Nomsa’s story: my long road to ‘coming out’ and freedom

I never knew about my sexuality, even though growing up my heart’s desire was to be a boy. Having a punky hairstyle was a precious gift that made my Christmas day.

<p>Nomsa, a Zimbabwean refugee in South Africa, has been supported by the Rapid Response Fund to access HIV services</p>Nomsa travelled a long and lonely road before finding the courage to 'come out' and also get tested for HIV
© International HIV/AIDS Alliance

Growing up in Zimbabwe, a deeply homophobic country, it never crossed my mind that one day I would be openly living as a lesbian.

My father passed away when I was 13 years old, and my family ended up living in poverty, which was the most painful journey my family and I ever endured. I was young and vulnerable, and at the age of 15 I became pregnant. Because of my age it became a statutory rape case, and the man was convicted. Despite the challenging experience I was blessed with a beautiful baby girl who is now 21 years old.

Rumours about my sexual orientation

After I had my baby, my mother sent me back to finish high school. I had always dreamed of being a soldier or journalist, but I didn’t think either option was possible for me. I sold vegetables to survive, but life was not easy, and I sought comfort in the arms of a man that I never loved. Following this I gave birth to a baby boy, who is now 13 years old.

I had hoped that having two children would help me be accepted in my community, but by 2004, the rumours and gossip about my sexual orientation were just getting worse. People said I had testicles. The insults hurt, and all I wanted was to be free to express my feeling without words being used against me. I was also worried about the impact on my elderly mother and I decided to leave Zimbabwe and seek asylum in South Africa.

When I arrived in Johannesburg my focus was to get a job to take care of kids and send money back to my mother. I decided to sell sweets and cigarettes in one of the busiest streets in Johannesburg and I survived most of the challenges that other foreign migrants grapple with in South Africa.

Overcoming my fears and accepting my sexuality

The feelings of being a man kept torturing me, to a point where I started dressing like a man, it made most people around me feel very uncomfortable. I was called names but it never changed my feelings and attitude. Most men that I dated questioned my sexuality, because there were no mutual feelings. I felt no attachment. But I turned a blind eye to this and did not think about what was going on with me.

It took me a long time just to come out to myself, but that eventually happened when I finally accepted myself – about eight years after arriving in South Africa, I was just so tired of putting others people’s happiness first and not considering my own.

“Coming out” publicly is the most difficult thing to do. There are fears of being rejected by family members and the entire society. But I always saw other lesbians in Braamfontein, where I used to live, and they were free to express themselves without being yelled at. I knew one day I would live my life the way I always wanted.

In 2014, I finally met a woman who helped me to be who I really wanted to be. She is now my life partner. My two brothers were not surprised when I introduced my partner to them; one of them even said: “Finally you are living your life.”

Getting tested for HIV

In 2016, both me and my partner were unemployed and really struggling to get by, pay the rent and look after my children, and so I went to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). I was greeted with warmth and smiles from the director and the staff and I knew I had found myself a safe space. We were given financial assistance for food and rent, which made a huge impact in our life. I was also told of the services they offer to refugees and asylum seekers, and the first thing that caught my attention was the programme of HIV testing.

The counseling session gave my partner and me the courage to get tested. She tested negative and I tested positive, but my partner and my family gave me all the support I needed. Knowing my status made me the strongest person. Since I was diagnosed, whenever I get the platform to talk I speak openly about my HIV status to encourage other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT) to get tested. Living with HIV is not a death sentence; if you know your status and can get treatment, you can live a long and healthy life.

JRS also referred me to a local clinic for regular checkups and to Lawyers for Human Rights for legal assistance regarding my appeal on my refugee status.

We all have the right to health care

Everyone has the right to access sexual and reproductive healthcare services regardless of their sexual orientation, race and gender. It is important to support lesbians to access services and we need to raise awareness on the misconceptions that lesbians are not prone to get infected with HIV and STIs, particularly as we are often at increased risk of rape.

There are no health clinics for women around Gauteng where lesbians can freely go and seek medical attention without their sexuality being questioned. It is also still difficult to access protection devices like dental dams and finger condoms in local clinics, although there are a couple of organisations such as FEW and PASSOP where you can get them.

Discrimination in most healthcare centres remains a huge concern for lesbians, as healthcare workers make “tea parties and gossip of the day” when a lesbian seeks assistance. Instead of assisting they will ask questions that make us uncomfortable. There is only one clinic in Pretoria where lesbians can get medical help, and that in itself is a barrier for lesbians who live outside Pretoria.

Although there are a number of LGBT organisations that raise awareness on HIV and other health-related issues, the government is still largely ignorant when it comes to LGBT rights. Health officials still need to acquire information on LGBT rights in order for them to understand that we have the same rights as any other citizen.

I am passionate about raising awareness on these issues. I recently studied at a photography institute, where I met some lesbians who made me realise my potential. I want to be a visual activist and tell real stories through photography – this gives me a sense of accomplishment and integrity. For me it is the best vehicle for translating inner vision into outer reality.

The Rapid Response Fund is managed by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance and funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. It responds to situations where HIV services provided by community organisations led by LGBT people are at risk due to stigma, discrimination and violence.