When I started writing my novel-in-stories, The Butterfly Jungle, I didn't think the narrative would coalesce into an exploration of sexual assault within a queer context.
I wanted to write pure serotonin-enhancing stories about an almost utopian, but all-too real, queer British-Somali community in Peckham, South London; the neighbourhood that has been my home my entire adult life.
Without giving too much away, one of my lead characters is sexually assaulted by a man he meets in a bar and invites into his home. As I was writing the descriptions of the assailant, my editor gently advised me that he might be too attractive and charismatic to be a convincingly heartless abuser.
But that was the point.
Being too attractive or charismatic does not absolve you from dangerous pursuits, nor does it prevent you from engaging in sexually abusive behaviour. If anything, said handsomeness and charisma only amplifies the smokescreen that certain assailants hide behind.
Part of the responsibility of writing a queer #MeToo story and it's emotional and psychological fallout is to portray the reality that thousands of queer men — and women — get sexually assaulted every year in London alone.
Part of the responsibility of writing a queer #MeToo story is to show that this is not only a heterosexual concern and that queer men are equally at the mercy of sexual violence.
According to a study undertaken by Mankind as far back as 2002, it was estimated that more than 20 percent of gay men in the UK were survivors of sexual abuse, and the numbers have only increased since then. Per a survey of gay and bi men by SurvivorsUK, a charity supporting male survivors of sexual violence, 45 percent of gay and bisexual men were rape survivors in 2021.
This is an epidemic of epic proportions and yet we still need new ways of talking about these experiences. We still need a new lexicon as LGBT male survivors that allows us to not disintegrate with shame and fear and self-loathing.
And yet because the brain and the heart need oxygen, an infusion of light, survivors continue to try and find joy and pleasure and care. This is a vital part of the work we have to undertake as cultural producers; to show that you can build a meaningful life predicated on all that is great and good in the world; that you are lovable and worthy of tenderness; that you are not the sum of your scars.
This is why The Butterfly Jungle remains a hopeful book at its core. I felt a responsibility to transcend cultural barriers and to say to my LGBT readers, 'When trauma comes kicking down your door, here are small, helpful ways to survive the wolf.'
May we all continue to survive the wolf.
You can order Diriye's groundbreaking books on the lives of LGBTQIA+ Somalis via this link: https://bit.ly/36BVWC4
You can also find him on Twitter here and subscribe to his newsletter here: https://bit.ly/3WyW0Iq
Song of the moment: 'Trouble' by LIZZ WRIGHT.