An ode to family

“I believe she has a right to live her life in any way that fits her desires,” Sabela says. She further articulates that her role as a sister is to support her sibling fully and wonders out loud “Who says being straight is the correct way, anyway?” 

This was part of the conversation in this month’s Ethioqueer podcast – a 40-something Ethiopian woman speaking frankly about her love, acceptance and support of her queer sister. As an Ethiopian queer person living in Addis Ababa, it was difficult not to be moved by Sabela’s simple but powerful support.

I am one of those lucky queer Ethiopians whose family is supportive. Each of my coming outs to various family members has been different but the love, acceptance and support that they each continue to express has been consistent.

I remember my coming out to one of my brothers. He was asking after one of our cousins that he has not seen for a while and I explained that I haven’t talked to that cousin since he tried to use his suspicion that I am a lesbian as a weakness that he could exploit. My brother was livid. “It is none of his fucking business,” he said as he continued with a barage of swear words, which seemed strange coming from a person who almost never swears. “What the fuck does he think is wrong with being a lesbian?”

My brother (and by extension other family members) does not deserve a medal for acknowledging my right to love who I want or for supporting me as his sister – as I believe that should just be a given, a bare minimum for any family – but I still appreciated his outrage at my cousin’s action and I valued his acceptance evenmore since I see first hand the struggles of so many of my queer friends and acquaintances when it comes to coming out to their Ethiopian families.

Indeed, the ratio of allies to homophobes is lopsided amongst our fellow Ethiopians and creating some sort of transformative change seems like a daunting task. Families like mine, however, give me hope. I have siblings, nieces, nephews and friends who are extremely supportive. They were born and raised in Ethiopia and were taught that queerness is unnatural and un-Ethiopian, they were taught to disregard the fluid nature of sexuality and gender and everything around them reinforced and continues to reinforce the notion that as a gender bending/blending/blurring queer woman, I am the scum of the earth. Upon my coming out as queer, these destructive notions stopped making sense to them because it was no longer an “issue” to deal with or to have an opinion about but rather it became about a person /a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a friend/ who had a right to her gender expression and sexuality. They understand that I am not just a gender or a sexuality whose fate should be decided on “cultural” and religious presumptions but rather a complex human being who should be judged, to borrow the words of Martin Luther King Jr., by the content of her character. 

In time, they have moved from mere acceptance of LGBTQI+ people to actually advocating for us. Sometimes they challenge homophobia head on: One of my sisters told one of her friends who was being extremely homophobic that the only reason he fears LGBTQ people is because he is insecure with his own masculinity. Other times they gently steer the conversation to something else or simply say something to the effect of “Let’s agree to disagree and move on”. Sometimes they get so outraged by something homophobic someone has said that they will call me to complain and I have to remind them that as allies they have more power to confront homophobia than I do.

Upon my coming out as queer, … it was no longer an “issue” to deal with or to have an opinion about but rather it became about a person /a sister, a daughter, an aunt, a friend/ who had a right to her gender expression and sexuality.

I do not mean to imply that I live in a queer paradise. We have our challenges, frustrations and difficulties but I know that they have got my back. Unconditionally. This safe cocoon that my family provides is critical to the way that I navigate this country. I am never in fear of being rejected by my own family and the knowledge that they will honor and defend me has a way of realigning my world and the spaces that I occupy in this homophobic country that I call home.

And via my interaction with my family, I have also learned that as queer people, and where we are able, we need to create an environment that allows people to see us in our full complexity. My coming out and the way that I unapologetically live my life around them as a visible queer woman has encouraged my family to reexamine their own views and, in a manner of speaking, to come out with me.

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