A life in the arts can be an exhausting proposition. You have to use everything you are and everything you feel. If you don’t, that fear or denial or oppression, becomes part of the creative statement – because anything artistic is a synthesis of how the artist lives.
I recently did a show in Yaounde, Cameroon on the Western Coast of Africa. By reputation, and certainly by my experience, Cameroon is a very corrupt country. Bribing is a form of bartering, "Here are two thousand Francs. Don’t get in my way." You cannot brush your teeth with tap water unless you add bleach. Prostitution is legal. A white man can have his way with a prostitute for the cost of a beer.
A new friend, Marie, had a story about someone who had been pulled over by the police. While passing by, Marie stopped to make sure her friend was not in any danger. By the time she returned to her car, her cell phone was gone. Marie used another cell phone to call her own number. The sock of the policeman started to ring. When told this story, people laugh. There is no outrage. It is simply the nature of life in that country. There are very few things against the law in Yaounde.
However, being gay is a crime. That’s very frightening. Being there brought back feelings I have not had since high school. How do you know whom to trust? There were so many things I wanted to tell people about my life in America, but I wasn’t sure that I could let down my guard.
It was even worse when meeting another gay person. Did they know that life didn’t need to be that way? Did they know that living their lives out in the open was a viable option? Many of them had lived in, or visited the United States. They knew the difference and yet there they were staying. Work brought them to Yaounde, perhaps family keeps them there – reasoning I have no right to judge.
I was tentatively offered the chance to come back and work for a year. I would have no living expenses. There would be a spacious apartment a housekeeper and a personal guard. With international law, I might finally be able to adopt. My boyfriend even could come with me, no problem. I was told we would just have to be discreet. An intriguing offer, but in the end, not an option. Living my life that way was beyond my imagination. What if I upset someone? What if professionally jealousy got out of control? Retribution would be one simple phone call away. It conjured images of Matt and I tucked in for the evening and the police coming to get us for kissing goodnight. And stealing our cell phone too.
I met so many wonderful people in Cameroon. Open-minded missionaries, teachers, AIDS Epidemiologists, Ambassadors, Tribal Princes and International Industrialists – in spite of the law, I don’t think any of them, even the one’s that were very religious, gave a damn whether I was gay or straight. But, I couldn’t be sure. Doubt lingered and I hated myself for giving into it.
With all my precious paranoia intact, I performed with my friend Mary. We did a ninety minute improvised comedy show for an audience of about three hundred people. And the whole time I was thinking, "I AM ILLEGAL. I AM ILLEGAL. I AM A SEXUAL OUTLAW." Then the strangest thing happened. I was having fun doing the show. It was exciting. I had a secret and a delusional aura of mystery. It reminded me of being a pre-Stonewall homo – upstanding young man by day, living in the shadows by night. Who needed to emulate straight society and color within the lines? It was thrilling.
It lasted for about twenty minutes.
By the end of the show I was resenting having to slow down and think about what I was doing. Better to react to your instincts and concentrate on what you are saying rather than how you are saying it. I didn’t know the audience and they didn’t know me. I was too busy being scared of how people would react to me uncensored.
I don’t have time for that anymore. My show in Africa reminded me that I am fortunate. When I call the police, I can usually count on them to do the right thing. I can brush my teeth right from the tap and save the bleach for the coffee stains I choose to subject myself to. I can kiss my boyfriend goodnight and fantasize that it is a political statement. It’s my choice. For some reason I had to go to Africa to remember that I am lucky to live my life in the open.