Pride is a luxury I cannot afford, yet.
July 6, 2019 9:13 PM   Subscribe

Social media has become a space where my own family and friends have turned into censors - Richard Akuson, a Nigerian-trained attorney, activist, creator of Nasty Boy magazine and now-asylum-seeker writes about the scrutiny he receives from his family of his lifestyle from thousands of miles away.
posted by Toddles (16 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
the homophobia of my home and family follows me through social media, through emails and text messages.

This is a grim story, but I wish it weren’t framed with a picture of him looking at a selfie, or with the general social media context. Social media is incidental to this, which is a reminder that homophobia is still real and widespread in many places.
posted by Going To Maine at 9:45 PM on July 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

There is a ton of scholarship on exactly this.
posted by k8t at 9:47 PM on July 6, 2019

i sorta feel like the social media context isn't just incidental? it's one of the author's last remaining links to his family and his homeland, and it's hard to just let that go even when holding onto it cuts you deep.
posted by anem0ne at 10:52 PM on July 6, 2019 [34 favorites]

It's not incidental, but Akuson discusses several things other than social media where he feels as he does. Many of the NYT comments glibly advised him to stop using social media, but it seems to me that the social media stuff is more an acute example of the larger things he's struggling with and that changing how he uses social media would be more like alleviating a few of the symptoms than it would be like actually finding some resolution and peace-of-mind.

The vast majority of the NYT comments urged him to cut off his family, which I found interesting but problematic given the discussions we've had here about being aware that everyone doesn't share the American cultural context.

I have the impression that this is, in fact, a primary difficulty he's grappling with: he's come to the US which is much more tolerant, but he certainly doesn't share the set of experiences of American gay men. The answers and expectations found here about how to cope are insufficient or inappropriate and this has the unfortunate effect of causing him to feel some alienation twice over, from Nigeria and here. I found this essay heartbreaking.

This also brought to mind a recent Guardian piece by Val Kalende, Africa: homophobia is a legacy of colonialism.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:46 AM on July 7, 2019 [26 favorites]

That was a sad piece to read. I hope he finds his way to a happier place in his life, because right now he is getting the negatives of everything (ie, family criticism, unable to live the life he wants) without the positives, which does not seem tenable.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:57 AM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

And not everyone has the same relation to family. I was able to cut myself off from toxic parts of my family relatively easily. But I grew up in a fairly disaggregated wider family structure — my aunts and uncles and cousins don’t all talk, so I can interact with a few and not worry about the problems riding those connections back to me. Plus, I grew up in the wide Midwest in the US, and physical distance counts for something.

Since moving to Rhode Island, I’ve seen a very different family structure at play. You can’t get away from trouble and censure unless you are willing to ditch your entire family, in which case you’d best leave the state. And with social media, even leaving the state doesn’t let you get away unless you cut off everything.

Every time a post on Catholicism comes up, people are “why don’t you just leave?” without understanding the terrible social cost. It seems like something similar is going on with Akuson — the terrible cost is too much, especially when his (apparently) closest friends in the US are dealing with the same problem. If anyone steps out too far, they all get dragged out. Things were a bit like this in the US in the mid-20th C, but US solutions aren’t Nigerian solutions, and being an expat and refugee adds even more tensions.

So social media is a factor, because social media feeds on connections, something people like Akuson can’t survive.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:14 AM on July 7, 2019 [10 favorites]

One failing of the piece is that it does not make clear x what that cost would be. Indeed, the piece is generally framed as if he has left. He is out to the members who are mentioned, and they hate it. There is a hint that there are other family members to room he is not out, but I don't believe that's explicitly stated. The piece read more as if, when his connections are reminded of his being gay, they attack him.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:27 AM on July 7, 2019

That is, this does not seem like a conventional "oh no, social media" story where a secret is inadvertently revealed or someone is harassed by an online horde. It's a story about how sharing information can remind us of truths we'd rather not know, like how a family member is in a different political party. I wish that his inability to detach had been given more space.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:40 AM on July 7, 2019

This also brought to mind a recent Guardian piece by Val Kalende, Africa: homophobia is a legacy of colonialism.

There’s additional reading here by Kamau Muiga: African homophobia and the colonial roots of African conservatism, with a very brief discussion.

I don’t pretend to fully grasp the difficulty Akuson faces, but I know that social media is a tricky thing; it’s not a situation where he didn’t have these accounts or he kept them secret then his family discovered them after the fact, it’s that he’s had them and they’ve know about that, formed links organically over years; going radio silent would have itself raised questions where the only answers available are to lie and stay in the closet or come out and have a much more painful conversation.

Being out and living truly is nice, but it has different costs and sacrifices depending on the culture one exists in. I know that for at least over a decade I kept my being a gay “man” out of my social media posts that my tenuous links to Korea could see, not because I was scared of them but out of respect for my mother’s request; a request that, to many Americans, seems mind-bogglingly overstepping, but isn’t when familial dynamics and cultural pressures come into play. (It is somewhat harder now given that it’s becoming more clear that mom never had an elder son, but an elder daughter, and that’s been an ongoing discussion within the immediate family.)

I could, in order to protect myself, and my mother, sever those social media ties to my extended family, meaning that our actual connection would wither further, dwindling down to a wisp, with calls in basic Korean every Seollal and Chuseok; but just thinking about how much that would disconnect me from my heritage, the parts of me that I still carry even if I am foreign to them? It’s heartbreaking. And I don’t have a a difficult relationship to my homeland or my extended family, it’s a country relatively easy to get to with a vibrant, large, Korean community here.

Coming out, and leaving home, might seem like a stateful process to a lot of people—you either are or aren’t, have or haven’t, but it’s definitely never been in the former case, and in the latter, social media has changed how that happens. Coming out is a repeating act with an asymptotic end, with eddies here and there and course changes as those coming out discover more about themselves; leaving home leaves ghosts behind, and the ghosts you take with you, which social media helps animate in a way that can both keep you warm at night or freeze your heart with cold.

I think the crux of it is the familiar question he poses “Is this really worth losing loved ones over?” In my experience, there’s almost never a straight answer to that.
posted by anem0ne at 7:25 AM on July 7, 2019 [21 favorites]

What a heartbreaking story. It's a good piece to publish for Pride season.

The problem isn't social media, it's his hateful family. Social media just gives them a new tool to continue to oppress him. Fuck them. Many gay people I know have dealt with this kind of toxic hatefulness only by estranging themselves entirely and cutting themselves off from family. But that's very hard to do and comes at a great cost. And Akuson has already done many hard, costful things just to get to a place of physical safety. I'm sorry Akuson is still trapped by his family. And angry.

Worth highlighting the role that his family's evangelical Christianity plays here too. So much harm done.
posted by Nelson at 7:29 AM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think the crux of it is the familiar question he poses “Is this really worth losing loved ones over?” In my experience, there’s almost never a straight answer to that.

I’m stuck feeling like it’s the family who should be asking themselves if it’s worth it to them to lose him rather than vice versa, but the person who is alone is always the one that pays the price and has to make the hard decisions - for him it’s his entire family, his history in his home country, but for them they just lose one person and keep everything else.

No straight answers, indeed.
posted by bile and syntax at 8:29 AM on July 7, 2019 [3 favorites]

I'm a straight, I only have analogous experiences, but I think it's worth speaking up.

My traditional Hindu parents were massively abusive throughout childhood, and the abuse finally ended when they threw me out and cut me off because they found out I had a boyfriend.

One-and-half decades AND A DIVORCE later, I'm still the cautionary tale told to young people in my extended family: Look what happened to Mira! Married outside our caste, and had to live with a meat-eating, alcohol-drinking spouse!! Don't fall in love, kids! Let us arrange your marriage! I lost them all, I have no strong social connections left anymore of the familial variety, in spite of being technically reconciled with my parents and kind of working towards it.

It's only now as I head close to 40 that I realize the importance of these connections, the richness they might have brought to my life and to my kids had they not been amputated. When I think about this, I am glad, glad, glad that I easily said "Yes" to the technical reconciliation with my parents way back when they first sought me out, a few years after the big disownment drama.

At the time I was just "being the bigger person" - or so I said to myself, in order to feel quite superior and smug - without any real understanding of exactly how good a choice I was making. I mean, if I hadn't had the brainwave of proving my superiority to my parents through my magnanimity, I would happily have cut them out of my life and felt absolutely justified and quite equally as smug and superior. I would have found many, many multitudes of supporters on internet forums who would have encouraged me to cut these legitimately toxic, abusive people out of my life.

But the truth of the matter is, my toxic abusive parents had no power over me anymore when they came back begging for a reconciliation. No matter how badly they behaved or whatever shenanigans they tried to pull, I was in no danger of being hurt by them because I could say "no" without any repercussions. I lived continents away, they didn't pay my bills, they needed their connection with me far more than (I thought) I needed them. I had them at my mercy. I didn't need to forgive them (still haven't), I didn't need to let them into my heart, I didn't get to do anything that did not feel thoroughly right for me, moment to moment. I didn't need to let them get away with any misbehavior around me. There was literally no downside to me agreeing to reconnect.

And I think it's the same for this guy in the OP. He lives far away. He doesn't depend on his family or his extended family in any way. He has no need for them or their approval, he has his own life. OBVIOUSLY he doesn't want to cut his (erstwhile abusive) family out! They can't harm him anymore and he has nothing to lose, and potentially a lot to gain, by keeping the lines of communication open. Why should anyone tell him to cut them off??

I have come to despise the eagerness of left-leaning internet forums to encourage people to cut family out of their lives. Somehow the magic word "boundaries" seems to turn even hippies into extremist, everyone-for-themselves style individualists. But boundaries are meant to safeguard relationships, not end them. Cutting someone off is a failure in boundary setting, not the "boss mode" of boundaries that everyone makes it out to be.

When your family no longer has any actual power over you, then surely the answer to their homophobia should be to say, "Oi, cut that shit out, grandma, you jerk," rather than to literally cut them out of your life. THOSE are boundaries. THAT is authenticity.
posted by MiraK at 2:01 PM on July 7, 2019 [9 favorites]

I think you didn't read the article closely, MiraK, with all the details about how his hateful family is still harming him every day. I started pulling a bunch of quotes but there are so many I ended up quoting half the article. It left me wondering if you bothered to read the fine article or if you were in such a hurry to impose your experience on his you missed everything he wrote.

This one paragraph will stand in:
I fail to live fully for the fear of getting into yet another fight with my parents. I dread the phone calls where they tell me how utterly ashamed and disappointed they are. After calls like that, I hang up. I hate myself and wish that I didn’t have to be gay, that it didn’t hurt so much.
That feeling of hating yourself for who you are every day is a common and singular gay experience. It is horrible. Anything you can do to preserve yourself from that, including rejecting your family and their hateful religion, is justified.
posted by Nelson at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2019 [1 favorite]

That feeling of hating yourself for who you are every day is a common and singular gay experience. It is horrible. Anything you can do to preserve yourself from that, including rejecting your family and their hateful religion, is justified.

Is it?

I think, and this has been common to my experience as a child of immigrants, white/Westernized, individualist Queers tend to think that there is only one way to deal with family—they either get on board or are pitched overboard. There’s this distinct mindset that comes with it—one must come out to live authentically, one must follow the prescribed path that forms the bones of each and every (white) Queer origin story seen in the media: the discovery that they’re different, the attempts to hide it and the shame, and then the revelation and glorious ascension into pride after an emotional coming out.

I don’t think it’s so simple? Neither does MiraK, it seems, even if her experience as being straight is but a shadow of what Queer folk go through, even if her experience as a first-gen American who is notably not white primes her for a kind of self-hatred.

It is perhaps easier to suggest cutting off family than it is to do so; doubly or trebly so to suggest it without knowing the full ethnic, social, emotional, cultural context. If I cut my extended family out, what links would I really have to the land of my heritage, a heritage that I remain very proud of and hold close to my heart? Just whatever shreds I can hold on to as they die, starved, fading away like they’ve been thanosed. I imagine for Akuson, who fled to this country without really being able to set up robust links, he wants to preserve what he can; it is not a question of what he will lose, but what he can save, what he is willing to sacrifice just so he can have the crumbs of what he once could feast on. He does so, making a trade off, so he can feel comfortable in who he is. To ask, to suggest, to even demand that he cut off his family without really exploring why he so desperately wants to keep it is callous.

It is a suggestion borne of not closely reading the context, I would argue, while reading the article just fine.
posted by anem0ne at 6:32 PM on July 7, 2019 [4 favorites]

You're right, I'm coming from a white American perspective when considering this predicament of a family that hates you for who you are. I can understand how being an immigrant or otherwise an outsider in your (new) home would make family connections even more precious and valuable. Thank you for making that part of this story clear. How cruel for a family to withdraw that love or to hold it hostage to some traditional or imported colonialist hateful morality.

I don't mean to suggest that cutting oneself off a hatefully abusive family is easy. It comes with severe costs. But if the alternative is self-censorship and internalized homophobia, it bears consideration. I guess the happy medium MiraK is proposing is one where you still have connections to family and just reject the parts where grandma acts like a jerk. But it's really not that easy, not without a lot of support and strength. And then what about the family's responsibility to be decent to their child? A lifetime of emotional abuse is very hard to overcome.

What a horrible position. There's a reason a lot of queer people talk about "their new queer family", the family they've chosen or made for themselves.
posted by Nelson at 7:13 PM on July 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

But if the alternative is self-censorship and internalized homophobia, it bears consideration

I think this false dichotomy is what my beef with the "cut them out"ers comes down to. No, "the" alternative is not that.

If someone is in immediate danger, then yes, damn it, run away and stay safe. But then later, when you ARE safe and they contact you, then why not reconnect? Let them do all the work, while you concentrate on staying safe (get therapy, call in social support, do lots of self-care) and being fully authentic (don't lie, don't hide yourself or your feelings from family). There IS a third way between "cut them off" and "capitulate."

Look, my parents didn't just throw me out with nothing when I was in the middle of college. They also threw me out temporarily when I was 16 just because I had a crush on a boy; later that year when I ran away one night and almost jumped off a high building, they reacted to my suicidality by calling me a liar and they STILL believe I was actually hooking up with a guy that night; they were physically abusive to the point of me needing stitches twice, all because they caught me listening to love songs or reading books that had even the slightest romance in the plot; yadda yadda yadda. What my parents did to clamp down upon any expression of my sexual autonomy isn't trivial - though I know it's not comparable to what queer people face.

Over the last few years, I've voluntarily made inroads with my extended family trying to build relationships with them, and tried very hard to have a loving relationship with my family. And I've done this while being completely open, honest, and in-your-face with my quite scandalous authentic self with all of them.

I can't tell you the number of "Oh hush, your aunties are talking about you! You are bringing shame on the family!" talks, interventions, threats, calls, and entreaties I've got from my parents. Everything from my mother's diagnosed anxiety to my dad's quadruple bypass surgery has been blamed on the stress I've caused them by simply making my own life choices.

As a result, I've gone through so many varied, up-and-down stages of being paralyzed with guilt and self-hatred that I couldn't stop being who I am in order to please them.

But you know, that was MY issue. It was emotional and psychological work that **I** needed to do to overcome those feelings. It was a lot of work, but so worthwhile. I now am able to approach them with an acceptance of who they are and a security in who I am. Not perfectly always but most of time!

Anyone who struggles with shame, guilt, internalized homophobia, and a propensity to capitulate to abusive families by self-censoring is similarly suffering from PERSONAL rather than familial issues: cutting their families off will not actually solve their problems.

If I had cut my parents off back when their pressure was paralyzing me with guilt and shame, would that have solved my feelings and my problems? It would have been like an alcoholic shutting down their whole life to move to a country where alcohol is illegal. All my underlying issues still have remained and none of my wounds would ever have healed.

What has healed my wounds and helped me address my issues is (a) lots of therapy, and (b) keeping these connections alive.

(a) is self explanatory but (b) is much more paradoxical and intuitive. The fact that I've kept in touch with family all these years has helped me see them as people. When I was younger, when they hurt me the most, they were giants! All powerful and making up almost my whole world. Their word was law. Worse, their word was absolute truth. I went through young adulthood believing I WAS exactly as horrible as they said I was, and I cooed by saying, "Well fuck them, I can't help bring a horrible person."

It has been so healing for me to watch their life trajectories happen right in front of my eyes. Even though they have evolved very little ito our personal disagreements, I've seen them grow and change in other ways. It has helped me put into perspective everything that happened before... To see that they were acting out their own issues on my innocent body and mind. To see how consistently flawed and human they are in every other way has helped me accept myself so much more deeply than just to say "I am worthy" as a mantra in a vacuum.

And of course, having these connections enriches my life in so many ways unrelated to whether they accept my choices. Early formative attachment relationships, even when they are flawed, are powerful, and I think we should all think twice, thrice, before recommending to anyone who is not in immediate danger that they should cut off their family. And just human relationships in general are valuable. It takes decades - that's if we are lucky - to build new ones with as much emotional resonance and intensity as the ones we are gifted with when we are part of a family.

To anyone struggling with difficult families, I'd strongly recommend taking temporary breaks or going low contact, and then working with a professional to implement a guarded re-engagement in a way that makes them feel both safe and fully alive. We need to step out of the mindset that jumps to "cut them off" as the only way to deal with difficult families.

tl;dr: (1) the options are not limited to capitulate vs cut off, and (2) human relationships are so extraordinarily valuable to us emotionally that we needlessly cripple ourselves if we act on the false belief that our guilt and shame can only be solved by cutting our families out.
posted by MiraK at 9:11 AM on July 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

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