At 15 years old, I hid in my room and secretly watched Pariah, a film where Alike, a 17-year-old African-American girl, is beginning to embrace her identity as a lesbian. In the film, Alike hangs out with her openly lesbian friend, Laura, and we watch as she navigates and comes to terms with her butch lesbian identity. Watching Pariah, I found myself confronting my own feelings of fear and shame that came with the realisation that I had a crush on a girl at school. Even then, when I didn’t have the language to explain the magnitude of what I was feeling and who I was, I knew that being open about my bisexuality was not a possibility for me, especially with my fiercely Pentecostal, homophobic parents. Coming out – as many of my friends were doing at the time – was too dangerous. I was terrified – not only was it likely that my family and the community that surrounded me would reject me, but I was still regularly visiting Nigeria, the country of my father’s birth, where being who I was and loving who I loved was still criminalised and illegal.
Besides, coming out would have meant that I embraced this identity, that I was happy with who I was becoming. And, while I really wanted to accept my own queerness – to feel free enough to go on dates with the girls I liked – the messages I received from my parents, from church and from childhood friends, still categorised people like me as sinners who would rot in hell. It required too much bravery, I decided, to go against the norm, to be so vulnerable. I was too scared to be told that being bi was too un-Christian, too un-African. I’d heard rumors of parents forcing their kids into conversion therapy, and, as a deacon’s daughter, I was worried that I would be heavily scrutinised, heavily stigmatised and forced to suffer the same fate. And so, I chose to be silent, until silence no longer felt like an option.
In April 2018, Janelle Monáe released Dirty Computer, her first studio album since The Electric Lady. In songs such as Make Me Feel and PYNK, Monáe steps into her bisexual lighting, uses vaginal iconography and celebrates female and queer sexuality. In a Rolling Stone feature, published around the album release, Monáe declares, “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women – I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” Monáe then goes on to explain that, though she originally identified as bisexual, she read about pansexuality and was like, “Oh, these are things that I identify with too. I’m open to learning more about who I am.”
Monáe is part of a legacy of black queer people and trans women who have helped shed the shame around being queer or trans, so it no longer feels like we have to stay in the dark. Listening to Dirty Computer, I cannot help but notice that, as much as this album is about Monáe, it’s about all of us, too. When talking about the record, Monáe says, “I want young girls, young boys, non binary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracised or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. This album is for you. Be proud.”
Monáe is part of a legacy of black queer people and trans women who have helped shed the shame, so it no longer feels like we have to stay in the dark
It’s not lost on me that Monáe’s openness about her sexuality is monumental. For queer black women and girls like me, the openness and courage of Monáe, and others like her, about their queer and trans identities – Angel Haze, Johnetta Elzie, Kehlani and Janet Mock – encourages us to stand bolder in our truth. This current moment’s visibility of queer black women is necessary as it continues to help normalise queerness for black communities – where homophobia is still rife – for marginalised communities, and the next generation. While it might be easy to dismiss these public declarations of queer and trans identities as insignificant, the decision to be public about one’s sexuality is still inherently political. In the current US climate, where black trans women are murdered at extortionate rates, where Giovanni Melton, a 14-year-old black boy, is shot after his father discovered he had a boyfriend, where 40 per cent of the homeless youth in America are queer or trans, these public affirmations are increasingly radical.
Four years after watching Pariah, I found that I could no longer pretend that I was not queer. I took some time to learn about queer black women – past and present – many of whom gave me the courage to be open and to be myself. After severing all ties with my parents and wider family and friends, I came out to my closest friends and chosen family towards the end of 2017.
This time, I didn’t have to worry about rejection.