The first time I realised Zada might actually be a lesbian was in the car. My “gaydar” is pretty useless, it’s difficult to develop when you’ve always lived in countries where passing as straight is the only way for gay men and women to survive. So although Zada’s shoes and vest tops had made me briefly wonder, I did not think too much of it. We were driving to the office and she told me her team was spreading rumours about her and Lina, one of the officers in her team, being in a relationship. Apparently they had sent someone to stand outside her block of flats and see if Lina’s car was parked under it.
I expressed surprise and shock at the rumours and Zada answered with resignation… “I am used to it”. A little light bulb went off in my head and a million questions rushed to my mind, but the driver was there and his English too good for me to hide behind big words. It would have to wait. I just pulled out my phone and excitedly texted my girlfriend, thousands of miles away, to say “I think Zada might be gay”.
It took a while longer. We were sitting under a tree on the grass, having a debriefing meeting after a community event. I am not sure how we started talking about her long-awaited documents to migrate to another, more open-minded, country but at one point I realized with clarity that Zada was about to come out to me. Even before she said the words I wanted to jump up and hug her. Tell her there was no need to tell me, I already knew. Me too!
But of course she did need to tell me. You cannot make assumptions here, you cannot make a mistake, perhaps driven by your strong desire to find someone like you. So I waited, until she said loud and clear “I am a lesbian. I had a very hard time because of it. I never thought I could be happy”. Then she told me her story, sad and angering and yet full of hope and the power of love. The power that pushed her to go against her family, her friends, leave her job and her country, just to be who she is and be with the person – the woman – she loves. She shared her biggest dream with me: “I just want to walk down the street holding my girlfriend’s hand and she is my lover, not my friend”.
It was my turn to come out. Zada did not expect it, I hide well. I showed her a picture of me and my girlfriend on my phone, just to make it real for her (and perhaps show off a little). We talked about how we met our partners, how long we had been together, what we like to cook for them. Just regular stuff. Simple parts of our lives that we had never been able to talk about before. Not at work, not with members of our team. Sure, most of my expat colleagues knew about me at that point, but that was the first (and so far last) time I came out to someone I managed.
I wished that meeting under the tree could go on forever, but of course we had to join the rest of the team and step back into our armours. Never speak about our personal life, never say why I keep yawning after staying up late talking to my girlfriend, or how she is terrified of her mother coming to visit and seeing the double bed in the home she shares with her girlfriend.
I had come a long way since my coming out in Uganda. At the time I lived in a country where homosexuality is arguably still illegal and yet there were gay bars and clubs. I had lesbian and gay friends whom I met almost every weekend. I had a gay boss even! But that moment with Zada remains as one of the most powerful events of my five years “in the field”. The moment when someone felt comfortable enough with me, trusted me enough to share their biggest, most important secret with me. The moment when I could respond to that enormous generosity with a sign of recognition. We did not have shared life experiences, Zada and I, but we shared “something”. An identity, a way of seeing and feeling the world, a longing for a day and a place where it does not really matter who we love.
Personally, that day was also a massive reminder that I could always opt out. I could always step away from my work if it got all too hard and go back to Europe to live a comparatively easy and open life with my girlfriend, my welcoming family and wonderful friends. But Zada and thousands of men and women in her war-torn country do not have that chance, that easy way out.
After that day under the tree, things obviously changed. Zada and I became closer. I met her girlfriend of six years, had dinner at their barely furnished house as they were waiting for a visa to escape to one of those rare countries that still give asylum to gay people. I brought them lesbian magazines – something they never knew existed. Apparently they stayed up until two in the morning to read them all. I did not manage to say a proper goodbye when the visa finally arrived, but I am hoping to visit them soon and see their new life. See the place where Zada’s dream, which she shared with me under that three, has finally come true.