Susan was happily married until six months ago. She is one of those women who refused to let her biological clock dictate her life when it came to marriage and motherhood. She was determined to wait for a man who met her standards and it finally happened. Six years ago at 36 she met Mike, the man of her dreams.
Mike is handsome, athletic, runs his own logistics business and draws admiration from both men and women, what you’d call a man’s man or as Kikuyus say ‘njamba’. They have two beautiful children, a daughter aged four and son who is two. Mike and Susan had their ups and downs as a couple but on the whole she considered their relationship solid.
Six months ago she caught him in bed with another man.
Words almost fail her when she tries to describe that moment. “I never saw it coming. And even when you think your husband might cheat on you; you imagine another woman, which you can almost handle. But a man? I almost fainted in shock. There had been no sign…nothing to indicate he liked men.”
When she confronted him, he cried like a baby and said he had known he was gay since his teens but hadn’t had the courage to act on his attraction to men until well into his twenties. Why get married then? “I was 46. My mother had stopped hinting about marriage and become aggressive, always inviting single women from the neighbourhood and daughters of her friends when I visited home. I couldn’t attend any family function without the subject of my single status coming up. It was relentless. One day my cousin asked me jokingly if I was gay. I panicked. I couldn’t let the truth get out. So I decided to get married just to get everyone off my back and shut down the rumour mill.”
“And you continued seeing men even after our wedding?”
He nodded, unable to look her in the eyes. “I tried to hide it. I respect you a great deal and never wanted to hurt you,” Mike pleaded, obviously pained over the deception he had perpetrated, then waited fearfully for her reaction. Susan meanwhile was undergoing so many emotions she could barely process them. Anger. Shock. Betrayal. Doubting her own worth as a woman. Shame. But overriding all that was the overwhelming need to protect her children.
Susan tried to imagine walking out of the marriage and taking her children with her. But Mike was a wonderful father and excellent provider. This problem obviously couldn’t be fixed with marital counselling. Plus, she didn’t have the right equipment to satisfy her husband’s sexual needs. Should her own needs as a woman override those of her children for a father who despite being gay was the most wonderful father she could ever ask for?
What would she say if asked why she walked out of her marriage? Susan tried to imagine having that conversation with her extremely conservative and religious parents and realised she couldn’t. Everyone admired Mike and looked up to him. She was envied by her friends and relatives for her choice of husband. If the world knew he was gay, he would be vilified, ridiculed, lose respect in the eyes of so many of those who looked up to him now. Was it worth it to expose him? What about the resulting trauma on her children – to have their father treated like a pariah?
Susan wrestled with these questions for six months and finally came to a painful decision. All children need their fathers and Mike being gay was not a good enough reason to deprive them of a dad who loved and cared for them deeply. Her marriage was a sham but she would rather perpetuate the lie than shame a good man in front of the world. What about her own needs as a woman? Perhaps she would find company, a discreet affair with a friend or work associate. She would cross that bridge when she came to it.
This whole story pained me on several levels. I don’t know who decided that everyone must get married but the resulting pressure from society on single people is enormous. Despite the word ‘spinster’ having become a derogatory label in some parts of Africa, single women have it better than bachelors for the simple reason that women are expected to be submissive and wait for a marriage proposal from a man. Thus, when no proposals are forthcoming, these women earn sympathy or pity, but it’s not automatic that they are assumed to be lesbians.
While a term like “she’s on the shelf” used to describe single women over 35 may raise hackles, it’s actually not as bad as it sounds. By that definition, some of us (I’m 43) are closer to antiques. But antiques are rare and precious. And I do believe that women are like fine wine and only get better with age. Plus, after 40, most people stop bothering women about the marriage question and simply let them be. So being on the shelf has its advantages.
Not so for single men. Because men are still expected to be the pursuers when it comes to love and marriage, a bachelor will always be under pressure no matter his age. Remember the reaction of MPs when the CBK governor declared he was single by choice at 54? For a man, as long as he has a good job, is mentally sound and not in prison, he will remain an attractive target for single women (and their mothers) and will be pursued relentlessly. His own horde of relatives will add to the pressure and with time it can become a boiling cauldron that only the strongest of men can withstand. So where does that leave the gay man who is forced to hide his sexuality because we in Africa have decided to bury our heads in the sand over the question of homosexuality? Between the devil and the deep blue sea.
I admire Binyavanga Wainaina for two reasons. Walking around Africa as a self-declared gay man and proud of it is an act of courage because in some countries like Uganda it can be suicidal. Two, he took himself out of the dating pool (for one half of the population at least). Most gay men in Africa lack that courage and so when the pressure by society to get married becomes too much, they simply succumb and marry some innocent woman who has no idea what she’s getting into. Like Susan, she is a sitting duck.
Forget the emotional hurt of one day finding out you were just a prop to hide his homosexuality. If he isn’t taking adequate precautions with the men he’s sleeping with, who are also in all likelihood also married to other women, you could end up in effect sleeping with a network of people which increases the chances of contracting STDs and HIV. A few years ago, I heard the leader of a lobby group for gays claim that 70% of its members in Kenya were “happily married” men. I thought at the time he was exaggerating but after Susan’s experience, I just have to wonder.
I think we in Africa should accept homosexuality for the simple reason that it will save lives. Before the bible thumping brigade takes out the good book and starts quoting verses, let me say that I believe that homosexuality is between you and whichever God you worship. I will not judge what consenting adults choose to do. What makes me angry is that burying our heads in the sand by saying homosexuality was exported to these shores by the west or whatever doesn’t change the fact that there are gay people among us. Your daughter or sister could be the next Susan. We should simply let people live their lives the best way they know how and not punish their choices, especially if those choices are not harming us personally.
To those who say that accepting homosexuality will lead to gay men raping boys, I say hogwash. Straight men have been raping women for centuries, some babies as young as 8 months or grandmothers as old as 90. Let’s be clear. Rape is not about sex. It’s about violence; men who get their kicks from hurting people weaker than they are. In some countries, straight men have opted to gang rape lesbians to “cure” them. Straight women who are raped are often scarred for life, unable to relate normally with the opposite sex. And yet some buffoons think raping a lesbian will make men more appealing? It beggars belief. But as I said, violence doesn’t need a rational reason to manifest itself.
On the gay issue we should learn from history. Like Prohibition and abortion, banning something without addressing the root causes doesn’t stop it but simply drives the practice underground where it does more harm in the long run. Ask Susan. She’s just the latest casualty.
As a single 43-year old woman, my biggest fear isn’t ending up alone. It’s ending up with someone who turns out to be gay. After all those years of waiting you feel cheated. I confess I don’t have a good gay-o-meter. Since society isn’t about to change soon and allow Africans to be openly gay without judgement, anyone out there who can train me and other singles on how to spot a gay man still in the closet before we end up at the alter like Susan and it’s too late?
If you are new to this blog, you can read my second novel Duel in the Savanna here. Download the Pdf or read all the chapters online. Drop me a comment when you’re done and feel free to share with your friends and family. Enjoy!