The subject of coming out has had considerable academic and activist attention in the LGBTIQ+ scholarship. Various studies have focused on and highlighted homophobia within laws, culture, religion and policies of many sub-Saharan countries, including Zimbabwe and Uganda among others, that criminalise, demonise and erase queer individuals and the challenges they face when they express their sexuality (Shoko, 2010; Muparamoto & Moen, 2021). Due to widespread homophobia and hostilities against the LGBTIQ+ community in many sub-Saharan African countries, an intellectual guess is that members of this community engage strategies or mechanisms to navigate these homophobic contexts in order to perform and practice their sexualities openly. Research has also highlighted that homo/transphobia ranks high among other factors that push migrants from their home countries in Africa (Marnell, 2021 ).
As a point of departure, this opinion piece, which is based on a literature review and conversations with African queer individuals in South Africa, employs the concept of “spatial sexualities” to interrogate the nexus between “space” and “coming out”. It explores coming out as a concept and practice in relation to its meaning across different individuals. I give a brief reflection of the violence towards, discrimination against and erasure of the LGBTIQ+ community in the African context before highlighting the concomitant airbrushing of queer narratives out of the past and contemporary African history and zooming in on the significance of space in the lives of queer individuals’ everyday lives.
I prefer using the characterisation, “queer individuals”, as opposed to distinguishing between the different forms of identities constituting “queer”. I do so while taking full cognisance of such differences and the suppressed representation of some of these identities, for instance the trans and intersex identities, within mass media and academic circles. A criticism against using the characterisation would be that it overshadows or erases the nuances in experiences among individuals and presents them as a constituted and homogenous group. This is, however, not the case. I am very much alive to the LGBTIQ+ within-group diversity. The use of the phrase “queer individuals” in this piece should rather be regarded as an attempt at inclusivity. This is so, especially considering that issues of “coming out” affect the LGBTIQ+ community in somewhat similar ways, in that individuals are expected to “come out” regardless of the particular identity the individual subscribes to. But what is coming out?
Coming out is a phenomenon that has no exclusive meaning in or application to the queer community. It has been and is still used in other contexts and has no meaning if it is not qualified. When using it, one has to qualify it by indicating the circumstances in which such coming out will be taking place. For instance, some come out as spies, or secret agents, or undercover private investigators. In a recent, somewhat funny instance, as I was listening to a local podcast, a guest noted that she was coming out as a vegan. This sounded funny as I had never imagined that veganism could be something to come out about. Others on the other hand come out as gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, intersex, etc. What appears to be the common element here is that the identities that the individuals reveal are either stigmatised, hidden or kept private for one reason or another.
The phenomenon is, however, popularly associated with sexual identity revelations by members of the queer community who choose not to pass as heterosexuals (being in the closet or being closeted). When individuals make such proclamations, they are referred to as having “come out”(Annes & Redlin, 2012). I will address some of the reasons why queer individuals may choose to or not to come out later in the treatise. While in most cases individuals verbalise their disclosure, it is also common practise among other individuals to use non-linguistic ways of coming out. This is often the case when individuals flaunt their same-sex sexual preferences or engage in performative same-sex sexual interactions without having to talk about the actions and with the anticipation that those around would then know about their sexuality from the actions. For the purposes of this piece therefore, coming out among queer individuals should be construed as the deliberate exercise of making their sexual preferences or orientation visible to others. Nevertheless, room must be given for nuanced meanings or notions around the concept and practice of coming out across different contexts. In some contexts, as in France, locally formulated meanings around the concept are preferred to the one of American (USA) and English origin (Stambolis‐Ruhstorfer & Saguy, 2014). IN this instance, the English meaning of coming out is considered an imposition on the French society by media, hence, it is unrelatable. Having said that, it is crucial to note that visibility itself is a political means by which some queer individuals claim their space within a context where their sexuality is marginalised and constantly invisibilised.
It is this visibility that forms the object of this piece as it is either hindered or enabled from context to context. In some contexts, queer people feel safe to be visible yet in other contexts they do not and in most cases, this is due to homophobic violence that threatens their safety often. Hate and intolerance towards homosexuality is rampant across African communities and is one among many reasons why some queer individuals may be forced to migrate to perceived accommodative destinations. African countries known for serious homophobia include Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, among many, where homosexual intercourse is criminalised and punishable with differing lengths of jail terms. In these contexts, visibility of queer life is hindered by safety and security fears. Individuals may, despite having same-sex sexual preferences, act or pretend to be heterosexual, only to reveal such preferences (come out) when they are in contexts that are presumed safe and pose less risk of harm.
Does context have any significance to queer visibility? There are no quick and crisp answers to this question. However, what makes the relationship between coming out or queer visibility and context matter in any academic discussion on queer identities is the concern around rampant violence and safety of people who identify as queer. Physical or social location matters to LGBTIQ+ politics, queer movements and activism (Hartal & Misgav, 2021). Geography is indispensable for theorising identities (Featherstone & Painter, 2012). This is precisely because queer visibility differs depending on a person’s social, political and economic context (McCormick, 2015). Annes and Redlin (2012) succinctly capture the dilemma that gay men in France and the USA face when they transcend the rural-urban frontiers. Urban spaces may be liberal and permissive (in terms of queer visibility); rural spaces, on the other hand, may be restrictive.
Some geographical spaces are open while some are closed. This open–closed space dichotomy is a metaphor for queer-receptive and queer-intolerant contexts. Both open and closed contexts enhance different experiences which may be enabling or restricting to queer persons. The challenge arises in closed contexts where sexual diversity is not tolerated. One is presented with few options: either remain “closeted” i.e., act heterosexual and not reveal one’s sexual queerness (what Epprecht (1998) refers to as the unsaying of homosexuality) or reveal it and face backlash legally, politically, religiously and or socio-culturally. In many instances people decide to migrate to perceived open contexts where they would be able to openly perform their sexual identities with some level of acceptance. South Africa is one among few African countries where people of sexual minorities express and perform their sexual identities with measured levels of acceptance and tolerance. Hence, considerable numbers of LGBTIQ+ people from other parts of the continent would immigrate to these more tolerant countries for that reason.
While discussions about physical violence is trite, emotional violence from family members and friends, in workplaces and in other contexts where love and affection are expected cannot be downplayed. Family members, especially parents, are known for disowning and evicting from homes children who openly declare their queerness. For some, friendships and associations are lost upon divulging their sexual orientation. Emotional family ties are in some instances irretrievably broken. Name calling and using insults to refer to queer individuals are also forms of rampant emotional abuses preferred for queer individuals. Common names in South Africa include “stabane” while in Zimbabwe the local term, “inkotshana/ngochani” (Muparamoto & Moen, 2020), is often used to refer to same-sex attracted individuals. Research and media evidence of suicidal ideation and actual suicides linked to experiencing homophobic violence in Africa abound. The gravity of such psychological and emotional violence cannot be overemphasised.
As already noted above, the use of law to punish those who choose to be open about their same-sex sexual preferences is not unknown in Africa. This can best be described as legal and administrative violence against queer individuals and is the major driver of migration to “safer spaces” among this population. It is important to note that a hostile legal framework mirrors the socio-cultural scene. Thus, in most cases such laws would be used by homophobic violence perpetrators to justify their intolerance. In some instances, the legal scene is permissive of homosexuality. In South Africa, the legal scene drastically changed with the adoption of the post-Apartheid constitution that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation, inter alia. However, such permissiveness has not advanced at the same pace to translate into tolerance in the socio-cultural and religious scenes. Queer individuals still face significant amounts of hate and violence in some parts of the country, which perpetrators often attempt to justify using culture and religion. In Zimbabwe, police raid the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) premises from time to time and make arrests during such raids for no apparent reason. In some instances, people are beaten up for being suspected to be queer even without them publicly declaring such. This is often the case among those who visit pubs and bars. Coming out in these contexts may thus entail far-reaching detrimental consequences. It may result in compromised safety and in extreme cases, death.
Having said that, it is also not uncommon for some to devise ways of ensuring their visibility even in spaces characterised by intolerance. More so, social class and power may be determining factors to one’s visibility. For instance, the politically connected in most cases may not suffer violence or hostilities as a result of the political power they wield. They may thus continue to be visibly queer in spaces where those without such power may lead precarious lives due to violence. The financially well-to-do may be able to live in upmarket spaces where they do not face much community scrutiny and can sustain wide independence from family. Yet others’ visibility at personal, social movement or activist levels in intolerant and hostile contexts gets hindered. Structural constraints imposed by heteropatriarchal gender norms are not to be underestimated even when one considers class as a determinant of queer visibility. Social class embodiment is not sui generis. It occurs within a certain context and in most African countries, de rigueur heteronormativity thus becomes informative of social behaviours as identities, the implications of which to queer people can be quite obvious.
Since the history of humankind, heterosexuality has been and still is presumed, without question, to be the default human sexual orientation. Those who happen to be homosexual are thus an exception and are expected to declare such, otherwise they are considered to be heterosexuals. Despite their apparent embedded distortions, such presumptions still inform public perceptions in many heteropatriarchal contexts in Africa and are the basis of violence and intolerance. These presumptions thus bestow on queer individuals the burden of either divulging their homosexuality and risking violence or pretending to be heterosexual (supressing their reality) and being safe. Many opt for the latter. This selective and calculative practice of coming out in presumed safe contexts while remaining closeted in those spaces believed to be hostile is what I refer to as spatial sexualities. Spatial sexuality may thus be viewed as a strategy or tool employed by queer people to survive in different contexts. This mechanism entails presenting different identities in different contexts based on one’s consideration of the circumstances. In most cases considerations are made regarding whether one would still be safe after revealing one’s sexuality. An environment presumed safe and accommodative would most likely result in one coming out in that particular context while remaining closeted in other contexts.
One Twitter user responded to a post questioning the necessity of coming out by stating that “It [coming out] is something I would only do when I feel safe.” Such safety is not only with regard to physical integrity but also has a lot to do with sustaining relationships with family and friends, which in themselves are crucial for social support. The balancing act of choosing to either come out and risk your safety or remain closeted and retain such safety is what necessitates spatial sexualities among some queer individuals. The statement is furthermore not only indicative of the user’s consciousness of the precarity of their identity, but it also shows that they are alive to their power to control the impression other people have about them. Irving Goffman’s (1967) theory of face-work in many ways gives insights into how human beings generally engage in “face-work” or impression management from one context to another for diverse reasons. Queer individuals may (using Goffman’s terminology) employ face-work for their own safety.
Despite being a depiction of agency among queer individuals in their quest for safety and survival, spatial sexuality speaks to the latent and normative regulation of gender and sexuality by dominant narratives. The possibility to transgress, subvert or expand heteronormative prescripts through spatial boundaries comes at a cost. By and large, for queer individuals, the practice of spatial sexualities involves enormous emotional burden (the guilt of pretence) and unnecessary vigilance or policing of one’s behaviours in case they may raise suspicion among friends and family. This needless and unwarranted effort, among others, is not expected of the privileged heterosexuals. Practicing spatial sexualities, just like any other form of split identity, may result in mental or psychological trauma as well as in the internalisation of homophobia through fear of being ostracised. Most importantly, the practice of spatial sexualities foregrounds the precarity of queer identities in the African context. Not that this is new information, but it points to the pervasive intolerance and unrelenting forces that prevent social inclusion.
Social and cultural intolerance, even within the legally permissive context, remain huge challenges that queer individuals face in their daily lives. As a result, queer individuals are compelled in some cases to engage in spatial sexualities to survive. It remains a dream for many in Africa to live in an environment where it is their choice to be freely open about their sexuality or not. These individuals yearn for a society where they do not have to constantly monitor how they present themselves to avoid being suspected of homosexuality. They desire a society where they co-exist with those who identify with dominant sexualities without having to repeatedly look over their shoulders. These are desires and expectations that have remained beyond the pale in many contemporary African contexts.
It remains an ideal scenario to expect a situation where sexual minorities are recognised legally and socio-culturally and where the assumption, upon meeting someone, would be that they could be either homosexual or heterosexual. The reality of many queer lives still entails some impression management (practicing spatial sexualities in one way or the other). Queer people invest enormous effort in hiding the reality of their identity and even when they choose to come out, sometimes they have to do so on a continuous basis. It is realistically not possible to come out once and expect everyone whom you encounter to be aware of that disclosure. Practically, therefore, those who do come out expend immense emotional investment each time it happens, and this can be very draining.
Thus, questions may be posed: Are queer people obliged to come out? If so, by whom and for whom? These questions may seem simple, requiring simplistic responses like, “of course they are not obliged”, or “of course it is for their own good and benefit”. However, such simplistic responses only point to a deficiency in the critical comprehension of the infringing effects of social structural forces (Durkheim, 1994) as social norms. We are born and raised in contexts where we are expected to assume roles and identities that align with our sex at birth. Multiple heteropatriarchal assumptions embedded in our everyday interactions and encounters have instructive effects on those interactions. Children are raised to be fathers and mothers to their own children. No room is accorded to those who would decide not to want to marry or have children. Similarly, sexual identities other than heterosexuality are not envisaged. The default forms of sexual and gender identity and sexual interactions revolve around male-female or men-women, and heterosexual sex, to the exclusion of intersex and transsexual, and homosexual or queer persons. The corollary of this is the persistent acceptable prejudice against those who identify as such and their complete erasure in some instances.
Attributing heterosexual identity to everyone on the basis of one’s mere whim or treating heterosexuality as the default settings of sexuality is a “pathological” cognitive phenomenon affecting many people, even among the queer community. Its premise lies in heterosexual socialisation. It is anticipated, in many contemporary African communities, thus, that if one’s identity diverges from the default then some sort of disclosure to that effect is necessary. This can be viewed as a fallacy rooted in the binary and heteropatriarchal socialisation, which most of us have been brought up in. What would be wrong with assuming that everyone you encounter may be queer and, if necessary, asking them how they would want to be addressed, rather than considering their gender or sexual identity to be binary and based on heteronormativity.
The transgression of heteropatriarchal norms through spatial sexualities could be viewed as a political and possibly transformative or liminal zone towards challenging the widespread and entrenched tentacles of heteronormativity. The latent disruption of heterosexual norms through spatialised sexuality presents a transformative potential that should be recognised for its political significance. Nevertheless, it is argued with caution as heteronormative and heteropatriarchal norms prevail in many African contexts.
What I hope to have foregrounded in this piece is the “involuntary” expression of spatial visibility of same-sex attraction by queer individuals in different spaces. A phenomenon I call spatial sexuality with the inference that the socio-cultural context or space is informative of queer individuals’ sexual behaviour and expression. Whether one openly expresses their same-sex preference and or attraction or not depends on what context exists. One may be open about one’s sexuality in one location while avoiding such openness in a different location or space. Gendered expressions of one’s sexuality may thus be viewed as a negotiated enterprise. Continuous negotiation occurs between an individual and their environment as they construct their sexual identity. Dangers and opportunities of revealing one’s sexuality in each context are weighed up and thus a decision in that regard is based on which side of the pendulum entails more benefits or opportunities. This exercise is one that many queer individuals in Africa identify with.
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