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Queer Issue 2012
In the summer of 1990, at the age of 8, I found myself wearing my Sunday best at a baby shower for a newborn girl. Traditional Ethiopian baby showers occur after a child is born, and both men and women are invited. My parents had been good friends with the baby's parents for a few years. I don't recall the family name, but I do remember never liking them. The baby's father was a good 20 years older than his wife, and they had an unlikable imbecile for a son who was my age. Their son, at age 8, smelled like old pudding and sharts. I spent most of my time at the party keeping my distance from them and waiting for the next person to tell me how adorable I looked in a suit. Eventually, I was cornered by my father with the newborn in his arms; he sat me down and showed me how to hold the baby. Coming up behind him was the baby's father, and they began talking to me in that somewhat condescending way that adults always speak to children.
"Do you like the baby?" my father said.
"Sure, she's okay," I replied apathetically.
"Maybe, one day, you get married?" my father said and then smiled back at the baby's father.
Whenever I was confronted with an uncomfortable situation as a child, I did what my African parents taught me: said nothing and stared blankly until people decided to move on. I said nothing and stared blankly for a few moments, and soon enough the baby was taken out of my arms, and both men moved to the other side of the room. The entire time I sat there quietly, my brain was racing with thoughts like: "I don't want to marry that fuckin' baby! What if she never grows up? What if she's a baby forever? And her brother, he's so stupid. Why would you want me to marry a stupid baby?! You know what, I could drop her right now and end this..."
I did not murder that baby.
Nor did I ever end up in an arranged marriage—bucking centuries of Ethiopian tradition.
Arranged marriages were the first form of marriage and are still common in Ethiopian culture. Traditionally, a young man's parents go looking for a suitable future wife for him. Or a grown man finds a virgin woman a decade or two younger than himself and, through parental negotiations via a mediator, makes arrangements to marry. There are even the horrific cases where young girls have been abducted and forced into marriage against their will.
Obviously, societies with arranged marriages are extremely patriarchal. The male is the head of the household, and all of his needs are met. The woman is proprietary and spends her day appeasing her husband and caring for their offspring. But as of the last few decades, in the more urban parts of Ethiopia, arranged marriages are becoming less common. Slowly but surely, more progressive ideals are finding their way into the country's social dynamic.
However, the culture is far from reaching a point where gay marriage will be okay, arranged or not. Last I checked with my father, there are no gay people in Ethiopia. He also happily pointed out that if there were ever a gay person in Ethiopia, God would smite them with fire from the sky. After researching meteorological events in Ethiopian history and confirming that fire never fell from the sky, I can only assume that there are no gay people in Ethiopia.
Ten years after holding that baby girl in my arms and being asked by my father if I wanted to marry her, I told my parents I was gay. It infuriated both of them. It was early evening, and my parents had just inquired whether I had a girlfriend. My parents had a weird obsession with my dating life. They'd been trying again to influence me to marry that idiot baby, who by then had reached the wonderful age of 10. I told my parents that I, a high school graduate, would not be dating a fifth grader or any other girls. After a few minutes of nagging, I quietly declared that I could possibly be a homosexual, and shrunk into my seat.
Now, as my father's eldest son, specific cultural ideals were forced upon me: I was to be married to that baby I held so many years ago and live the traditional life expected of an Ethiopian man. The idea of me being with another man disgusted them, and my father even threatened my life, saying: "If I ever, ever see you with man! I kill him, then I kill you!"
Since that day, I have grown more distant from my father. Neither he nor God have made an attempt to murder me. I still speak to my mother regularly, but we keep our superficial conversation under two minutes so that she can get back to her daytime court shows. The strange thing about marriage advice coming from them was that they did not have a happy marriage themselves. I always took that to be proof that arranged marriage was a bullshit tradition. My mother, a strong woman who endured a lifetime of misogyny and trauma, had to bow down before my father, but she wasn't going to bow down without a fight. She would often show a streak of independence that raised eyebrows. This infuriated my father, and he would spend most of his time out of the house, with other women. He left her without explanation in the summer of 2005, and recently made a permanent move back to Ethiopia.
It was only in the course of working on this article that I discovered my parents were not, in fact, in an arranged marriage. From what I know of their life stories, they both fled Ethiopia in the midst of its civil war and found refuge in Sudan. My mother—at that time a widow in her early 20s, having previously been in an arranged marriage—was living in Khartoum and taking care of her three children. My father was a bit of a drifter. He went from town to town doing odd jobs and, according to my brother, who learned it from my father, sleeping with as many women as possible. One of those women was my mother, and when he returned to Khartoum after a few months of roaming in 1979, he came back to find my mother pregnant with his child. He then took it upon himself to settle down and help take care of his new family. Two years later, my mother gave birth to my father's first son: me.
Throughout this entire baby-making business, my parents never married.
The hypocrisy is galling, just like hearing about "defending traditional marriage" is galling, because the most traditional of all marriages are arranged marriages, and that's not what "traditional marriage" defenders are usually talking about. When I came out to my parents and had to deal with their wrath over not being the kind of son they wanted me to be, not having the kind of marriage they'd planned for me, I was still unaware of the irony of the situation. They demanded so much of me that neither of them lived up to. They were never married, never in love, and had no room to tell their bastard son who he should or should not be with.