The encounter had happened many years after my so-called ‘coming out to the world’ phase. That coming out journey had meant that I had come to be comfortable within the gay scene and all that it brought. I had experienced the ups and downs of a long-term relationship, as well as the casual flings that I had hoped would lead somewhere. My close friends and mother knew I was gay and whilst I did not experience the acceptance of everyone I had revealed myself to, I was at a place in my life where I felt really comfortable about how I was – well, that is what I thought, until that encounter one early evening.
From what I remember, it had been a typical day at work and I was certainly looking forward to simply relaxing on getting home. The walk from the station normally took about 15 – 20 minutes and so it was a lovely surprise to bump into my cousin who lived a few minutes from me, it meant I had company for the walk. We had never bumped into each another, since discovering that we lived so close to one another. It was nice to catch up on what had been happening in our respective lives.
I was not ‘out’ to my cousin and we had never had the ‘I am gay conversation’. I had never been asked, and I had never told. During our walk, my cousin started to tell me about one of his friends who had come out to his family, and how his mother had reacted badly. My cousin went on to tell me how he could not understand why someone who was gay could be rejected, as it was a non-issue and that a person should not be judged based on their sexuality. As my cousin spoke, I knew that he was creating a space for me to come out to him. I said nothing, I simply echoed what he said and spoke of gay people, like I was not one, and at some point I moved the conversation to another subject. His house was just before mine, and soon we said goodbye and parted.
During that conversation, what had taken me by surprise was the shame that I had suddenly felt about being gay. Even though he had been making it safe for me to come out, I was afraid. For many months, my response during that encounter really shook me; where did that sudden shame come from? Was I not really okay with being gay? Had I been pretending all along; these thoughts and many others plagued me.
At some point afterwards, what I came to realize was that my cousin had been the first straight black man who had ever had a conversation with me about sexuality. In my blazing from the closet, I had left out that group of people. I could not imagine being accepted by that group and had excluded them from my journey of self acceptance. And so, when confronted with acceptance, during that encounter, from a straight black man, I had been overwhelmed by fear and simply put my head in the sand.
The years passed and we never spoke about that encounter. We saw each other from time-to-time, spoke about other things and drifted in and out of each others’ lives.
Last year, about 7 years after the event, I bumped into my cousin’s wife on a coach ride to the airport. We had not seen each other in many years and there was much to catch up on. During the conversation, I made a reference to ‘my boyfriend’ at which point she said ‘oh wow, you are gay!’. I responded with something like ‘oh come on, I know you know I am gay’. At which point she admitted she did, but was waiting for me to say it. I proceeded to tell here about that encounter with her husband eight years ago. She told me that he had told her about it, and that it had had an impact on him.
A few months after that bus ride, my boyfriend and myself were invited to dinner. Early on during the evening, I brought up that encounter and conversation with my cousin. He said that he had left the encounter angry that I had not come out to him. He felt that he had been supportive and that I had simply dismissed his attempts. I was touched by his honesty and his side of the story. Truth is, I never once considered that he’d be angry or upset about it. I had felt that I was the only one who had left the encounter bruised; from my old wounds that had resurfaced.
We spoke about the encounter again last week, and we spoke about the journey of many gay men around coming out. I spoke about the fact that within the Nigerian culture there is a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ commonly understood principle. I mentioned that it is a principle that many of us – including myself – subtly abide by. I mentioned that many gay men often think that they will be rejected or not accepted on coming out and therefore sometimes collude with the silence.
I felt that in order for things to change, more people would have to be courageous. Either in asking the question – are you gay? Or in the telling – I am gay! I mentioned that during our encounter eight years ago, I would have loved him to say to me ‘Are you gay’? I would have welcomed that direct approach. It would have been the final push that I needed, not asking directly meant that I could still hide and deny my truth. He said that he did not want to overstep the mark by being direct. I certainly understand this.
I have no idea how that kind of direct dialogue starts. And I know that ultimately, coming out is a deeply personal choice. However, what I do know is that without one party taking the risk to be courageous and ask the question or tell the truth, nothing will change. And with nothing changing, mothers like mine, her generation and those that follow, will continue to believe that being gay is ‘not part of our culture’.