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Learning to love your identity when your homeland doesn't

Image of person with LGBT flag projected across them
Isi Parente / Unsplash
Submitted by Andra Nesim

This Pride month, I want to discuss something you will likely rarely hear in the media: the LGBTQ+ experience of someone from outside of the Western world.

Let me start off by defining intersectionality and disclosing my many identities. As per Merriam-Webster, intersectionality is “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalised individuals or groups”.

As for me, I’m white, so I benefit from white privilege. But I’m also an immigrant of varied ethnicities so my white privilege is not the same as a WASP’s (White Protestant Anglo-Saxon – i.e. the original definition of white). My nationality is Romanian, but ethnically, besides Romanian, I’m also Russian and Tatar. I’m a Pagan moving closer and closer to being an Omnist, but I was baptised as Orthodox Christian. I’m able bodied although chronically ill. I’m a cis woman with a higher education, but from a working class family. And finally, I’m bisexual in a relationship with a man.

What all these identities have in common is that I’m somehow in the middle. I benefit from several privileges (white, cis, able-bodied, formally educated, “straight” relationship) but there are things that pull me the other way. Being stuck between two physical places (my home country and the UK where I currently reside) also pushes and pulls me both ways.

The intersection between my sexuality and my nationality

I remember a quote I once saw on social media that has stayed with me since. It was posted by a fellow queer Romanian immigrant:

“When I moved to the UK, I traded homophobia for xenophobia”.

I feel somewhat similar. I’ve experienced vicious instances of xenophobia, but the way people embrace queerness here is unlike anything I’ve experienced back home. My mother accepted me when I came out, but my father didn’t. Although I suppose I’m fortunate enough to be bisexual (which means I can just shrink down my dating pool to the opposite gender, right?...), being queer is more than who you date. It’s a part of your soul – a part that manifests itself through your hobbies (I have always had both traditionally masculine and feminine hobbies), your style, the circles where you feel comfortable etc. Pretending to be someone else and hiding a part of one’s soul is always detrimental to one’s mental health and quality of life. I did not want to live a double life, so moving here had initially been a relief.

That relief started to fade away (although it still exists) when I started to get the questions:

“Oh, it must be so good to be here when your country is so homophobic, right?”

“Oh, are you in touch with anyone back home? I heard this bad thing happened and the EU is investigating your country’s homophobia”

“Oh, you’re part Russian… does that mean you support Russia’s homophobia? I heard they hunt down gay people in the streets”

Or, after I explain what a Tatar even is: “Oh, so you had Muslim ancestors then, yeah, Muslims are so homophobic, right? How does that make you feel?”

These questions often made me want to assimilate to British culture, to shrink yet another part of myself, the multitude of cultures of my ancestors, to please others and to fit in with the LGBTQ+ community here. This made me feel lonely, as I felt no one I met in the UK could understand me completely. I always felt inadequate and different from the people in Western countries who grew up embracing their queerness from the start. Why do I still feel some sort of shame about the thought of being more flamboyant, more out there? How did they manage to feel none from the start?

One time while in England, I wasn’t let into a gay club because the bouncer thought I “looked straight”. It may seem like a small thing, but it was hurtful. I already struggle with thoughts that I’m not welcome in the queer community because I’m “half straight” (a wrong stereotype about bisexual people) or because I’m unapologetically Slavic and Balkan and that people expect me to feel ashamed of what the governments of the countries my family originated from think or do. For a while, Romania was famously the country which had a referendum to change the constitution in a way that specifically prevents gay marriage from ever being legalised. This referendum failed, but it showed the prevalence of homophobic thought in Romania. It caused me distress because I want the love and validation of my motherland, of course I do. I want the acceptance of the people I left behind and I often dream of retiring there and spending my last years there. I do not want to feel like an outsider when I return.

The historical roots of homophobia in the Western world

I will not sit here and pretend the UK or the West in general is not better for LGBTQ+ people to live in. It absolutely is. But there is a conversation to have, and maybe I am not the best person to have it, but I wish to see it exist in the mainstream in the future, and not just on the fringes of the internet where I first discovered it. It is a conversation about how colonialism is the cause of a lot of today’s homophobic policies.

In the USA, Indigenous people believed in more than 2 genders before the colonisers came (and many still do). In many Asian countries, section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that the British created erased social tolerance to gay people (who had comfortably existed in Indian culture for hundreds of years prior to colonisation). Today, 377 affects many countries other than India, including Pakistan, Singapore, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Even in my home country Romania, the 1864 Penal Code did not punish homosexual acts (other than non-consensual ones, which should obviously be punishable), but social perceptions of homosexuality were often bad because “sexual deviancy” was associated with the Ottoman colonisers who had terrorised our people. We even see this today with countries which deem the West as enemies, branding LGBTQ+ identities as “Western values” and trying to stray far away from them, thus hurting their own LGBTQ+ communities already hiding in the shadows to protect their lives.

Does blaming everything on colonisers and foreign enemies do anything? No, and nor should we solely put the blame on them. We should also look at our own people (especially leaders) and hold them accountable and express our high expectations of them. If anything, this is some much-needed context, rather than an excuse for bigotry. But the hard facts are, people are unlikely to change if you force them. So, to the British people who ask such questions as the ones I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I know you probably mean well, but you will not make people change if you insult their culture(s). You need to find a way to reach out to their humanity and make them arrive to the conclusions themselves. We are capable of change as much as the UK and the US have been going through positive changes for queer people over the past 100 years.

Living with apparently conflicting identities is lonely, hard, and painful. The most frustrating part of all is it doesn’t have to be this way. These things are not opposites, but people make them look like they are. One should not have to choose between biphobia and xenophobia, or homophobia and racism, or transphobia and ableism etc. – society should accept us as fully-formed individuals, not just as one identity or label that we publicly declare.

Dreaming of a more accepting future

I dream of the day I can march with pride wearing my traditional clothes – those that my ancestors embroidered for hundreds of years and in which they were buried and sent to the Maker – whilst carrying the bisexual flag to proclaim my love and acceptance for myself and for the beautiful souls of our world and being able to embrace both facets of me.

When I was born, I chose neither of these identities, but others had to fight for both to prevail in our world. Romanians fought Ottoman colonialism for hundreds of years; many Tatars/Turkic people were enslaved in Romania; my Russian brothers and sisters fought in World War 2 and even though I often disagree with the perspectives of public figures and politicians from all 3 of these, these are my cultures. They’re my people. My LGBTQ+ brothers, sisters and non-binary siblings fought across the world and continue to fight for the right to be one’s true self and to love freely. I’d be bringing dishonour to all of these groups by refusing to embrace any of them. So, I must pave my own way so that others may walk this path too, and find a way to reconcile these identities.


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