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Growing up Queer

“He is not my son!” my father would shout. “Are you accusing me of infidelity?” my mother would shoot back. This often marked the beginning of a heated argument that would last for days. I knew there wouldn’t be any peace. I was aware at a young age that I was gay, and I was conscious of why there were fights—it was because of me. “He is a curse. We are punished for our sins.” This is the sad belief of many Zimbabwean communities. I hated myself and yearned for peace and to just be invisible. I was so afraid of someone mentioning the term gay that, whenever it came up, I would freeze. Did my family have any idea as to how bad it was, what their fighting was doing to me, and what implications this would have in my life? Acting like a heterosexual, I pretended to have a girlfriend so that no one around me would see that I was gay. However, no matter how many times and how much I tried to conceal it, my true self would always find a crevice to escape through and expose me. Religion was the center of life in my family. On several occasions at church, there would be preaching about gays and angels who’d been damned. I would get hot and cold and look around to see if anybody knew I was gay. I felt the pastor wanted to shame me in the house of worship. I was afraid of being exposed and attacked in the name of religion. After a while, my father sent me to a village, and all the boys around me were growing beards, and their voices were breaking. This was not the case for me. I asked my caregiver why I was different, and she said, “If you think you’re special, think again, child. Your kind came to be through civil war, where whites raped black people, so just know that there is nothing superior about your kind!” These words were said to me simply because I shared my concerns about my late development. This evoked a feeling of self-hate and confusion about who I was, and it made me feel like I was less of a human being. Having an attraction for the same sex in a country where it is still a crime made me scared to embrace myself with pride. I feared being attacked or, worse, arrested for being me. Not having the liberty to legally marry or settle with another man openly left me with a growing anxiety about what would become of me when I grew older. I often felt sorry for everyone who had to live with me, thinking that I owed them an apology for being who I was since it could cause them to be ashamed. At one point, when I was 27, I fell critically ill and needed medical attention. Heading out for treatment, I was attended to by an elderly nurse who was very friendly at first. She asked me about my family history and if I had a partner. Without much thought, I said, “Yes, I do; he is at home”. She paused her writing, assuming I had made an error. “You mean SHE?” she giggled, saying that English was not a friendly language. I told her I meant HE. Her jolly face froze. I could see disgust and anger. She stood up and announced my sexuality to everyone in the clinic. She effortlessly shamed me with so much pleasure that I ran out without receiving assistance as they all shouted “We don’t deal with abominations here. Respect our facility and go where your kind belongs—in the dense wild that is”. I left in shame, and because I was in pain, I had to seek alternative backdoor services through a friend. Ageism is a major challenge. And growing old alone is what most people in the world fear. In Zimbabwe, same-sex relationships are criminalized, and there is high intolerance towards identifying oneself as anything other than the heteronormative boxes waiting to be ticked. LGBTQI+ elderly people face multiple blows of these challenges. LGBTQI+ people place a lot of emphasis on one’s external image and physical appearance, which diminishes the value of those above 30. It is common to hear the younger Zimbabwean LGBTQI+ generations referring to the elders in the community as “chigogodera”, which is a derogatory reference to aging. Despite steps having been taken in improving healthcare services for LGBTQI+ people under the Global Fund, it is still discriminatory, as it focuses mostly on the younger generation, with services mostly available only in big cities. These facilities are not easily accessible to the older generation, who mostly live alone without caregivers since they are disowned or treated with shame by their families, especially after crossing a certain age without marrying and having children. There is a need for competent interventions in healthcare that are tailored for the LGBTQI+ elderly people, together with friendly accommodation. Through our Total Together clinic, we will also offer mental-health support that is responsive, reliable and provides long-term care to the elderly. Most LGBTQI+ seniors have internalized the pain of homophobia, which has affected their mental health and, subsequently, their physical health. Through Total Together, we aim at disarming prejudice. We will be conducting monthly visits to existing healthcare facilities and retirement homes, where we will offer training and presentations about the misconceptions related to LGBTQI+ people. This is our advocacy work that will slowly and gradually change the mindset of mainstream society. www.totaltogether.org