To come out in the savanna. Image courtesy of Chelsea Clarke.

Why would a lesbian want to live in West Africa, anyway?

Months before my departure for a two-year-long volunteering stint, this was a question frequently posed by friends concerned about my safety and mental health. My coming-out story is one that is painfully relatable to many; years of corrosive secrecy gradually eating away at my self-worth and sanity, followed by a slow and ongoing ascent to healing.

Why, indeed, jump in with both feet to volunteer long-term in a culture known to regard homosexuality with aspersion, disgust, and fear when I’ve suffered that reaction from my own family?

Why leave now that I’m finally in a loving relationship, now that I’ve carved out a supportive community? Why leave it all to return to hiding, just as I was emerging to an empowering place?

To begin with, I needed to have inner stability in order to leave the comfort of my own culture. I am also interested in learning about the lives and rights of LGBTQ people across the world. The most salient reason for me traveling to West Africa, however, is that I am more than simply “gay.” My desire to volunteer and stretch the bounds of my cross-cultural understanding predates my recognition of my sexual orientation. Part of my healing and self-rediscovery is not letting others’ views of queers rule my life decisions anymore.

Will I come out?

Friends want to know if I’ll triumphantly come out to my host family when I leave, in an effort to shake up their worldview. Fellow volunteers, particularly straight allies, seem to get a particular kick envisioning the scene as I dispense final good-bye hugs, asserting, “Ah-ha! I fooled you. You care about me now, and I’m gay! “

I’m not sure. I may never see them again. Then again, telling them may be the thing that closes that door. Plus, it might make life more difficult for future volunteers at my site who may wish to remain closeted. The correlation between acceptance of queer people and personally knowing a queer person is undebatable. Yet if I divulge that information on the cusp of departing, I don’t leave room for the hard, valuable work of relationship re-building that my revelation would probably necessitate.

Though I haven’t decided, I know that it is not my job to use my story to help “convert” people to be LGBTQ allies should I feel emotionally unsafe doing so. It is my job, and my right, to practice self-care. I don’t think this detracts from the authenticity of what I share with my host family.

The dirt road to acceptance

I care deeply about LGBTQ rights, and it is a continuing struggle to reconcile this with the fact that I travel to listen and understand. Oddly, my determination to maintain relationships with disapproving friends and family has prepared me for the approach. Accepting people where they are without trying to change them is one of the harder lessons of cross-cultural exchange, and life in general. One of the challenges and gifts of this experience will be to love and respect the people I encounter, even if they would likely judge me differently should they discover my orientation.