"I Felt Seen": Visiting Family in The Gambia as a Black Bisexual Woman

There's a lot more to the country than I thought

Illustration of a woman walking into a market in The Gambia with pride colors

TripSavvy / Alison Czinkota

It’s Pride Month! We’re kicking off this joyous, meaningful month with a collection of features completely dedicated to LGBTQ+ travelers. Follow along on a gay writer’s adventures at Pride around the world; read about a bisexual woman’s journey to The Gambia to visit her staunchly religious family; and hear from a non-gender-conforming traveler about unexpected challenges and triumphs on the road. Then, find inspiration for your future trips with our guides to the best LGBTQ+ hidden gem attractions in every state, amazing national park sites with LGBTQ+ history, and actor Jonathan Bennett’s new travel venture. However you make your way through the features, we’re glad you’re here with us to celebrate the beauty and importance of inclusivity and representation within the travel space and beyond.

On May 28, 2021, I boarded a plane for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I was accompanying my mother to her home country, where many of our relatives still live: The Gambia. We were making the trip to visit my family after my father’s mother passed away, and my younger sister moved there earlier this year. It was an important—and somewhat exciting—trip in theory: My mother’s first time back to the country since 2010 and my third time in general. To add to it, I was going to see family I hadn’t seen in a while, especially my sister. I was finally going on vacation, fully vaccinated!

I really should’ve been more excited.

My nerves overtook any excitement I felt for several reasons. Firstly, while I am fully vaccinated, I was nervous about being around so many people in a plane, cramped next to each other for upwards of eight hours. I knew there were regulations in place that passengers were required to follow (such as wearing a mask at all times) but still, flying during the pandemic made me nervous.

Secondly, and for me more importantly, I had, felt so disconnected from my Gambian heritagefor a large part of my life, I can barely speak my family’s language, Mandinka, and when I’m around my family I certainly feel more American than African and they, somewhat jokingly, don’t let me forget it. But I could never really get to the core of why I felt that disconnect when there were also many other children of immigrants who could probably relate to what I felt. That was until I made two personal realizations: I am not a religious person, and I am bisexual.

Of course, there are bisexual, gay, lesbian, trans, and other members of the LGBTQ+ community who also identify with being Muslim. But my feelings toward all organized religion actually helped me come to terms with my sexuality, which in turn helped me learn to accept myself. So while I grew to feel comfortable in who I currently am, my fear of how my family would hypothetically react shaped my behavior. I grew distant from everything that represented that fear, including my heritage.

My family is Muslim. Moreover, they all fall more on the devotedly religious side than not, whereas I am very much not religious. At all. In fact, I no longer consider myself Muslim. But as far as I know, I am the only person in my family who is like that. Even the idea of not being Muslim is somewhat inconceivable to my family. I believe this because I told my parents four years ago now that I would stop practicing the religion and they still continue to ask me to start again and not let anyone know that I ever stopped.

So when I went to The Gambia back in 2019, my religious position was at the forefront of my mind. Since then, however, I’ve come to realize my attraction to people of all genders, which for me became the focus of this trip.

I knew that while my family rarely made direct comments about the LGBTQ+ community, the indirect language I’ve heard has not been positive. All I could think about as I boarded the plane were the possibilities of what could happen. They were all I thought about while my mother and I waited for our connecting flight in Brussels. And they were all I thought about as we drove to Brikama when we landed. What would I say when people inevitably asked about when I would get married to a man when I wasn’t sure if I’d even get married to a man?

Well, it did happen, multiple times. And each time, I simply responded, “I don’t know.” It was a step up from just dodging the question like I wanted to, and since I was being truthful, I started to relax a little bit, to my surprise. It’s as if I started realizing that the trip didn’t have to be as stressful or anxiety-inducing as I imagined. I didn’t have to overthink potential conflict, I could genuinely relax without ever giving the uncomfortable questions about my sexuality a second thought.

After I stopped giving attention to those questions, I started giving that attention to seeing the country from a new perspective. In the time I spent living with my mother’s side of the family, a lot of them didn’t know me much but they treated me like I’d lived there my whole life. They welcomed me with warm smiles and encouraged me to speak Mandinka, often helping me fill in the gaps of my broken sentences.

They helped us get around everywhere and did everything with us without expecting anything in return. Even people I had never met before joked with me and made me feel comfortable. I felt seen. I felt like part of the family.

Throughout the week, my mom and I really tried to immerse ourselves in the culture, and at some points, I started envisioning, for the first time, what it would look like to bring my future family to some of the sites we saw and places we visited. I wondered if it could be possible to bring my future children to visit my mom in the home she is currently building.

Feeling this kind of connection meant so much to me. Even though I created that distance from my family, I still yearned for the pride that people have for their cultures. The sudden possibilities I saw for myself in The Gambia were my first step in finally recognizing how closed-minded I wastoward my family and the country. There is so much more to the country than I thought, and I can’t describe just how freeing it is to truly understand that now. I felt so much love, and I want to continue exploring that in the future.

While I am now back in the U.S, I am excited about the idea of going back now and seeing my family. Of course, I still am not out about my sexuality or religious status, nor do I plan to come out anytime soon. Still, for now, it’s enough that I finally feel like I can one day find myself in a place where I proudly embrace my culture the same way I embrace my other identities.