Life / News & Politics / Travel

Why Binyavanga Wainaina matters

Bāruipur She came into my life slowly, from left field, and then exploded into my heart, making me believe things about love that you only read in fairy tales.

Me and Her Photo Credit: Clare

Me and Her

But I should go back a bit.

I was finishing grad school at the time and she had a year left. We shared an office, a few laughs, and a light friendship. The truth is, for most of the time, it didn’t occur to me that she was queer. Coming home from a practicum, on a whim, we went out dancing. Turns out, she was completely intoxicating. The saunter of her hips, the warmth of her laugh, the way her fingers shot electricity through my body with each accidental touch. Back home, when she leaned in and kissed me, a fire was started that I thought would never go out.

I returned back overseas a few days later, but our relationship grew. She sent an email. I interspersed my thoughts with her words, like responding to a conversation, only in a different color in the middle of her email. She responded in kind. We kept going, the gmail chain growing to over 80 long. We ran out of colors, but somehow, in our love-stricken minds, the growing rainbow of colors, response, thoughts, laughter, all made sense. We made sense.

I was completely unprepared to understand her. Growing up white, middle-class, in the 90s, in the US, in a liberal household and metropolitan community, privilege blinded me. Its not that I didn’t know people who suffered when they came out. Certainly, in high school, I knew and felt the bullying. I know friends who lost their family (at least for a time). I know the statistics of gay youth suicide and homelessness. But it isn’t the same.

She grew up in a country where same-sex sexual contact is outlawed and carries a prison sentence, where a 2013 poll showed 97% of the population believes that society should not accept homosexuality. She came from a patriarchy where a daughter’s marriage is a matter of pride that can lead to honor killings and the like. She came from West Africa. She was a practicing Muslim. Her family knows nothing of her sexuality or her life.

And I was in love, and naive, and believed in happily ever after. I was blissfully unaware of the torment she faced navigating multiple identities, trying to be everything to everyone and finding no place in the Venn diagram where they met. She had become (and remains today) the voice in my head – yet I was unable to hear.

This was all years ago. While the fire we had never went out, it was pushed aside, buried. We have moved on. I couldn’t imagine raising a child with someone who maintained a relationship to their family but stayed closeted. I couldn’t imagine a life without being a mom. I couldn’t imagine a life without her. Yet, these three things could not all be true.

It took a while, but we are friends. Time and distance, heartbreak and being outside the vortex that is all consuming love, have allowed me to understand her better. She has given me perspective on how easy I had (and have) it. She has given me insight into the internal pain of realizing your are vehemently hated by your culture or you have to give up on the idea of self. She has inspired me by continuing the internal struggle to find happiness.

When we would argue, when we were still both so committed to making us work, she would say she had no path, no role model, no way forward. In fact, we were together when I started writing on VQ, trying to help be that voice and role model, for her and for others.

She is why I know Binyavanga Wainaina’s coming out is so important. Every coming out makes a difference, ultimately – sometimes just for that person, sometimes for countless strangers. It all depends: place, time, context, politics, publicity. I fear for him and what will come but I know his choice matters and his words resonate. 

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina

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  1. Beautiful and powerful, Clare. So grateful for all the heroes who braved hateful waters before us so that there could be fewer stories of buried fire.

  2. Thank you, Clare. Brave, beautiful, and bold.

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