blog posts from GYC's participants, alumni, & staff
By Jesse Hawkes (GYC Executive Director)
This past summer, I was enjoying a mountain of food at a local Rwandan buffet with a few of the Turikumwe human rights program participants, when Tracy Chapman’s voice sang out over the speaker system. “Give me one reason to stay here, and I’ll turn right back around.” This was not surprising to me, as I had heard Tracy Chapman’s music continuously in Rwanda, along with that of Celine Dion, Don Williams, and Dolly Parton, ever since my first trip to Rwanda in 2002. I remember singing “You gotta fast car, fast enough so we can fly away” and “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeeeeene, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man” in unison in 2002 with my new-found Rwandan friends, survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, as our rickety white Corolla taxi crawled along horrifically pot-holed and dusty roads that have since been paved at least once and maybe twice in this rapidly developing nation. Tracy and Dolly were definitely soothing our souls at that time in 2002, and from what I’ve been told they had been around on the airwaves even well before the genocide. Folk and country music was and is very popular in Rwanda and it always strikes a chord with me when I’m there.
Last summer, however, hearing Tracy Chapman’s voice had special significance because, for just the second time in my 8 year tenure as a human rights youth program director for Global Youth Connect, one of the Rwandan participants in the program, and the one sitting right next to me in that restaurant, was openly lesbian… just like Tracy Chapman. Moreover, this GYC participant and her compatriots were on their way with me to a site visit at a new but already popular local TV station, where we were going to be asking the editorial board to talk about their recent programming on homosexuality in Rwanda. The program had been criticized by members of the LGBT community for being insensitive and homophobic, even though the TV station professed that the show intended to show that gay people exist in Rwanda and that homosexuality existed in Rwanda before colonialism (i.e. that it is universally human, and not a phenomenon imposed by the west).
Needless to say, the young woman sitting next to me was skeptical of what we would accomplish during the site visit to the television station. She seemed depressed and perhaps scared by the idea of going to the station. When I asked her about the TV1 coverage of homosexuality, she said that her friends had seen the videos and that it was demeaning to the LGBT community. She shook her head in disbelief and sighed.
So, trying to lift spirits, and pointing towards the blaring speakers, I asked her, “Do you like Tracy Chapman?”
“Of course, I love her music. Everybody in Rwanda does like her music in fact,” she said with a smile.
“I know,” I said, and I told her about my first time hearing Tracy in that taxi in Rwanda in 2002.
And I asked her, “Do you know that Tracy Chapman is lesbian? At least, she has had many long relationships with women.”
“Really? I didn’t know that.” She smiled and shook her head slightly in disbelief and appreciation.
“It’s pretty well known in the U.S.,” I said.
“Well, we just listen to the music here. And we like it. That’s it. Rwandans have no idea about that.”
I asked her if she thought that it might help the general public to accept lesbians in Rwanda if they knew that one of their favorite singers, especially an African-American woman like Tracy Chapman, is lesbian.
“It might help. I don’t know, it is hard to tell.”
And I said, “perhaps we should try to invite Tracy Chapman to come Rwanda to do a concert?”
“That would be great,” she replied.
“Do you think you would invite her?” I asked. “Would you be interested in writing a letter to her to tell her about your life here, your situation? I think that might be the thing that gets her to come.”
And we left it there, to go to the TV Station, where we were reminded that, while it isn’t illegal to be gay in Rwanda, nor to say that you are gay, there is definitely a need for sensitivity training among service providers (media, police, and medical professionals) so that greater societal acceptance can one day be born.
But I am still on the fence about whether to invite Tracy. Would it make things better or worse?
Tracy’s sexuality wouldn’t have to be overstated. There could just be an announcement during her concert at the national stadium, perhaps with the young woman who invited her at her side. “Hey fans, I wanted to let you know about the young woman who invited me to Rwanda,” Tracy might say. “She and I share many things in common, but one special thing that we share is that we love women. And I thank you for accepting us for who we are.”
Now, it is my sense that Tracy is not known to be gay here thanks to her respectable position that it is important for her to keep her private life separate from her professional life. Her sexuality doesn’t come out in her odes to love and justice. Thus, I have some misgivings about even writing this post, because I don’t really want to out Tracy here, even on the page. As a gay man, I don’t like people outing me. Outing yourself (as I just did) is a personal choice.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, I wonder if I, a white male foreigner, should be putting any of these ideas forth. It can always open the door to erroneous but popular accusations that the west is pushing homosexuality on Africa. In addition, the fact that I am gay is also a potential reason to not put forth this message. Gay people are especially accused of spreading “the evil of homosexuality” in Africa.
So maybe I should just shut my mouth and let acceptance happen at its own pace? Or at least just work behind the scenes and not blog about this issue?
Well, after waiting six months to publish this when I was/am back in Rwanda, and having shared it with my lesbian friend referenced in this story and gained her approval, and having heard Tracy and Dolly at least 4 times in the coffee shops where I was working on this piece, I am going to go out on a limb to put this forth: It is an interesting story that Tracy is so popular here and that a lesbian here didn’t know Tracy is gay. And the fact that the public here also has no idea that Tracy is gay is an opportunity for moving acceptance and understanding forward.
I am also pretty darn sure that people here do not know that Dolly Parton openly disagrees with Christians who are not loving of the LGBT community. So maybe someone should invite Dolly to Rwanda too for the same reason? With Tracy. What a concert that would be!