Jose and me with our queer Zimbabwean family, together under the African winter sun
HILLSIDE, BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWEA. by REV. STEPHEN PARELLI. JULY 21, 2014
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Excerpt: No ocean ever really separated us, for the violent, destructive abuses of our churches by the same names, of society at large with its same actors, and of our families with the same relationships we strive to keep or salvage: all their combined violations against us – whether in Africa or in America – have colored all our experiences with the same hues, the same shadings, the same outlines, and, in many cases, the exact same particulars. In so many ways, Jose and I as gays encountering gays in Zimbabwe with similar stories, and gays wherever we are, Africa is us and we (Jose and me and the world) are Africa, especially wherever in Africa, and throughout the world, nationalism is linked to religion and the two are linked to homophobic intolerance.
An open-air LGBT event in Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwean event I will especially cherish, took place two days ago in the out of doors of Africa, in the warmth of the afternoon winter sun, sitting together with others in a circle on benches and chairs. For me, the tire-worn sandy driveway, the winter-dry bushes and the waist-high, golden-brown grass throughout, and the trees – some bare, some green – outlining the sea-blue, cloudless sky, all gave the sense that this was a special place though common enough for Bulawayo.
Steve Parelli (left) and Jose Ortiz (right) with members of the LGBT community of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
“This is family,” I thought
As my husband Jose and I entered by car through the gates of the spacious walled property, I immediately began to scope the area. There were perhaps twenty-five gays or more, standing or seated on large rocks, causally in groups of three or four or five. To the left of the driveway was an open-air cooking area; to the far right – a short walk away – was the place we would soon hold our meeting. We stepped out of the vehicle that had transported us, to greeters who were peering in through the window at us as we were peering back to them and smiling. From the car I had seen one standing close to the vehicle who catching my smile through the car window, smiled back as he waved.
“This is family,” I thought, “our queer family.” The world over, it is the same. Jose and I have often commented how the LGBT experience is a universal experience. From Zimbabwe to Beijing to Peru to New Jersey – the traits and characteristics of queer family are the same wherever we go.
Lesbians from the LGBT community of Bulawayo, Zambia
Gays are the same the world over – some flaming, some shy and reticent
Some, upon meeting us at this event, were more shy than others – reticent and waiting to be approached and noticed (which we did, attempting to greet each one in earnest). Others were “flaming” with theatrical displays, the afternoon’s LGBT gathering a stage for them to perform on. It was all there – the traits we’ve come to love that mark gays as gay, the same we’ve seen everywhere throughout the world.
LGBT people from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Nationalism linked to religion, and the two linked to homophobic intolerance – a common denominator between us
We - the Zimbabwean queer community and Jose and I – are all cut from the same cloth whatever the particulars of our respective journeys, or whatever the geographical roots of our respective ancestors – a cloth where the shame-filled hiding and the potential ostracism on the one hand, and God’s special blessings on the other hand, meet and similarly shape our various lives.
Jose Ortiz, right, with a gay member of the LGBT community of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
The personal stories Jose and I told – our stories of loss, rejection, confusion, despair, and of hope and love and victory – warmed all like the afternoon sun, and knitted us together. I could see it was so, for, in the story-telling voices of Jose and me, the eyes of the hearers spoke back identifying with our sadness and hope and love. No ocean ever really separated us, for the violent, destructive abuses of our churches by the same names, of society at large with its same actors, and of our families with the same relationships we strive to keep or salvage: all their combined violations against us – whether in Africa or in America – have colored all our experiences with the same hues, the same shadings, the same outlines, and, in many cases, the exact same particulars. In so many ways, Jose and I as gays encountering gays in Zimbabwe with similar stories, and gays wherever we are, Africa is us and we (Jose and me and the world) are Africa, especially wherever in Africa, and throughout the world, nationalism is linked to religion and the two are linked to homophobic intolerance.
Story-telling and hot food, like a campfire experience
As we told our stories and answered their questions – questions personal, practical and Bible-and-church related , to each person, one by one, a plate of hot meat, salad and two large rolls, and a soda drink, was quietly brought by one of the members of the group and placed in their hands, everyone engrossed in the discussion. For me, it was like sitting around a campfire back home in the Adirondacks or at a church camp for young people without the campfire.
Steve Parelli, left, with a gay member of the LGBT community of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
Taking photos – an excuse to give meaningful touch
It was difficult for people to leave, so it seemed to me. Everyone posed for photos and more photos. It wasn’t the pictures that were significant, as important as they were for the memories we had just made, but it was the taking of the photos themselves that seemed to matter the most. It gave the excuse to actually touch one another, to smile into each other’s eyes between photographer and subject, and amongst those being photographed, and in some cases to tightly hold. Like family. Like a family reunion. Like good-byes to friends you’ve known for years.
Good-bye, but not forgotten. The oneness we will always cherish.
Our good-byes were couched in terms of cautious hope that we could return someday, the clergy present at the gathering demanding, and planning our return already.
Marvelous (center), member of GALZ, with Steve Parelli, left, and Jose Ortiz, right. Marvelous was the key facilitator in organizing the Other Sheep and Other Sheep Africa meeting with LGBTs of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
From the activist friend with whom we had met on two previous occasions during our time in Zimbabwe who coordinated the LGBT gathering with the help of the inclusive ‘welcoming-and-affirming’ clergy, to each and every person we met of the LGBT community, Jose and I will long cherish this precious moment when, under the winter sun of Zimbabwe, we met and embraced our queer African family.
This article was written on Sunday-Monday, July 20-21, 2014, in a cottage house of Alliance Française de Bulawayo in Hillside, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, provided as our residence without charge while in Bulawayo by a generous Frenchwoman Couchsurfer. This article was published on July 22, 2014 in the early morning hours from the same place about one and a half hours before our departure from Zimbabwe.