There’s a revelatory Lauryn Hill song called Little Boys, in which she sings, 'What happens to young men/ Disappointed once again/ When they find out they’re not supposed to grow?/ Do their lives become a lie?/ Should they wither up and die/ When they find out they deserve more than they know?'
As a young, gay, African man living in the west, these lyrics always hit me in the heart because I know what it’s like to feel an earth-deep sense of disconnect from who I am, where I’ve come from and, crucially, where I’m headed in relation to the wider culture.
When I was a kid growing up in Kenya, I imagined that one day I would step out of the closet and find a sense of brotherhood and belonging in the beautiful, rainbow-flag-waving LGBT community. But the reality differed a great deal from my dreams.
In Somali culture, like the majority of the African, African-American and African-Caribbean communities, there’s a premium placed on masculinity. Any deviation from this ideal is frowned upon and homosexuality is considered not merely unpalatable but unacceptable. This lack of familial and communal support seeps out into feelings of unworthiness in the still-developing minds of young LGBT men whether they’re from Kinshasa, Kuala Lumpur or Kansas. Such psychic damage manifests itself as a corrosive form of self-hatred that often results in self-medication with illegal drugs and alcohol, unsafe sex, body dysmorphic perceptions taken to the point of anorexia and bulimia, and suicidal ideations.
When these young men eventually step out into the wider gay community in search of acceptance and companionship, they’re confronted by a mainstream gay culture that prizes whiteness, muscularity and the hypervalorization of a particular narrow construction of hypersexualized masculinity. Individualism on a visceral scale is deemed an unattractive quality and clone-culture the epitome of desirability. It’s a situation that creates a Russian Doll-like effect of otherness, a series of lacquered layers that give the impression of wholeness but are either empty or contain only other, smaller, frightened selves. Considered alien by kin and unappealing by both sides of the cultural coin, one’s sense of difference as an LGBT man of color is often felt in an intense and harrowing way.
I get emails every day from young, black gay men who tell me about their painful experiences as survivors of suicide attempts, mental illness, heartbreak and ostracism from first their families and then the gay community where they dreamt they would find kinship. These emails are threaded together by a sense of sadness spiked with hopefulness. ‘Maybe it will get better?’ seems to be the subtext of each email. ‘Maybe I’ll be okay.’ My heart breaks every time I read these emails. They’re beautiful and overwhelming testimonies that knock the air out of my lungs and leave me feeling helpless. As a minority-within-a-minority who happens to be a writer, I know that I have a sense of responsibility to my readers, most of whom are young and vulnerable. When they write to me, I often forget to say the things that these young men need to hear the most: ‘You are valuable’, ‘You are wanted’, ‘You are necessary and you matter’.
So I’m saying it now.
This is for colored boys who have considered suicide when the rainbow was not enough. You are valuable. You are worthy and wanted. You are necessary and you will always matter.
DIRIYE OSMAN is photographed by ASTRID HASPRUNAROVA.
Graphics by DIRIYE OSMAN.