Gay Shame Revisited: How Traveling to East Africa Sent Me Back Into the Closet

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I was anticipating the unexpected. I was fully prepared for some twists in the roads and bumps in the nights ahead (preferably unrelated to nocturnal lions!). You have to be psyched for anything when you’re spending 10 days truck-trekking from Dar es Salaam on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast up north through Lushoto and Arusha to the Serengeti and Ngorongoro region, then further onward and upward to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. It’s a long, rocky road, though not one less traveled, and in case you momentarily lose your open mind or misplace it wherever you stuffed your malaria pills, any good tour company will keep reminding you until you’re expecting the unexpected in your sleep.

Yet, something that happened while I was on the road fulfilling a life-long dream (going on an African safari) with 17 fellow tourists still took me thoroughly by surprise. I’m not talking about realizing how crazy I am about lions, especially those baby cubs in the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater. That may have been a development I didn’t see coming, especially considering my general distaste for house cats, but as a gay man who is proudly out and has been for more than 20 years, I was floored even more by how uncomfortable I felt in my own gay skin.

It must have been the place: East Africa is not exactly a bastion of welcoming open-mindedness when it comes to gay people, and I’d been warned by the gay media, the mainstream media, and well-informed and well-meaning friends to be careful how I express myself there. Even my mother, who has become accustomed to my traveling to parts unknown and occasionally choosing to live in them, was concerned.  “Is it safe there… for gay people?” she asked when I mentioned my travel plans during a Skype chat.

If I was exercising too-extreme caution on the inside when I arrived in Tanzania and started mixing with the locals, I couldn’t explain how it ended up extending to Westerners who normally wouldn’t have caused me any gay angst. Perhaps my situational self-imposed de-outing for the benefit of potentially homophobic East Africans unlocked all of those insecurities I’d left stuffed on a shelf in the closet all those years ago.

Every time I opened my mouth to talk to locals or to other foreigners, I found myself wondering what they were thinking about what I’d said and how I’d said it. Was I setting off their “gaydar,” if such a thing even exists? It’s not as if anyone in my tour group gave me the slightest reason to feel ill at ease about my sexuality (indeed, there was a gay twosome among the four couples, four solo men, three solo women and an aunt-niece pair from Holland), but there were still so many moments when I felt like that gangly, awkward, insecure kid in middle school who was always one of the last ones picked for the sports teams during gym class.

So I overcompensated, occasionally playing the village idiot to shift the focus to something else. “A cow antelope? Do cows and antelopes really have kids?” I asked, hoping to elicit a few laughs and drown out the nagging insecurity in my head while staring at my first hartebeest. I wasn’t sure humor was the right answer, though, as I stood across from a man from the polygamous Massai tribe outside of Arusha who had just asked me about my number of wives. (“I have two,” he offered. “But I’m still young.”) Was he being as serious as his stern gaze, or was he trying to out me? Before I could answer, one of the Serengeti guides in the circle broke the awkward silence. “Look at his shoe strings! He has no wives!” Then he repeated himself. As I tried to determine whether they were laughing with me or at me, I hung my head and looked at the pale-green shoe strings on my gray Nike tennis shoes. Were they that obvious?

I hated myself for caring and for replaying in my head the comment that one of my fellow travelers, a woman from Perth, made a few days later when I declined to join the $15 tour of a Massai village in the Ngorongoro region. “Jeremy, you might find a few wives there… or husbands,” she’s joked. Was the afterthought addendum her way of saying, “I know” (and letting everyone else at the table in on it, too), or was it her way of saying that one shouldn’t just make straight assumptions about anyone? Would she have even bothered going there if I were more “straight-acting” (to use that dreadful phrase frequently used by gay men who are as pathetic as I was being).

Eventually, probably halfway through the Ngorongoro safari game drive, as I sat in one of dozens of 4x4s lined up in front of and behind another group of lions, I realized that nobody was paying as much attention to me as I was. My fellow travelers were too enraptured by the country’s stunning scenery, and I was pretty sure most Tanzanians had more pressing concerns, like feeding their families. My discomfort was mostly on me. But it did get me thinking, about why I’d turned into such insecure mush, about whether it was a sign of a new me emerging (dear God, I hoped not!), about being gay in a straight world.

Most importantly, it got me thinking about those who have it so much worse than I do, including LGBTQ people living in countries and cities where they aren’t just imagining that everyone is looking at them, whispering, pointing, disapproving. Being based in Cape Town, a gay mecca in a country where same-sex marriage is legal, you can lose sight of how badly gay people elsewhere in Africa have it until you exit that comfort zone. I could have done so much better than spending my time in Tanzania mired in self-doubt, but my over-awareness of my own sexuality and how others might be interpreting my every move there did lead to a new and different awareness of how others who aren’t free to be must live every day of their lives.

It’s so easy to forget and to judge gay shame when you’ve spent so many years living in gay-friendly metropolises like New York City, Buenos Aires and Bangkok. I welcomed my newfound enlightenment. After years spent dreaming of East Africa and finally getting to experience it, I left feeling humbled but once again proudly walking in my own shoes, green laces and all.

Jeremy Helligar is a blogger, author, pop culturist and world traveler from New York City, where he spent 15 years working as a writer and editor for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly. Since 2006, he’s lived in Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Bangkok and Cape Town, where he currently spends most of his waking hours writing, blogging, running, thinking about his next book and wondering if he’ll ever make it to Antarctica. His first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, a memoir, travelogue, and examination and exploration of race and culture, will be available November 4 on Amazon.