Chance encounters

“I googled the best place to get a massage and left early one morning to get one. The city is alive and beaming. It reminded me of Merkato. I passed the less savory parts of the area and ended up at the door of the massage parlor. The calm energy of the place and the aroma made me wish to never have to leave.

When my massage therapist entered, my gaydar was immediately piqued. I said to myself, “She looks queer.” As soon as I left the dressing room and sat on the massage bed, she started a conversation meant to lighten the mood “Is this your first time coming here?” “What kind of massage do you like?” I told her I came from Ethiopia and that I loved receiving a massage. She then asked me a very random question: Are you married and do you have children? I told her that I was not married and that I had no children. I then asked her the same question. Her quick response, which was “I don’t want to,” made me laugh. Her response gave me the courage to ask a follow-up question: “Which do you not want – marriage or men?” We laughed even harder. We realized without even having to ask each other that we were both queer. It’s amazing to randomly encounter another queer person in another African country that is as homophobic as my own country.

Our discussion after that was deep and encouraging. Ethiopian society’s understanding of queer people … the fact that she lives on her own as a way of creating distance from her family … how hard it is to build romantic relationships … We talked so much about so many things. We talked about how we knew the other was queer and we teased each other about our tattoos and our fashion sense. “Have you seen what you are wearing?! How can another lesbian not know that you are queer? Even your hair says something!” She teased me mercilessly. When we were done, I thanked her and asked if I could have her number to further engage in conversation. We exchanged numbers and I went back to the hotel still thinking about my conversation with her.

It is astonishing to meet queer people in countries that criminalize queerness. To recognize each other without having to talk about it. To become a part of each other’s family with very little engagement. To divulge our secrets to each other without having to have so many conversations. What she said about what I wore made me laugh. Would queer women in Addis Ababa read me as queer in the same way she did? While I was proud that she had sustained herself away from her family, it also made me think … It made me reflect on the society that asks me to choose … between who I am and my family. It made me think of the sentiment that says “I would rather have a dead son than have a gay son”.

We met with Rose afterwork the next day. We talked late into the night and discussed everything that we did not have time to discuss while at the massage parlor. We talked about our love lives from when we were young, we remembered those in her city who were killed for being queer. We talked about many things, alternating between joy, sorrow and even anger. What stood out the most, however, was our self-acceptance and the fact that we are living our authentic lives. We agreed that that was our biggest victory and we took pride in that.

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