“… the love and tenacity of two queer women can still thrive in the presence of fire”
“I’ve canceled the dinner reservation I’d planned for us,” my partner said, disappointed that her Valentine’s Day plan to take me out to one of my favorite restaurants for dinner had just fallen through. When she called to make a reservation, she was told that there was only one table left at the center of the restaurant. The idea of two women sitting in the middle of a restaurant surrounded by straight couples on Valentine’s Day made her uncomfortable. Avoiding any suspicion is top priority. I understood. We spent our evening at home, comforted by the safety of our small home, temporarily shielded from the ever-present homophobia loud at every corner.
This is the reality of being a lesbian couple in Addis. Second guessing our moves in public, always cautious that we don’t appear involved, restrained from making any sudden romantic gestures or a lingering eye contact. Examining our closeness when we pause to take selfies. Feeling comfortable to dance somewhat intimately with our straight girlfriends at parties, but never feeling comfortable to do that with each other. Being at ease to lock arms with our other girlfriends while walking on the streets of Addis, but being nervous about doing the same with one another. Resorting to just text messages in the presence of others to avoid sounding intimate on phone calls, or trying to sound as platonic as possible on phone calls while nervously lowering the volume.
The idea of a healthy, committed queer relationship while living in Addis was an unrealistic idea for both my partner and me when we first started dating. How’s it possible to have a flourishing relationship when everything around us is determined to break us? We weren’t sure if we could withstand the pressure. But fortunately, time has proved us wrong. Turns out that the love and tenacity of two queer women can still thrive in the presence of fire. We have surprised ourselves with the resolve we have to continue to make space for our love in a place that continuously rejects us.
Beyond our unwavering commitment to one another, I believe there are a few things that have helped us stay the course. Sometimes it’s the little things – carving out intentional time to be present with one another, doing simple things that we love together, even if that means a lot more time at home. It has also helped to intentionally consume queer content in the form of books, art and movies that connect us to the larger queer community, reminding us this journey is bigger than just the two of us. But most importantly, the relationships we closely surround ourselves with have served as a main source of peace, comfort and strength. We’ve had to cut friendships that weren’t safe for us. At the same time, we’ve been blessed with friendships that we dearly value with a few other queer Ethiopians, allowing us to experience the seemingly simple yet profound pleasures of not having to constantly censor a version of ourselves. We also cherish the presence of our affirming friends in our lives who remind us that in a deeply homophobic society, there are people who value the dignity of queer lives over long held traditions/harmful societal beliefs.
It goes without saying that we have been tested by so many encounters that force us to constantly hide who we are and rob us of the simple pleasures of being a couple, doing couple things. “It makes me sad that I can’t share how much I love you,” I often say to my partner when I find us in a space where we can’t be ourselves. “I know. But our love is true. This doesn’t change what we have,” she often responds, reassuring me that our love remains without external validation. It’s through this that I have learned that, perhaps this is the purest and fiercest love I’ve experienced, love that grows and expands quietly, away from the gaze of many, but that’s as loud as it can be in my own heart, teaching me that I’m capable of loving in ways I’ve never known. Do I wish I didn’t have to hide? Of course! But while I’m hopeful for a better future and wrestle with the various challenges of the present, I’m still basking in the warmth of this love, as it’s stretching my definition of what it means to be fully present in this queer, complex, and beautiful relationship.