At first, the word “reluctantly” in the title of Akosua Aduma Owusu’s film, Reluctantly Queer, caught me off guard. I came upon it while browsing through a list of POV shorts featured on the Public Broadcasting Service. As a fan of Owusu’s work, I decided to play the film almost immediately, shifting only slightly in my chair, the sharp cramping of sciatica stinging me after a year of perpetual sitting. As COVID 19 wreaked havoc on our world, the combination of my tiny wooden secretary desk and secondhand ergonomic chair had inadvertently become a regular place to land. Prior to this, my sweet little workspace was where I could steal away moments to grapple with an idea or carefully guide the ideas of my students. These days the space feels holy – newly endowed as an intimate portal, both passport and ticket for my imagination to travel when my body could not.
When I came across Reluctantly Queer, my eyes rested on the title, moving only to seek a word other than queer, for “reluctantly” to modify. At long last, I moved on, rejecting what dominant culture conditions us to believe about being queer: an experience rife with rejection and heartbreak, a precarious consequence from the universal narrative construct. Beyond these confines, Owusu’s film invites a refreshingly capacious perspective on the complicated turmoil of queer becoming, outside of the limitations of normativity.
The film’s protagonist is Kwame Edwin Otu, whose narration takes on the form of a letter to his mother in Ghana. Despite having escaped the laws prohibiting and endangering queer people in his home country, Otu yearns to be with his mother, after living in New York for many years. The black and white Super eight film frames Otu’s internal struggle with a grainy montage of seemingly remembered images and previous encounters. As the letter continues, the audience is introduced to the narrator’s contemporary life in languid scenes: while lying in bed with his white lover, sitting at a desk penning the letter, or in the shower. In the latter shot, Otu maniacally scrubs his body, covering himself in white soap, suggesting the violence the narrator has escaped has leaked into his new, supposedly “out” world. Our narrator is pensive and solemn in his liminal space, parsing through a litany of questions, birthed from his desire for a sense of home. His refrain: Did I ever tell you?
Otu’s plea is simple. Casual, even. Did I ever tell you? I hear the voice of a child – an inquisitive wondering, delivered from the body of an adult man. Even in its preciousness, his statement is decisive, clear — I’m ready for you to know me. I would like to believe that home is knowingness. Home is a deep familiarity, resembling a mother’s love met with the willingness to retain that love even as we grow beyond the image you had of us. Otu’s refrain invites viewers to sit with their own desire to be known and express exactly who you have become.
My various lives roll through my mind like streetlights on an evening drive in an empty city. No one lives in the city anymore, but the energy remains urgent and alive. I was convinced that the part of myself that had always known that I was a lesbian didn’t need a party, but when I began to express my queerness, to say it out loud, I was shocked to feel such a grounded sense of affirmation. I remember thinking that there were many people with whom I really wanted to share this feeling. At the same time, I realized that most of those people were unwilling or unready to come along with me on this journey. Did I ever tell you?
For some, to come out as queer, means you must answer to the pre-verbal-you, the thirstiest, corniest, messiest version of your small self. The texture of such shame will invoke the most unoriginal past tense disclaimers — “I didn’t know” or “I was still figuring things out.” You may find yourself peering into a version of your life in shadows, one that features a most unrecognizable you. Let it be known that we were all scared and most certainly still are.
Did I ever tell you?
Queer people often contend with these notions as it relates to how we look or what we choose to place upon our bodies – belonging as told through haircuts and tattoos. We call these signifiers, or as my friend describes, the silent head nod of affirmation and visibility. Here, home is confined to a useless stagnancy – inert and not quite as edgy. Naive, even – wanton for a softer, more buoyant glimmer. For me, it was my Nefertiti hi-top with the close fade and gentle slope, number 4 on the clippers. It was a look that rendered my babyface a bit more serious (according to me) and periodically misgendered me (according to everyone else). We outfit ourselves with these things because a part of being at home in our queerness is how our appearance invites the attention of other queers. Our layers, our fortress, our wings, our protective shield costumes us in the most dazzling force. Even after wearing my hair short for years, I was met with the meaninglessness of such adornment when a lesbian sister who I did not know surveyed and, of course, offered her unsolicited opinion: “you’re still coming out?” at a friend’s birthday party just a handful of years ago. Her sharp flirtation seared my chest; I caught my breath and left the party early. Apparently, my earnestness rendered me green, unseasoned. After all that time, I thought I did not need someone to remind me of my homelessness.
I was moved by Otu’s desire to be reunited with his mother, to go home. Not because I am naïve enough to think that he believed going home would be the same. Nor do I read his need for the homecoming as weak. What struck me was Otu ’s sincere longing to be witnessed. He describes this impulse as “the self that renders my life a puzzle searches for a home.” Otu wanted to share with his mother all the complicated newness he had now come to embody.
Did I ever tell you that I miss wrapping the warmth of your care, your pristine aura, around my lonesome soul and body?
Did I ever tell you that you are the world’s greatest mother?
My own mother has been dead for most of my adult life, and it took a moment for me to relate to Otu’s particular sentiment of longing for his mother. I can only live with the apparition of the last time I saw her in 2003 — at the time, she regularly wore denim berets and rings on nearly every finger. Does Your Mama Know? is the title of the seminal Black lesbian anthology and even twenty years later, the inquiry it posits remains complex. There is a difference in knowing and living alongside my exuberantly expressed queer body. I will always believe that my mother would have accepted me, however, what feels more pressing is the desire to be witnessed, a feeling more urgent than acceptance.
Instead, sharing this part of my self was somewhat concurrent with my work at a queer youth organization.
My life was a hazy fugue in those years. Juggling the thankless and incessant work of family making for the neglected imaginations of queer youth of color. Quite central to this work were my harsh patterns of self-medication. Here was the belonging, here was the unabashedly queer. For a while though, I felt stuck and unable to accept myself within this community of mostly queer, mostly “out” colleagues and young people. I was unready to face my queer self without those vices. I was also suffocating in the ways that I was different, and still struggling to fit in. This pain and the uneasiness felt like home —it felt like a necessary battle ground alongside other individuals in pain and hurtling these worldly tests at one another. An irony that the queer person could feel lost in the queer space should not be a surprise. Even within community, it can be hard to detach oneself from the dutiful need to survive.
In the year after I left that job, I limped every day — my hip recoiling under the trauma of the now unfamiliar routine. I was faced with longer nights and what was once soothing and delicious had begun to taste awful on my tongue. There was nothing left for me to relinquish.
The opening scene of Reluctantly Queer is of the narrator dressed in a white t-shirt and white shorts, peering out of his front door. At one point, he walks out and stands on the porch. There is a bright sunburst, a saturated wash of an early day. Otu looks to either side of himself – clearly, he is waiting for someone to arrive. In another cut, Otu has paused inside of the door frame, slightly resigned. He knows that no one is coming. Still, the door remains open.
Now, I look back with joyful healing and reflect on how hard I worked at that organization, and how much this brilliant community of young people taught me. A way to arrive at my own knowingness.
James Baldwin described home as an “irrevocable condition” in The Fire Next Time, urging his nephew to fastidiously tend to his self-preservation, the primary resource no one can take away. I could easily reference my desk and chair as tangible representations of home, an unwavering knowingness, with or without these objects, that cannot be taken away from me. This is true. As is the gorgeous, all-encompassing light gently bathing our waiting protagonist. This is where I find home. This is where I will remain.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erica N. Cardwell is a writer, critic, and educator based in Brooklyn, New York.