’s not that I now came out to her, but instead, it is that I am now willing to give her a chance. I’m willing to go through this journey with her and to let her be a part of my life.

For my first blog post, all this was really general and cryptic, but it all feels like my experiences so far, regarding identity, adjusting to Stanford and leaving home. I’ve been feeling, experiencing, and struggling to process. I’ve been laughing, crying and feeling. I’ve been thriving, struggling, touching and being touched. I’ve been living. I’ve been me.

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Exploring sexual citizenship, gender and sexuality, men and masculinities, and the temporal understanding of African identities