Early October 2016, I relocated to Zimbabwe after being forced to leave South Africa, the first country in the world to provide constitutional protection to LGBT+ folks like me.
I was devastated. I was angry. Having my life reorganized, again, pushed me into an emotional rut that saw me attempt suicide twice in September of the same year. I decided against moving back to the city I grew up in. I wanted to avoid the pain of facing familiar faces and being subjected to questions I wasn’t emotionally ready to confront. I also wanted to avoid being close to queer-intolerant relatives, some of whom believed my sexuality was a sin and that my current misfortune was a punishment from God for being gay. I figured an unfamiliar city where I didn’t have any personal connections would allow me to begin the painstaking process of transitioning into what I had sworn never to experience—life in Zimbabwe where the constitution outlaws same-gender marriage and marginalized folks facing any violation or unfair discrimination have no recourse to justice.
After spending nearly 18 months in my cocoon where I was unemployed and my mental health hung by a thread, I decided to join one of the LGBT+ organizations in Zimbabwe. I sought comfort, companionship, and love from those I shared a marginalized identity with—an identity I had finally embraced after years of grappling with it. I hoped to create my own “family” and learn how to safely navigate society as a queer person. Also, I wanted to be in a “safe” space where LGBT+ folks could exist free from harm or harassment—a space where we treated each other with compassion.
I wanted to be in a “safe” space where LGBT+ folks could exist free from harm or harassment—a space where we treated each other with compassion.
On a Saturday morning in March 2018, I left my house to go to my first session. Butterflies danced in my stomach. Since moving back to Zimbabwe, I had experienced debilitating social anxiety—an anxiety disorder so extreme that I would listen through my door for the footsteps of my roommates before leaving my bedroom to go to the bathroom. Just leaving the house to go to the meeting required a huge push of willpower. Even so, when I left the house, I wore my headphones as a protective shield, avoiding eye contact with strangers at all costs.
Two taxis and a roughly five-minute walk later, I was at the organization’s office. As I strolled into the yard, I tried to hide my fears, but I was immediately met with threatening stares from other people standing outside the building. I began to wonder if quelling my anxiety and mustering the courage to leave my sanctuary had been a good idea. But pushing past my fears, I kept walking towards the group, where forms were being passed around.
After signing in, I followed the others into the building. Inside, I took an empty seat. There were almost 50 of us, mostly young LGBT+ people ranging from teenagers to those in their 30s.
The first thing we were asked to do was go around and introduce ourselves. I expected this, but what I didn’t expect was we were also expected to say whether we were single or not. Again, alarm bells sounded: why was that information relevant if we weren’t here to date? How “safe” could a space for LGBT+ people like me be if it were being treated first and foremost as a dating venue?
How “safe” could a space for LGBT+ people like me be if it were being treated first and foremost as a dating venue?
Next, the organizer of the group explained the group’s political goals, which were to help attain equal rights as LGBT+ Zimbabweans. No problems there, but it was what happened next—when the platform was opened for members to talk about whatever they wanted—that truly made me nervous that this group would be the “safe space” I so desperately needed.
“We don’t love each other,” said one man, waving his arm accusingly at the group. He was referring to the various ways in which members ill-treated each other, sometimes intentionally. Several folks in the room murmured their agreement. I, new to the group, sat in discomfited silence … but over the next few months, I saw for myself what the guy meant.
This wasn’t a safe space. It was just another space where unhealthy coping mechanisms were normalized. I saw for myself how several of my fellow members were harassed into silence or bullied into compliance by louder, more assertive members. Despite the fact that we were all outsiders to Zimbabwean society at large, it was clear that even in this so-called “safe space”, people’s identities and voices were being policed.
In October of the same year, I ended a relationship with someone I had, perhaps ironically, met through the organization. After we parted ways, I decided to also keep a distance from the organization I had joined, as well as the larger queer scene. In Zimbabwe, the queer community is small, and partying, smoking, and binge-drinking are normalized. For my own mental health, I decided that I needed to make my break from the community, and learn how to cultivate my own “safe space”—a place inside of myself where I couldn’t be hurt by others—and the only way to do that was to establish healthier habits.
For my own mental health, I decided that I needed to make my break from the community, and learn how to cultivate my own “safe space”—a place inside of myself where I couldn’t be hurt by others.
Instead of looking to strangers for validation and support, I decided to start small, resolving only at first to be more mindful of what I eat. Since depressive episodes often zapped me of my appetite and energy, I made a point to ensure that on the days when I could cook, I prepared meals to last me for a few days.
When this piece was in place, I found I had the energy to expand it. I vowed to declutter my house, and keep it neat: it would symbolize, I decided, how much I cared for myself. At first, it was stressful, but over time, caring for my place—far from being a stressor—helped me feel more relaxed. Keeping things organized helps me feel proud of myself, and allows me to work without the clutter which is symbolic of my depressive episodes.
It’s funny how these things have a knock-on effect. Learning to see my clean physical space as a form of self-care led to me valuing the energy I allowed into it. Everything about my place—my sanctuary—began to matter: the scent, my bedding, the colors of my curtains, and the people I allowed into it. It was my place of healing, and I wanted to brighten it with color and positive energy.
Of course, creating a safe space for myself also involved therapy. Seeing a therapist helped me manage my social anxiety through simple tips like focusing on my breathing during episodes and coming up with better ways to cope with stressors. Instead of being quick to dismiss my feelings or use substances to numb them, I’ve learned to sit with my emotions and be aware of what triggers them. With professional help, I’m learning to come to a place where I can confront things, people, or places that hurt me without triggering their initial effects on my mental wellbeing.
I am healing. I am evolving. I’m learning. I’m unlearning. But that doesn’t mean I have to be closed off from other LGBT+ folks.
Learning to manage my mental illness is a rollercoaster ride: I have my highs and lows. Still, I am feeling better now than I have in years. Yes, it’s true: for now, I have decided to keep a safe distance from the LGBT+ scene. I am healing. I am evolving. I’m learning. I’m unlearning. But that doesn’t mean I have to be closed off from other LGBT+ folks. No! I’ve simply become more careful about the company I keep. I choose supportive individuals now, instead of groups. And I create my own safe spaces, instead of looking for them elsewhere. For my health’s sake.