Life as a Black Feminist Lesbian in Rwanda

Once people in my community came out as different – as gay, as lesbian, as trans – they were shackled.

They were kept in little, hot, tin houses in the backyard and sometimes they’d go a little crazy because of that treatment that they received. There was also conversion therapy that was done on people.

I remember having a panic attack and a nurse gave me CPR and it broke my rib. I remember thinking, “Hey, this is a panic attack. It’s not asthma, I’m not losing breath. You should be equipped to know what’s happening to me.” Then there was severe gaslighting because you knew that you were experiencing something;  that you were depressed or were anxious or sad and they would tell you, “Hey, that’s in your head. Don’t be like that. We are Africans, we don’t get those white people diseases.”

Growing up with all those identities being gaslit and being hurt just for being different, it occurred to me that I would… It didn’t occur to me, I literally attempted suicide twice. But, the second time I came to the realisation, “Hey, clearly, I’m not doing a good job in dying so I might as well just do something about it.”

I came home to Rwanda and found that we have 11 or 12 psychiatrists working in the public sector for a population of 13 million. I found that, despite that, there’s relative support and you’re not going to be killed for being gay, which is what Uganda, the country I was previously living in, did.

I sought help and joined an organization called Yanco Rwanda which is religious-based but supports mental health and does a little peer counseling. And from that I found my goal and I found my passion and that’s why I now advocate for mental health in a wider context.

Some of my deepest, deeply held passions are mental health for minority populations that include LGBTQIA persons and women, particularly black women. I’m very passionate about black women.

For the LGBTQIA+ community in Rwanda, it’s the same as elsewhere; people don’t understand so they demonize. Some people have it worse than others. I will not say there are levels of oppression but I would say that people who are lesbians, bisexual women, or are assigned female at birth, do not get the same level of oppression because Rwandan culture is very touchy and they have a really strong sort of homoerotic relationship. I find that people don’t really “catch on” until you maybe make a move or explain that that’s what you do or that’s who you are. But for men it’s not the same. And for trans women, it’s worse.

Trans women are the worst afflicted worldwide but not in Rwanda. It’s worse. Trans women are not killed but they are refused everything. I was once on a bus and they threw a trans woman out. Kids taunt then as they walk in public or they call you by your dead name. These things still exist and are a big part of daily life.

Women are not safe regardless, whether you’re lesbian or trans or straight. We probably  get some leeway because it pleases men to objectify you. “So are you the man or the woman? How does it do? You guys want to threesome?” Things like that. That’s always going to be there and when you refuse they get violent. So it’s not that you’re safe, it’s just that presenting in public you can come off much easier. That’s basically it.

Not much has changed in Rwanda, it’s always been gently oppressive. You don’t realize it’s happening, because it’s not outward; they’re going to attack you or arrest you. It’s just that your options are always going to be limited.

I’ve not even come out in my professional career, at all. It’s interesting because the repercussions are not direct. It’s not, “I’m gay and so I’m oppressed.” The thing is people here conflict ‘feminist’ with ‘gay’. So, regardless of whichever one, it’s like, “I’m not going to respond to your advances and harassment”, and so I must be gay.

I’ve said I don’t want children and got called into the HR office and been accused of being disruptive at work. Things like that are not directly because of my sexuality but it’s because I don’t conform to what they think a woman should be. You stand out whenever you differ from the norm.

It has hindered my opportunities for growth. In some organisations I’ve stayed as an  assistant for three years while others get promoted and that’s because the women just navigate the situations better. Or once they get married, they’re like, “We’re doing this for your husband. We are promoting you.” Or, “You’re getting these parts because you have children and that’s something important to us.” And so it’s like, ‘if you’re not on your back, then you don’t really need money.’

As I grow older, I’ve just been realizing how much I can’t grow. It’s like, you are growing, you’re fully embracing yourself, you’re fully embracing what makes you unique. You just realize that, while you think you are living a good life, there are very many avenues blocked for you that you will never fully experience.

I got into my first relationship two years ago and I realized then more than ever how taboo it was. It’s a complicated situation where we’ve had to adapt. It’s not uncommon to say, “I will hold your hand but I can’t kiss you. I will live with you but I can never marry you. I will never have children with you because no one is going to.” There’s no option for adoption as a gay couple, as soon as we say we are a gay couple, we will never get the baby.

I don’t have much hope for the future because a problem has to be revealed for it to be solved, right? For example, in Uganda, there’s open homophobic ideologies there. And so we know that that’s a problem and we can start tackling that problem but here in Rwanda it’s “No, we treat people the same” and then continue to do these injustices to you and still believe that they’re being righteous.

I think the problem here is much more deeply held and rooted than the problem in Uganda, even though the problem in Uganda is more violent and has claimed lives. I don’t know, I think there has to be progress made, but in order for that progress to be made there has to be open discussion. We don’t have that yet.

So we’ll see. I’m a bit pessimistic.

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