I’m not going to Turkey for work or any big social purpose. I’m going to Turkey for more self-gratifying reasons: to rendezvous with an Albanian woman I dated briefly in New York City who is now moving to Kyrgyzstan to do development work in gender-based violence; more specifically, bride kidnapping.
“I guess the possibility of being fined and jailed in Tanzania isn’t enough for me. I have to go to a war zone to meet with another lesbian,” I joked with her over Skype.
It’s true: Acts of homosexuality are punishable by serious jail time and exorbitant fines in Tanzania. According to the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes Project, 95% of Tanzanians deem homosexuality as an unacceptable way of life. Too bad, because the country is beautiful — great lakes, pristine islands on the Indian Ocean, Mount Kilimanjaro, and vast savannas like the Serengeti.
Its people are even more so: a mix of Cushitic, Bantu, Arab, German, British, and other expatriate cultures (perhaps one benefit of colonialism, although this can be contested). At least I didn’t choose to live in Uganda, where “Kill the Gays” legislation will be decided soon.
Why did I — a queer, tattooed Filipina, former New York City resident, adjunct professor and editor — choose to live in a place that is so vehemently against homosexuals? That’s a story for another time.
For now, I’d like to talk about me voluntarily traveling for adventure to a country that borders war-torn Syria. For romantic connection — something that strictly heterosexual people often take for granted because 90% of the world identifies as straight, hence the odds of finding someone compatible with your own quirks is pretty large.
I decided on Istanbul because this woman and I find the illogical circumstances — she’s moving to the middle of Asia, and I’m in Africa — comical, beautiful, and full of stories. Despite my attempts to quell this need to connect with another soul at an intimate level, I cannot. Emotionally and physically, I’m willing to risk it all in order to not be in fear, in order to be free.
But we are not free, of course.
“Is your family Catholic at all?” she asks one day over Skype, as we are discussing the current state of our support systems.
“Yes; 90% of Filipinos are pretty devout. My family believes in the doctrines of the church.”
“Why are they so accepting of your lifestyle?”
I try to explain in short length that one of my aunts is gay, and obviously so. I attribute my family’s general acceptance of me to that — the first wave of resistance that broke barriers. My family, the paternal side at least, is a good mix of religiosity and personal values. We go to church regularly, as well as celebrate the saints and holidays. As long as you’re not an alcoholic, a thief, a murderer, or a worthless bag of shit, you’re cool with us.
Culturally, most Filipinos are generally tolerant. It’s not as if you’re not ridiculed or looked upon as “different,” but you’re valued as a human being, especially if you have a good heart. If not in your family, then there are definitely gays at your local hair salon in your barrio. It could also be that LGBTs are pretty visible in media, which pervade almost every household with relentless game shows and melodramatic telenovelas.
We’re collectivist, rather than individualist, meaning the overall good matters, despite personal preferences. (I’ve seen an opposing example of this, in Tanzania — also collectivist but extremely misogynist and homophobic.) Perhaps the reason is this: Before the Spaniards colonized and implemented Roman Catholicism, we based our values on whether individuals contributed to the overall good. As in Native American cultures where “two-spirits” were traditionally revered, perhaps as possessing shamanic healing powers, indigenous Filipinos who were LGBTs were also valued. The etymology of the Tagalog word for gay, “bakla,” was a fusion of “mababa” and “kalakasan,” which meant the “foundation” and the “pinnacle,” together in one body.
Even members of my family who are not Filipino (Irish Americans, Vietnamese Americans, African Americans, Mexican-African-Americans, etc.) have only ever been supportive or neutral.
I’m superbly fortunate, but she’s not.
An only child in a secular Muslim household who grew up in two entirely homophobic cultures (Albania and China), she will have to courageously face the upcoming war of coming out to her parents. In Albania, there’s an utter sense of denial about the existence of homosexuality, despite the tradition of Sworn Virgins, which are women who live as men after a vow of celibacy in order to achieve the civil rights only given to men.
Similarly in China, where her parents still live, homosexuals are either unacknowledged or condemned. It’s a social taboo, as it is in most politically influenced landscapes. When hegemony, or dominant ideology, influences the masses with prescribed ideals that create separation and promote hate, then the battle is a “lost one” (to quote the venerable Lauryn Hill). It takes generations upon generations to eradicate this kind of destruction — to rebuild esteem, compassion, and courage to create an overall sense of unity.
This war — all of ours — will be nothing short of catastrophic or spectacular.
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Olivia Ayes is a queer writer, educator, and agent of change living in East Africa. She has lectured at universities in the St. Louis area, as well as City University of New York. Her poems appear in Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. She serves on the Board of Directors for The Mama Project, which promotes women’s literacy in developing countries.