Queering days of remembrance for LGBTIQ+ wellness

Hanzline R. Davids 

In June, we celebrated Pride Month worldwide. We remembered and celebrated online and in various intimate spaces because of COVID-19 regulations. We remembered and celebrated our queerness as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ+) people, our siblings who have passed, and advances and regressions in our fight for our fundamental human rights. In discussing this reflection with my colleague and friend Michelle Boonzaaier, she reminded me that I mark days of significance. On these days of remembrance, she said: “Hanzline, you go slower.” After speaking to her and another dear friend, I knew this reflection, which initially started out on the significance of my resignation day from ministry on 5 July and how this impacts me, became part of a larger story on memory, remembering, and wellness.  

As LGBTIQ+ people, we hold trauma within our bodies. 

On the website of the Apartheid Museum, I recently came across some resources for high school learners. I was struck by the reference to memory and the encouragement not to forget:

“Memory is about remembering and forgetting: it’s about including and excluding events in the past; it is about reconstructing a new meaning of what happened; it is the key which unlocks the hidden voices and experiences of the past.”

Throughout my life, which is still very short, I have identified a few days of significance as part of the process of my memory, remembering and wellness on my faith journey and with people in my life. 

Including and excluding events of the past? 

In 2015 I was a minister in the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. The congregation I served was in the Northern Suburbs of what was previously known as Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha, in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. My struggle with my sexuality started earlier. I recently found an old journal from 2010. In my handwriting, I read the following words: “I am gay”.  How could I forget this? In retrospect, I found a few answers to my forgetfulness. The date on which I wrote these words was not long after my mother’s passing when she lost her battle to cancer in June 2010. Soon after this traumatic ordeal of losing the only parent I knew in my life, I came out to a friend. His first response in hearing my sexual embodied confession was that he is not gay. I laughed it off and told him I might just be confused because my mom just died. Since that day, I never once told anyone about my struggle with my sexuality. I realise now that how he responded was traumatic, and I responded with a joke about my grief. I no longer had trust in him. I excluded coming out from my memory because it was traumatic. I turned away from myself and became immersed in my faith and work in the church. 

On 5 July 2015, I resigned from full-time church ministry. I was tired of thinking about what the church, family and friends would say about my sexuality. Mistrust became the author of the story of my sexuality. The official reason that I rendered for my resignation was that I wanted to continue my studies. The truth was the church became an unsafe and violent heteropatriarchal space of immense cruelty. I chose to remember and forget the violence that I experienced because it was and remains a part of my memory of my wellness journey towards healing.  

Reconstructing a new meaning of what happened

Three days after my decision to resign, I was reading the Afrikaans newspaper, Die Burger. An opinion piece by psychologist Wilhelm Jordaan gave me words to describe my embodied reaction to resign from ministry. Jordaan reflected on the heated discussions in the Dutch Reformed Church just before the 2015 Synod and a research study conducted amongst gay pastors. Jordaan writes as follows: 

“I was recently asked to help analyse the life experiences of anonymous gay pastors. And were anew shocked at the extent of their psychic scars: Anxiety and fear of being discovered, self-loathing, guilt, isolation and withdrawal, loneliness, experiences of rejection, barriers to creativity and so on.”

I still hear myself shouting: “yes!” at the dining room table, the winter morning sun warming my back as I sat near the rectory’s window. Before July, I visited my local physician a couple of times, convinced I had tuberculosis, only to find out that my bed was wet because of night sweats induced by stress, culminating in anxiety. The fear was overwhelming. I had lost myself. I did not recognise the person in the mirror. In conversations, I grew weary and became reclusive. In Jordaan’s words: 

“These scars are related to a psychically painful experience of a double bind – the pinch of a simultaneous “you may” and “you may not”: You may officially serve the Lord (and the church) through your preaching and pastoral work. However, you may not live out the humanity you are (of which you preach and of which your sexual orientation is part and parcel) in an intimate relationship (remain celibate; no marriage). Such double binds are some of the worst life-depriving events in which one can become anxiously trapped – as Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22 tragically-comically indicates.”

I could not reconcile the loving God with a church that wanted to deny my core being. How can an orgasm between two consenting adults be a sin? Colleagues attend gatherings with their significant others while the person I loved needed to hide and visit in secret? Why should I feel ashamed? The only way out was to resign in order to break the double-bind and catch 22 tragic-comedy. 

The key which unlocks the hidden voices and experiences of the past

For the last four years, I have been fortunate to work with colleagues at Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) that reflect upon practices and processes of integrating sexuality, spirituality and gender at various intersectionalities. They have enabled me to be kind and gentle with myself. Holding spaces where I can go slower and deeper with what I am going through. These organisational practices are part of the keys in unlocking hidden voices and experiences of my past. 

In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk gives me keys, words for why I remember these days of significance: 

“Trauma robs you of the feeling that you are in charge of yourself, of what I will call self-leadership … The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind—of yourself. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed.”

Van der Kolk suggests the following process, which is not linear. Instead, they overlap because of individual circumstances on the journey of self-discovery: 

  • find a way to become calm and focused, 
  • learn to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, 
  • find a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, 
  • not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive. 

Keeping our memories alive is queer. 

We need to remember trauma as an act of defiance. 

We need to remember for our personal and collective sense of wellness.