Being gay in Darfur: the fight to be yourself in a hostile war zone
Michelle Green on Jebel Marra: ‘I wanted to complicate the neat narratives I saw around me, to write beyond the standard war story’
Michelle Green on Jebel Marra: Only a few of the stories in my collection feature main characters who are named as gay or bisexual, but all were written from that same place between hiding and revealing, just below the surface, where unspoken things rise from the deep for air
Ten years ago I was living in Geneina, the capital of West Darfur, in Sudan. I was an aid worker with an international agency, part of the humanitarian response to the war that still rages to this day, and though Darfur’s horror was front and centre in the world’s public consciousness for a time, it quickly dropped from view.
After six months, I returned home to Manchester to debriefing and reality TV and two-for-one offers and a ravenous news cycle. It was a hard landing. Despite years as a poet and author, I had no intention of writing about Darfur – I didn’t have the words, didn’t know where to begin – but a compulsion grew, a deep need to speak about what I had witnessed.
I started writing from as many angles as I could, fictionally, by finding the characters that I wasn’t seeing elsewhere: lawyers, teachers, market traders and singers, people just trying to make their way through chaos. Aid workers and soldiers too. Faceless men in Khartoum offices. I wanted to approach the contradictions, and complicate the neat narratives I saw around me, to write beyond the standard war story.
So, what is the standard war story? Violence, bravery, terror, more violence. Mud and deathly cold water, trench foot, or maybe dust and an unrelenting sun, long stretches of waiting followed by bursts of nightmarish action. Heroin addiction in a jungle far from home. Medical tents. Men in suits talking in the corridor, the red phone. It might be someone in the cellar, or under the stairs. Guns and ammo and radio handsets. A humvee. A man dropping from a tree, firing. A man. Rugged and single-minded, perhaps, or young and terrified, crying for mum in the night. He’s 10 years old, stripping an AK47, or he’s 79 with a tattoo and a clutch of awful memories. It’s usually a man. Women in war stories are waiting at home, or working in factories in the ’40s. Sometimes brothels near the base. They tend to be nameless victims, or Florence Nightingale. Very occasionally, they will be soldiers among a sea of men, or leaders from another time: Boudica, Joan of Arc. What else? The man at the centre of our typical war story might be glorified or horror-struck, driven by fear or loyalty or murderous rage, but he will always be straight. It doesn’t need to be said, it’s just obvious, assumed. With very few exceptions, he will be heterosexual.
Since the ruling government took power in a military coup in 1989, same-sex sexual activity, cross-dressing, and “behaving in a womanly fashion” have been illegal in Sudan. Punishment ranges from flogging, to imprisonment and fines, and the death penalty (on the third offence for men, the fourth for women). Fledgling LGBT civil rights groups have emerged in Sudan over the last five years, hoping to build on a past that was far more tolerant, but it’s a community that is still very much underground, and so it is largely invisible.
It’s a strange state in which to live – invisibility. You are a void, a half-person. You are the stuff of myth and a thousand straw man arguments, the absent centre in debates about morality. You do not exist.
In the market at the centre of Geneina, two teenage boys stroll hand in hand in the afternoon sun, their fingers interlaced. There is a gentle affection between them, a soft grace, and no one reacts. They may be straight, or they may not, but no one appears to ask the question, not here. I am reminded of a line from a poem by Gerry Potter: “never underestimate the effeminate child”. That particular masculinity, that undervalued, stigmatised, ridiculed masculine expression is seen as the definitive marker of male sexual minority in Europe and many other parts of the world, but here in the Geneina market, where same-sex desire is completely denied, the boys walk by unharrassed. Why? Heterosexuality is compulsory, and so everything outside of that is rendered invisible.
I made myself visible in a place known as the Texas of Canada, a conservative province that tried to uphold the rights of employers to fire their staff for being gay, where bottles flew at us from cars that sped past our club at night and homophobic beatings happened on a regular basis, sometimes fatal. A young woman walked me home one night, moved with a defensive swagger, ran her hand across her crew cut as she told me about life on the army base north of the city. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” she said, the paper-thin cliche, and she almost managed to hide the shake in her voice. This was the ’90s, before civil partnership and the huge shift in public opinion. Even surrounded by hostility and potential violence, in a place where we were never allowed to forget that we were hated, there was still room to breathe, to find one another. We hung a pride flag on our front door, took in a stranger who’d been disowned by her fundamentalist family and friends. We could at least do that. We were hated, but we existed. Visible.
In Geneina, 10 ten years ago, visibility was not an option. As a foreign female aid worker, I lived inside a bubble of privilege that none of my Darfurian colleagues had, and even there in the bubble I took care, revealing myself towards the end of my stay to only two trusted friends. It was this state of invisibility that propelled me as I wrote the stories in Jebel Marra – not just my partial and privileged invisibility, but the many, many more hidden stories I sensed around me.
Below the surface of the standard war story, hidden things hang heavy in the gloom. War is retold and LGBT people are suspended in that silent murk, rarely part of the narrative. If they do surface, it is usually as victims. Pink triangles in the death camps. There are exceptions, of course, but certain realities remain primarily obscured in the dominant factual and fictional stories of war. Only a few of the stories in my collection feature main characters who are named as gay or bisexual, but all were written from that same place between hiding and revealing, just below the surface, where unspoken things rise from the deep for air.