I am a lesbian. That felt really good. I don’t go around, shouting, “I am a queer woman” from the rooftop at home, but if given the opportunity in this moment, I would climb up on our terrace past the grape vines. I would scream and scream until my throat was raw and blistering. “Look at me. Do you think I am a different person than I was chatting with you at breakfast? I know that you don’t care.” I would chant along with the mosque across the street about my own spiritual essence, relieving myself of all the times during this trip that I wanted to tell you, my host family; you, the man who asked me to marry him while I was walking down the street; you, the children I teach English to every Friday.
Of course you never know who is listening in Senegal. You never know who speaks what language. I could assume that no one in the vicinity would know English, but this assumption means nothing. Every time I picture myself up there screaming, I then picture a riot ensuing in front of your house. People on the street do not hear past the word “lesbian”; they do not hear my anguish. I picture a mob of women setting their buckets of millet and rice and water down to come into the house where I am staring out the window at them, to hunt me. I picture all the men who have asked me in passing to marry them, now swarming me with angry eyes instead of the soft smiles and bright faces that I encountered when meeting them. These thoughts are irrational, I am stereotyping. If this were how all people in Senegal reacted to the idea of a woman being gay, then I would not long so much to tell you. I would have already abandoned this thought to protect myself.
Not only am I a lesbian, but I am in love with another woman. I hate this. I hate that I feel so close to you and that I must tuck away my love. Not that I want my sexual orientation to define who I am, but I know that, without knowing this part of me, you can never truly know me. Mindy is everything to me; everything good and wonderful and I want to marry her. Living in Senegal has made me realize this more than ever. So when you tell me that you will come to the United States to see me on my wedding day, I feel awkward. I want to laugh and I want to cry because you have no idea how soon that might be.
I think the hardest part of being queer in Senegal was that very first week when you said to me, “our old host student was a … homosexual,” the word sliding out of your mouth in a sudden whisper in that high-pitched voice you always use when you know you are talking about something taboo. I got nervous. I had been coached not to approach even the outskirts of this topic, and there we were in the very first week, chatting about it as we shared peanuts off a piece of newspaper. But when you added on, “and he was quite a nice boy,” my heart fluttered and I thought I was going to out myself then and there. Now it pains me that I didn’t.
It hurts that I had such an opportunity and I did not (or could not) take it. Instead, I went scurrying into the office of our program’s Assistant Director, V, asking for advice and leaving disappointed. How could I think that telling you would be so simple? That night I dragged myself home. Well, I dragged the part of myself that I did not lock away in the safe in V’s office, along with my U.S. phone and my passport and debit card, for next December when I would return to the states. V was right though; I would never know what you would share with others, even if I could guess how you yourself would react to such news. I certainly did not want that riot in my head to become a reality. Maybe I was wrong for trusting someone else’s first instinct. There is no way that either V or I could know how you would react for sure.
Obviously, I am not going to climb onto the terrace past the roof, but I worry that, if I don’t take this part of myself out of the safe before I leave, then you will always think of me as someone I am not, even though you know me so well. Yes, I am as committed to my studies as you think I am. You are right when you tell men in the boutique that I am not here to find a husband. I am silly and respectful and well organized and all those other things that you have told me I am. But what I am pining over right now is my inability to share with you the most important person, the two most important people, in my life. Mindy and myself.
Now that it is the end of the semester and I am packing away all the parts of me that you have seen, like my clothing and my taste in art, how can I not share this one last bit? Every time I took photos of dinner, or asked you to show me how to make bissap juice, I could not share Mindy with you in turn. Not in the superficial sense with pictures and stories; I want to tell you our fairytale and give Mindy the same warm hello that you ask me to pass along to my mother. How will this knowledge make you feel? Will you feel betrayed that I did not tell you sooner? Will you understand that I had to protect myself? Am I allowed to tell you? Do I have the strength now to tell you?
As I think more about it, I realize that there is no way to show you all of myself in the same way that I can never know exactly who you are or even exactly who my own sister is for that matter. Yes, I can interpret your words and your behavior, but I have my own lens to look through and see what there is to see. If the future is blurry, like the way that you might react to my being gay, then I have to stop myself from making a guess, even educated, about your next move.
Though this realization is important, I find no comfort in it. You are a person with feelings that I may not always be able to understand, and that scares me. What if my assumption that you will accept me for who I am is wrong? Should I share this part of me and hope that it warms instead of hurts you, or me for that matter, or should I dwell in silence to ensure that our friendship, our kinship, remains? How can I resolve my own need for belonging and openness without impinging on your own needs and wants? This meager attempt at empathy is exhausting me, but I am trying so hard. Right now, in this moment, I have no answers to my own questions.