Coming Out: A complex experience for Queer Diaspora Ethiopians
Coming out is a Western construct that is assumed to be the norm for queer people and an event that all queer people would want to participate in. In the West, LGBTQ organizations have emphasized coming out as a method of showing pride in numbers. While this strategy can bolster visibility and understanding, it ignores the reality of immigrant African diaspora who are limited by unsafe home environments, neighborhoods, or who don’t have financial security. It is important for organizations and for privileged members of the LGBTQ community to recognize that while it may be safe for some to come out, for many it can be unsafe, and to incorporate that into strategies of how we provide support to community members.
For queer Ethiopians in the diaspora, many of us grow up in religious environments, such as the orthodox or pentecostal church, where there are strict heteronormantivity expectations around gender and sexuality. Furthermore, our relationships with our parents are rooted in the hierarchy with no room to discuss relationships or dating. This means that coming out to our parents or extended family can lead to harm due to homophobia or transphobia for queer Ethiopians. Although Ethiopian families can act as a village for support and resources, for queer individuals with large family dynamics, there is the feeling that you are being watched and scrutinized. Some individuals have to tiptoe and hide their relationship for fear of being ostracized by families. Simply, if we wouldn’t talk to our families about dating why would we talk to them about our sexuality or gender identities. This is the reality for many in the African diaspora and goes unacknowledged by mainstream LGBTQ organizations.
This is a tale of two stories of being queer and coming out. Queer Activist Bahiru Shewaye, also known as Bahi Misha by many on Instagram, did not come out, he was outed by others who tried to blackmail him. However, he was able to reclaim his power by owning his sexuality proudly. He attended UK Black pride and chose to celebrate Coming Out Day in 2020. In a quote, he says, “I didn’t come out. I was outed. To come out you need to feel safe and secure. Ethiopia does not provide safety to the queer community I took the power away from the people who tried to blackmail me and owned it. Now I am Out & Proud.”
I realized I was queer in 2018. It was an exciting experience to own my sexuality after not being allowed to express it fully. While I had to end one friendship, I had supportive friends who accepted me without question and found an amazing Ethiopian chosen family and community of Black queer organizers. I am blessed and fortunate to have such supportive communities. However, it was not and still is not safe for me to be out to my parents because of their homophobia. There is a perception that it is ok to come out if you are part of the diaspora, however, for myself and others, we deal with homophobia within our families. While Bahi was forced to come out and had to reclaim his power, for myself and others it is not totally safe even in the “free world,” to come out.
The logic behind events like National Coming Out Day is that friends and family are more likely to support equality when they know a loved one who is LGBTQ. While this may work in some instances, in the Ethiopian diaspora, there is deep-rooted homophobia, lesbophobia, and transphobia that will take time and work to uproot out of our communities. Within campaigns like National Coming Out Day or any campaigns related to LGBTQ wellness, safety, and liberation it is important to discuss multiple marginalization and strategies to address them. Organizations should acknowledge differences in the LGBTQ community and center marginalized folks such as immigrant and diaspora Black queer and trans folks through advocacy and community education efforts. Our community has a while to go before it is ready to truly become accepting and safe for queer Ethiopians in the diaspora.