Online identities

In the last couple of weeks , my list of friends on Facebook has kept growing steadily, a couple of new friends every day. Unfortunately , that’s not because I have been making a ton of new friends in my new city. It all started waking up one morning and finding a friend request from L., someone who I supervised until a month ago or so, during my last mission.

Since my poorly-timed coming out in Uganda, I have had a very strict rule on never adding people I work with on Facebook, or at least that’s what I would say to anyone who asked me for my contact details. In reality, I have had a very strict rule about not adding anyone who does not already know I’m gay. It’s an imprecise science and one that has become more and more difficult with the proliferation of social media platforms and services. Back in the Uganda days, all I needed to worry about was indeed Facebook. My girlfriend at the time changed her name so that she wouldn’t have to “hide” on her profile. That seemed a little extreme to me so I opted for caution in what I posted, avoiding any references to my sexual orientation. It wasn’t that hard since I knew about two gay people at the time and I tended to see them every day. On the day that David Kato, a prominent Ugandan gay activist was killed, I remember raging and feeling deeply shaken, but unable to post even the blandest reference to the event on my wall. All of my straight friends did, but I was too scared that people would see that and somehow guess that my pain and shock were due to a deeper connection than just caring about the assassination of a human rights activist.

A few years on, my Facebook wall is currently a bright shade of rainbow. Covered in photos from gay pride last weekend, articles about LGBT activism all around the world, congratulatory messages to my Irish, American friends and many, many pictures of my girlfriend and I, looking stupidly in love and very happy. I estimate it takes about 1.4 seconds to realise the profile you are looking at is that of a proud lesbian, even if you have never heard the word lesbian before. So I try to stick to my rules and make my privacy settings stricter at every opportunity.

But whenever I leave a country, my former team figures out that the “rule” doesn’t apply anymore and I’m inundated with friend requests. And that’s when the debate starts in my head. Do I accept or ignore? Will this person, who until a few weeks ago respected me and considered me a role model, be disgusted to find out that I have a girlfriend? Will they write me insulting messages or worse, post biblical references on my wall? Will they stop believing in everything we have built together as a team in the past year or two?

I have ignored a few people, but in the vast majority of cases I have accepted friend requests and I have never regretted it. V., my former mentor from the Kampala days, emailed me shortly after I started seeing my current girlfriend to tell me how happy she was that I had found love. .

I’m sure there are a few shocked ones out there, but mostly there are a lot of new “likes” under photos of me and my girlfriend. Best of all, a (straight) friend of mine in Uganda keeps re– posting LGBT rights news and hopefully others in the Middle East are thinking about what it means to be gay for the first time. In the end, Facebook has become for me an easy, powerful and less confrontational way of coming out to all the people I care about, but I’m too scared to tell face to face.

So why did I ask my girlfriend to change her profile picture yesterday, to something that did not include me and a sign saying “love is love”? Why did I spend an hour at work deleting twitter posts and fiddling with my username? The answer is simple: I’m waiting for a visa, for my next technical support visit. A visa for a country where homosexuality is not only illegal, but carries the death penalty. I’m pretty sure the visa authorities will be a little suspicious of my job title, which includes the word “equality”, and I’m pretty sure they will at least google my name. As they do that, they will find my innumerable online identities which have mushroomed since the simple days of Facebook. They will see my twitter account and see my posts on women’s rights and LGBTQI issues (well, not anymore), my Airbnb reviews where my “friend” Elisabeth is regularly mentioned, my signature under petitions to stop the Anti-homosexuality Bill in Uganda. Hopefully their technology is not advanced enough to track down my old online dating profile.

And so it goes again, taking a small step back into the closet, towards the fear I had back then the day David was killed. I am now surrounded by loving people who accept me for who I am and that group keeps growing wherever I go, but I better not forget, in the dazzle of online opportunities to connect, share and meet, that I am still unwanted.

Clarifying values

I’m squatting down against the wall. Hiding behind a handful of colleagues. I will cry later, in my bare hotel room, but for now I squat. I pretend to be tired of course, it’s been a long day of workshops and we only have about 20 minutes left for the Value Clarification Exercise. Yet, I am scared someone will notice, how this affects me, how shaken I am, how unprepared I feel.

There are about 70 of us, colleagues working for an international organization, an institution you might say. Seven of us are standing on this side of the room, under a taped-up signed stating “Disagree”, and about 60 people are on the other side; they agree. Seven of us. Four of us are white. Two are expats from another African country. Thank goodness, Viola is there, my mentor, the person I am learning everything I know from and who I run to when I have a bad day at work. One of them, one, is a national staff, a Ugandan. “It must be because she lived abroad in South Africa” I find myself thinking.

The statement we are asked to agree or disagree with is simple: I would change my children’s school if I found out that one of their teachers was gay. Sixty of my colleagues are standing under the “Agree” sign and explaining why they would immediately move their children, report the teacher, protest with the school management. They are indignant, they are shouting, they are horrified at the suggestion. They use strong words. I will not remember them one day, self-preservation I guess.

Over there is Mary, the admin assistant I share an office with. We get along; she is a great office roommate, quiet and considerate. Sometimes her children pass by to pick her up at the end of the day. I guess she would not let them come anymore if she knew. There too is Fred, the friendly IT guy who is studying in Sweden part-time. We have drinks sometimes, I went to his house once to swap techno and trance CDs and watch Formula 1.

I have lived and worked with these sixty people for almost two years now. I care for them, they care for me. They like me, I am pretty sure. I think they respect me. They seemed happy when I extended my contract for another year. But today I let myself realise, probably for the first time, that they only like me because they do not know. If they knew they would not want to share a desk with meor invite me to their parties. They would not respect me.

I am gay. I came out to myself, my family and a small handful of friends, only a year ago or so. In Uganda (what a brilliant idea!). I am still learning what it means to be a lesbian, nevermind what it means to be a gay aid worker. Today, at our annual staff retreat, I am learning a new lesson. How it feels to be completely alone, rejected, reduced to squatting against a wall, to make myself invisible, by the simple power of words. Words of hatred and disgust hovering all around me.

There are words of support, too. A few people on our side of the room speak. It’s like a breath of fresh air that is quickly dispelled by the power of numbers; indignant comments hitting me like a giant wave. Later, there will be Shawn, my best friend, holding my hand as I cry in my room. Telling me those who hurt me are hurting him as well. Making me feel that I am not alone after all. Pushing me to join dinner in the garden, with all the other colleagues who will not understand why I am not dancing around the fire, why I am so quiet.

I will go to bed early tonight.

There will be a small earthquake in the morning, so that everyone has better things to talk about around the breakfast table. The last 20 minutes of the second day of the retreat will be quickly forgotten, a nuisance really, what did that all have to do with our organization or our work anyway?

I will not forget. It’s been four years now and that remains one of my most haunting memories. I cried. I talked about it with friends. I even called my ex girlfriend in the hope she would understand. I emailed our director, with inexperienced and tentative words, trying to explain what was wrong with the Value Clarification Exercise. Trying to explain how it could hurt someone like me, without of course admitting that I was in any way personally affected. She probably guessed from my unusual incoherence and my blushing.

None of the hate-ridden homophobic comments were challenged that day and to those sixty people the silence of the facilitators confirmed that their “Ugandan values” were right, especially since everyone who dared voice a different opinion were foreign or had lived abroad. I can still hear the excuses: we were running out of time, there was no time to have a more in depth discussion, the important thing is to start the conversation, we were never going to change people’s minds with such a brief exercise. No other organization would even mention homosexuality in Uganda. It was Uganda after all.

To this day, I am grateful to those who thought talking about homosexuality in the workplace in Uganda was important, although I do wish they had access to better resources to do it well. I am grateful to those who stood under the “Disagree” sign, allowing me to hide behind them and giving me a small glimmer of hope. It’s not that I did not know or I did not expect my colleagues to be homophobic. I had heard them talk about it during lunch-breaks, making jokes during meetings. But hearing the violence, the disgust and the depth of their loathing for me (and anyone like me) was still a surprise and an indelible reminder that no matter how close I would get to my colleagues and “friends” during shared coffee-breaks and weekend trips, no matter how hard I tried to be nice to the people who I spent my days with, I would never be able to be myself. Never.