“Is this one of your daughter’s friends?” I overheard a woman I did not know ask in a language I only vaguely understand. To the woman’s relief, her interlocutor, let’s call her Auntie Ama, responded no. “Good, because we do not want her kind here,” she said.
This exchange was about me and “my kind” was queer – gender nonconforming dread lock rasta failed embodiment of black masculinity. My apparent queerness, according to this woman who presumed to speak for a certain “we” was an unwanted presence at the Independence Day celebration in the community of Ghanaians in Texas. These words about “my kind” reiterated one way in which certain immigrant communities insist on their composition as middle-class Christian heterosexual people. This woman did not have to elaborate or speak in a language I had a better grasp of for me to get it. My presence at this celebration was indeed a queer presence. Tonight it was bringing out the ghosts of other people’s suppressed sexual desires. But because queerness was written on my body, it was “my kind” that could be singled out and ejected.
For about an hour before that exchange I had been trying to makes sense of what was going on between Auntie Ama and me. She seemed to sidle up a little too close when she pulled me out of my seat to dance with her; but some people like to dirty dance so I tried to make nothing of it. There’s even an Akan song that reminds us that asa boni nkum asaase – dirty dancing doesn’t hurt the earth so just do it. When she held my hand a little longer than was comfortable as we walked, I reminded myself that among Ghanaian men and women handholding does not necessarily indicate romantic interest. But when she asked the photographer to take a picture of us in the quintessential “prom pose” – her in front with her high heels, which made her five inches taller than me, my arms awkwardly wrapped around her waist, I had no more of a cultural context with which to make sense of what was happening. It seemed to me that Auntie Ama was differently invested in our evening together than I was. At the end of the night she walked me to my car and tried to kiss me on the lips. At that point, there was no honest interpretation that would deem our interactions non-sexual.
Despite this turn of events, it was my body and my presence that was marked as unwanted. After all, Auntie Ama was a respected member of the community. That evening, she wore the colorful formal kaba and slit skirt appropriate for a woman approaching fifty. Her hair was tightly cornrowed and piled on top of her head, her make-up subtly highlighting her cheekbones and her eyebrows were sharply arched. I on the other hand, in my black jeans, red Nike Jordan’s and plaid button-down shirt, my shoulder length locs pulled back in a ponytail, looked at best like a teenage boy and at worst like a dyke. They did not want my kind here.
I will admit that until Auntie Ama tried to kiss me, I had considered the whole affair with distanced amusement. To breach the ambiguity of the evening by attempting to kiss me on the lips, was to break the code of silence that characterizes same-sex sexuality among Ghanaians. Ghanaian sexuality scholar Serena Dankwa has suggested that this “silent trade” in subtle and ambiguous gestures allows for women to fulfill their desires for same-sex sexual experiences in ways that avoid public attention and the castigation that may come with it. Additionally, as she points out, there is a way in which this silence can cause unequal and even dangerous relationships between women. In my case, with Auntie Ama, the ambiguity of her actions offered no room for me to wholly consent to or refuse her advances. My obvious queerness may have emboldened her to act on her desires. But for me, that obvious queerness meant that my place in the community was not without contention – they “did not want my kind here.”
Admittedly, one woman’s claims to speaking for the collective are simply that – one woman’s claims. However, when an immigrant community (or any community for that matter) claims middle-class Christian heterosexuality as its defining characteristic, people must make difficult decision in order to find belonging and maintain social ties. Unfortunately, this definition of who makes up the Ghanaian community can mean that “my kind”, visibly queer people (however that may be determined), as well as not so visibly queer people who have same-sex sexual desires, are either aggressively excluded from the community or have to resort to a silent painful trade in order to find belonging.
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For another awesome piece from Anima on sexuality and the Ghanaian context check out this piece Doing Supi or something else to be. Or this on on being queer and Ghanaian and in love.