A SILENT SCREAM: A Reflection on Disenfranchised Queer Grief

Photo by Billy Hani

Written by Audrey Obuobisa-Darko

I came out to my mother last night. I was cracking under the pressure of carrying my grief alone, dealing with a breakup that was too heavy to bear. I sat on my bathroom floor, crying, saying, “I just want to tell my mum that I’m heartbroken.” But what do you do with your pain when you can’t share it with your own mother, because it’s from the end of a queer relationship? My sadness quickly gave way to an impulse for self-destruction. I wanted to feel worse than I already did, so I muttered “fuck it, no outcome would feel worse than I feel now,” texted her, and put my phone away. What this masochistic move essentially was, though, was just a cry to be seen, held, comforted.

Many queer people are forced to grieve in silence. Heartbreaks, relationship abuse, personal struggles, the death of a loved one, they all go unseen, because we are unseen. You know that moment during a sleep paralysis episode, where you’re pinned down, writhing in anguish, the demon in the corner just standing and watching you? You open your mouth to scream, your hands grappling, searching, reaching in the dark, but no sound comes out, nobody holds your outstretched hands? That is what queer grief looks like to me. We experience one too many lonely funerals, of figurative deaths in different facets of our lives and relationships, but also of actual deaths, where you can’t even attend your lover’s burial because who were you to the deceased again? For fear of being outed, stigmatised, disowned, or even killed, queer people have no other option than to grieve with a silent scream.

A prime case of disenfranchised queer grief—grief that, according to Dr. Kenneth Doka, cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned—is the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was a harrowing time where gay men in the US formed a large proportion of the hundreds who died, as it was a virus reported to spread more easily via anal sex. Despite the obvious fact that HIV/AIDS affected all kinds of people, the epidemic swiftly became associated with gay men, with many people referring to it as the “gay plague.” The government was silent. The public health sector was slow to action. As I read recent interviews with some gay men that survived, their words broke me: “Life for us was a waiting game”; “Everyone just started disappearing”; “Nobody heard our collective outcry”; “We were left to grieve and die alone.”

Let’s bring this notion of disenfranchised grief closer to home—Ghana our motherland, our happy home. In November last year, our very own Ama Governor, social media influencer and unapologetic queer activist, was denied her call to the bar due to a petition condemning her forthrightness about issues such as queerness, women’s sexual health, and bodily autonomy. I was shaken by two horrors: first, the shock of how such inhumanity could be sanctioned by a so-called protective government, and second, the astonishing lack of sympathy from Ghanaians. It struck me as such a lonely grief, an exile where the only time people did come around was to use it as an opportunity for spewing homophobia or weaving cautionary tales. What a cold world this place is, I thought, that you are left to mourn alone the destruction of your hard-earned dreams, because bigots are convinced that queer people deserve no sympathy. 

Predicated by this absurd ‘Proper Human Rights and Ghanaian Family Values’ bill in parliament, we’ve seen increased unlawful arrests, stabbings, public beatings and mob action, murders, the destruction and forced closure of community spaces, among others. It’s been heartbreaking to see the attendant coldness and dearth of compassion from many Ghanaians. Any grief we dare to express concerning these issues is shut down, because we are unworthy of even the basic human phenomenon that is grief. To be queer in this country is to have grief, yet be denied the right to feel said grief, and again be denied any condolence from others for your grief.

But what do you also do with a rare moment like last night, when you’re met with a love you never knew existed? It was nerve-racking to pick up my phone, even more nerve-racking when I read my mother’s reply: “Wow, my dear, I’ll be glad to listen to you. Let’s talk at your convenience.” My first emotion was annoyance. What is this? She was veering off my carefully-written self-destruction script, acting out of character—the angry, bigoted African Christian role. How dare she not hurt me in the way I long expected? But my anger defrosted, fell as tears, because did she understand what I was trying to tell her? What was this kindness? Was this love there all along, all these years of hiding, wishing, feeling invisible, feeling unloved? What am I supposed to do with that now? Our video call lasted a generously long time. She was curious about various things, respectfully asking about my sexuality, the relationship, how I was coping, and assured me that I will be okay with time. She did eventually give me her Christian view on things, dropping the good ole Sodom and Gomorrah gems, but never once did she judge me. And that was more than enough for me to take a step further in my healing journey. I tweeted about this experience, and it was poignant to see many queer people share their stories of yearning for solace in family during times of grief. 

There is so much healing in love, and it is within the queer community that I have seen the most profound manifestations of familial love. These are the proper family values, where we create our own communities founded on unconditional love, empathy, compassion, acceptance, and care. We recognise one another’s struggle, in a world that stands against us, and we come together to transmute this pain into beautiful things. This speaks to our creation of new unorthodox ways of mourning over time, as disenfranchised grief excludes us from conventional expressions of grief. When queer people hit the ballroom dance floor, know that they are not just dancing. With each pose, each bend of the hand, each dip to the floor, they are alchemising their pain, taking up space, reclaiming their right to grieve. And this love that is shared while we dance together? It will always get us through. 

In grief we are silenced, but it is also in grief that we have found our voice. Our daring to exist is a deafening scream.

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