"There are no gay people in Africa." My older brother used to say every time we would debate this issue. Granted, I was only 10-years-old and he was 17, but somehow, my gut instincts told me such an atrocious generalization about the millions upon millions of people in Africa could not possibly carry any veracity. Every night, there used to be a public service announcement on the radio that always started with "Are you gay? Do you know someone who is? If so, we can help. Call 1-800...." and thus my brother's convulsions would begin. His eyes would squint, his face squeeze up, and his tongue would stick out, as if someone had just poisoned him and then punched him in the stomach. The dramatics of his visceral distaste to the radio ad would amuse me for about two minutes and then our argument would begin. It was at this point that he would declare his maxim: "There are no gay people in Africa." Twenty years later, I spoke to my brother to reflect on his anti-homosexual views.
Today, my brother reveals, he has become “a little more enlightened.” Growing up in Africa he explained, homosexuality never crossed his mind. Even when he attended an all-boys boarding school, even when classmates would share beds, the possibility of any homosexual desires or acts was unfeasible to him. “I was naïve!” He exclaims. He admits that at the time, if he ever came into contact with any gay people, he probably wouldn’t have known. Although homosexuality never crossed his mind, he acknowledged that it was culturally taboo, and attributes his subconscious perceptions to the school curriculum instilled in him, and to the general anti-homosexual attitudes intertwined in his social fabric. While growing up, all he knew was that “God said it was wrong, so that was that."
"My thoughts migrated with my body."
When my brother immigrated to the United States from Ghana in 1990, he explicates, “my thoughts migrated with my body.” New to the American culture, he was shocked to witness the overt and unapologetic acceptance of homosexuality. “It brought a sour taste in my mouth,” he recalls, adding that such a response was simply a natural reaction due to the way he was brought up. For years he maintained his homophobic beliefs, until he came into direct contact with gay men through his job at a human services agency. It was then that he started realizing that “folks were no different than you and I, and simply had a different taste when it came to who they chose to be their partner.” Of course, his acceptance of homosexuality didn’t happen over night.
His first reaction when he found out about his co-workers was to hide his sentiments, and not give away his homophobic attitude. If he had acted otherwise, he explains, it would have been obvious and he would never have gotten to know them. “It was a good thing no one propositioned me though” he jokes. Furthermore, he became more and more aware of American culture, which included openness to a variety of lifestyles. He attributes his changing attitude partially to being educated in college - “part and parcel of growing up and becoming more enlightened” [that] “people are people, and people have choices.” He began to realize that “what people do in their personal time has nothing to do with me. If someone chooses [to be gay], I have to respect that. There are very good people I’ve met who are gay, and that’s how they should be seen, first and foremost, as good people, not as gay people.” His attitudes about homosexuality were “across the board becoming more mature, and less naïve.”
In the end, he realizes how silly his boyhood sentiments were. Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., his new maxim is “you judge a person by their character; and that’s how I look at people.” My brother, the same person who was once so revolted at the mere idea of homosexuality, now admits he would “even go to a movie with a gay guy… but probably not to a gay bar.” While he admits to not having any gay friends, my brother proudly asserts, “I’m becoming a liberal.” It was the birth of his daughter, my beautiful niece Elise, that made him realize the important things in life and admittedly made him grow up even more. He laughs, “If Dick Cheney can still love his daughter [who is] gay then there’s hope for [us] all.”