When I came to the Netherlands, I carried with me a dream and five reversible ponchos. Fashion has always been an interest of mine; for a brief moment I had hoped to be a fashion designer but with sub-par sewing skills and an untrained eye for colours, I benched the idea for another life. I hoped by coming to the Netherlands I would find my tribe. Coming from Zimbabwe, ideas of tribes, kinship and totems were very important in my day-to-day life back home – where I felt like an outsider secretly trying to fit in.
Let me attempt to unpack my thoughts, starting with a discussion on the complexities of personal and socially constructed identities. When I was 5 years old, I watched Titanic (1997) and for a long time I wanted to be Rose Bukater. The fantasy morphed into a reality the more I replayed the movie and recited her lines. The idea of embodying a fictional character was exciting, it showed me I had a penchant for the theatrical. In hindsight I realize how unhappy I was in my own skin, mind and body; I was a child hoping to become someone else. In my twenties I still catch myself vicariously living a role in a movie, usually I’m a movie critic – quickly unravelling the plot and spoiling the movie for myself and anyone within earshot.
Mitupu/Isithemo (Totems) are one of Zimbabwe’s oldest known traditions. They are used to identify different clans and define their social identity (Totems & Traditions, 2020). Knowing my totem and the legends attached to it was an integral part of my childhood. My totem is Zhou/Nzou/Ndlovu (the elephant) and my clan’s name in Nyandoro. There is evidence of interracial marriages by the clan with Portuguese, Middle Eastern and Jewish traders, however the tracks end after the defeat of the Portuguese in the 17th century (Nehandawedande, 2009).
From a young age … I saw my entire existence being denied because of my sexual orientation
As a child, I met the elders of the Nyandoro family. Watching them at family gatherings performing all the rituals and customs almost naturally, I knew I was an imposter. My sexuality distanced me from the family. In as much as I felt like an outsider, I saw them as operating within a hivemind, incapable of making their own decisions. At the time I saw social etiquette and norms as an identity/personality and all I wanted to do was to run away from that!
I lived in Zimbabwe, where identity was shaped by the political rhetoric of Mugabe and his political party – the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front. The name is indicative of its objective: to craft a national identity founded on ‘Patriotic History’ where members of the party give themselves the mandate to protect Zimbabwe from any perceived foreign threats. Mugabe used his platform to construct queer identities and their existence as western imports (Youde, 2017). I remember several instances when he described gay men as worse than pigs and dogs, arguing that the natural world was based on the same ideologies of heteronormative selection. His message was clear in 2015 when he proclaimed to the UNGA, ‘We [Zimbabweans] are not gays!’ (Buchanan, 2015): that was his fight against LGBTQ+ rights and recognitions. It was a fight against me.
From a young age, through television, I saw my entire existence being denied because of my sexual orientation; reduced to an abnormality that had to be exorcized or medicalized. The constant public berating shaped the social discourses around me, I saw myself as the product of a brood parasite – a cuckoo laid among reed warblers. My family saw I was different but still took care of me. I knew I was different but could do no more than stay out of sight. I knew that if I stayed in people’s peripheral vision, they would remember me, or bother me. But hiding in the shadows never worked: my personality emerged, my flamboyance bubbled up, my mannerisms became more pronounced and soon I was the one noticeable thing in a crowded room! My choice to come out of the closet was my form of identity-building and resistance – a counterattack against the psychological invalidation within homophobic discourses. It made me a social pariah, it also made me a great friend to other queer people.
Binah, Emanation of knowledge ©Mohrbacher
In my late teens I found myself navigating the gay dating scene and the insurmountable feeling of loneliness I felt as a result of unreconciled relationships with my family. I naively thought that the moment I landed in the Netherlands, the man of my dreams would swipe right out from under my Tinder profile and I would not feel the same loneliness I had felt back home: I would be validated, appreciated and I would live happily ever after. The swipes and taps came … I was still single.
On whichever part of the non-heterosexual spectrum one identifies (or does not identify), one can easily become enamoured with a certain kind of sadness. Mine was linked with my notion of self-worth, being unhappy with my skin, my hair, my weight, my voice: the list continued to grow as I listened to the disembodied voices on social media. It’s the same apps and platforms that promote the image of an ideal gay man; users hunt for people that closely resemble that ideal. It was in the Netherlands that I saw how my skin could be weaponized and simultaneously turned into a sexual currency (Han and Choi, 2018). I had a few options: I could allow the body-shaming to fully absorb me, thus altering how I see myself, or I could acknowledge that my body isn’t the problem, it’s the unresolved life-long traumas that manifest as low self-esteem and the faulty perceptions I have about myself.
The unavailability of a manual on sexuality means that you learn things through trial and error.
My search for a tribe landed me within the walls of ISS where I met people in, out and around the queer spectrum – each with a beautiful story hidden behind a nervous smile. Within the Sexual Diversity committee we established our own queer safe space sessions – they were a unique way to share the experiences, ideas and assumptions we each held about identities within the LGBTQA+ spectrum.
They offered an opportunity to disrupt and transform the dailiness of tertiary education, to question the oppressive isms of society that silence our voices and allow a form of expression of solidarity that cannot be defined by words. Safe space meetings were more than just shared lunches, they were actualized by each one of us taking the time to build robust relationships with each other. It was in these sessions that my definition of concepts of sexuality, identity and mental health were interrogated and expanded.
Opening oneself up to learning from others is easier said than done. We have been conditioned to think that we either have the right or the wrong answer, using these polarities as armaments to win personal and mundane battles. Listening to my contemporaries share their personal experiences provided me with answers to questions I couldn’t ask Google. Clinical psychology encourages psychologists to actively listen to their clients’ problems, one thing it never emphasized was how beneficial it is to listen. One of the rules we had within the safe space was to never interrupt the one speaking, quite a simple task you would think.
La Grande Tromperie (The Great Deception) ©Pontiroli, 2019
The unavailability of a manual on sexuality means that you learn things through trial and error. Many queer people don’t have mentors or family members to help them navigate the nexus between internal discourses and external norms. The safe space granted me the opportunity to read parts of other people’s manuals; learning how to troubleshoot a long-distance relationship from a pansexual, how to partition kindness from a bear or how to reboot my self-image from an ally.
My identity is only limited by my imagination: who I am transcends my heritage, my sexuality, my assumptions and my experiences. It oscillates on its own spectrum, not fixed to a specific point of reference. Actively listening to other LGBTQA+ persons and to my intuition has been a beacon guiding me to shore, past the tempests and rough tides of life.
Josh Madzivanyika is an MA student at ISS