When you live in a country where laws are upheld that marginalize people who look like you, openly existing is a radical act of defiance. You know the risks of openly defying such laws. People vilify your existence, harming or punishing individuals who shake the foundations of what they believe about humanity. They do this with impunity because there are no constitutional protections or recourse for justice.
Still, you dare to navigate the space as an openly queer person. What’s more, you make the decision to define, embrace, and free yourself from others’ expectations—ones that keep many chained to identities that repress or mask who they understand themselves to be.
This has been my experience ever since I decided to openly embrace my sexual and gender identity. I’m queer and trans non-binary. I live in Zimbabwe where colonial anti-gay laws continue to fuel the various forms of violence perpetrated by those who believe our existence threatens the sanctity of the country’s religious and cultural values.
Various organizations, such as Gays and Lesbians in Zimbabwe and Harare Queers Collective, have been established by LGBT folks that advocate for a more inclusive society in which repressive laws are repealed. Some progress has been made and the visibility of the community has increased, both online and offline. However, the fight for LGBT freedom carries on as the community’s plight continues to be sidelined by politicians, activists leading social change movements, and many other Zimbabweans who believe that LGBT issues aren’t bread and butter issues.
Aside from challenging harmful assumptions that we are all cisgender and heterosexual by openly existing, I write to share my experiences as a queer person, dispel dangerous myths about LGBT folks, and raise awareness of some experiences of Zimbabwe’s LGBT community. I also use my Twitter platform to continue interrogating queerphobia.
I do this while living with a mental illness. While I’ve not received a formal diagnosis, its symptoms include suicidal ideation, social anxiety, emotional instability, and mood swings. I have a behavioral therapist I have been irregularly seeing for quite some time who has helped me become more intentional about finding healthier ways to cope with life’s stressors. It’s important that I do this so that fighting injustice doesn’t take a toll on my mental health.
One way I do this is by establishing and sticking to boundaries. As I use my online voice to remind Zimbabweans that LGBT folks exist and that we deserve rights, I aim to minimize the amount of vitriol I expose myself to. This is why I barely read comments to my posts. I’m also mindful of tweets I engage with. Not only am I protecting myself from some forms of online violence, but I also ensure I’m not in a near-constant state of anger, which would only exacerbate my mental illness.
Understanding and respecting my boundaries also means knowing how I can contribute to the fight for our freedom without overextending myself. This fight is collective and requires LGBT folks and allies to use their different strengths or available resources to advance it. Focusing only on what I am have the capacity to do keeps me from fighting more battles than I can or should. It also leaves me time and energy to focus on work that helps me pay bills. Not only that, but I also get to enjoy the person I’ve become and am still becoming.
Celebrating myself and my achievements and indulging myself in acts of pleasure matters. Existing in a world that hates me doesn’t mean I should be content with suffering. I don’t need to be constantly fighting injustice. I can make time to be in touch with what brings me joy or peace or quells my anxiety—whether it’s eating my favorite food, buying myself a nice set of boxers, or watching a good movie.
I also manage my stress levels by avoiding falling into the trap of setting myself—or having others set me—as a voice or one of the voices for queer Zimbabweans. We all have different experiences with homophobia. We should be able to tell our own stories and fight for our rights, in our own way. So when I speak, I’m not a voice for the “voiceless.” I’m speaking for myself. I’m speaking with others. I’m also speaking so others will be able to tell their own stories one day.
While I hope other queer folks will be empowered to speak for themselves or even openly embrace their sexual or gender identity, I’m not keen on being a role model. I’m a flawed human being who is still figuring things out about myself and how to safely navigate queerphobic spaces to protect my mental health.
Being a role model may add pressure that will affect my health when others’ expectations or perceptions begin to influence who I understand myself to be and how I relate to the world around me. I want to make mistakes, learn from them and evolve without worrying about who will feel let down when I no longer look like the model they saw in me and were drawn to.
As I manage my mental illness, some days are harder than others. On those days, my coping mechanisms often don’t work as expected. In fact, I feel overwhelmed by everything: fighting for my freedom, safeguarding my health, healing from past traumas…being alive.
When I’m having one of those days, I’ve learned to simply be in the moment and allow myself to feel overwhelmed. I try to tune out of everything that requires my emotional or intellectual labor. The most I can do in that state is ensure I eat and clean myself because that tends to help me feel better. Eventually, I am able to get back to a balance of taking care of myself, working, and pushing back against queerphobes who don’t recognize and respect our humanity.
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