The Ugandan Frank Ocean on Forbidden First Love: ‘It Felt Criminal’
Musical artist Jonah Mutono, whose new album GERG comes out May 15, writes about finding romance and embracing his queer self. PLUS listen to his beautiful new song “The Low.”
At 21, I had an idyllic, white-picket-fence dream: a gorgeous store-bought wife, a millennial job without a dress code, and a large Alsatian named after a New York borough. However, despite having already lived in three countries prior, I felt like the greenest boy at Nottingham University, England.
If you had accused me of being a greenhorn, we would probably be enemies. I had seen destitution in rural Uganda, I had survived long days without electricity, and I had worn a fedora for months completely unchecked.
In the face of all of this *experience,* however, I had never been kissed. Not properly. Not like in the movies.
Of course, I’d kissed people, but it was a rubbery, soulless affair—devoid of any fireworks and luster. I balanced this disenchantment with a healthy dose of my suburban dream, determined I could figure out the mechanics after “I do.”
I grew up happily in an evangelical Christian home. My faith was a central anchor to my every decision, in a Santa Claus way: Jesus owed me everything. In this setting, sexuality ceased to exist. Back at a university in the Midlands of England, we sexless adolescents were all desperate for one thing: marriage. Being one of the only people of color in my church community, I did feel a little less worthy of this. I couldn’t see myself anywhere.
Left and right, I watched as my gorgeous friends found each other and made out in their cars. Young weddings would bring an instilled panic in the rest of us. I remember sitting in a room full of boys, early 20s, discussing which girls we knew to be M-squared (marriage-material). I participated with aplomb. I probably started it and enjoyed the theater. It didn’t occur to me why we were supposed to be so desperate for this though. I’d never felt that driving force.
Until one day, someone who wasn’t allowed to be my type strolled past me at a holy event and smiled in my direction. I don’t remember what I did with my own face; I stared as their every muscle individually flexed under a trap of denim while he climbed a ladder. I didn’t know that feeling existed.
It was feverish. I thought I was getting sick. This was my first buzz, and I didn’t peg it for exactly what it was. I never acted on it. I went about my business like it never happened.
Five years would pass until I got that kiss.
I could list the hurdles I jumped to finally get to a place where I could emotionally muster swiping on Tinder. In short, I lived in New York. The exposure ruined the façade; everything was allowed. These worldly city people were convinced I was fluid from Day 1, and that was barbed—because I had no idea. What an offensive assumption to make of a good Christian boy!
I awkwardly tried most everything, only to return back to England, very much not sexually liberated. My faith had diminished to ritual, but I was back to church, back to the old friends that I love, most of whom were now men, and married. That instinct to avoid being a perpetual third-wheel kicked in, and in the witching hours, out of sheer boredom, I swiped. I was a New York City professional now. I bought the drinks and went through the motions—until him.
He was everything. He lit a warm glow in my chest, and I could stare in his eyes for hours. I didn’t know this feeling existed, and it felt criminal. I started to appreciate many controversies I simply didn’t get before: PDA, throwing dishes, teen pregnancy, etc.
If you stare in someone’s eyes long enough, you might not notice your bodies sliding together. My big kiss came four dates in, and happened without calculation. We were seated on his couch watching BoJack Horseman and he turned his head ever so slightly, which was signal enough for me. It was redemptive, it was primal, it was a headache ordained by God.
I had just found something tangible that I didn’t want to give up. Whatever remained of my beliefs, I knew they’d never recover after this. Uganda is still one my favorite places, but with so little exposure, a fear of the LGBTQ community is violently planted in every mind. That fear is hard to shake. I began to worry that something I had kept so private would now concern everyone in my life.
None of my English friends were negative in the ways I expected. I should have given them more credit. However, if I had just found my lane—I was now trapped between leaving communities that I loved and being alone forever.
So I didn’t tell anyone. I snuck beneath the surface, and I wrote an album about it. I exist to create and to create honestly—making even the writing of this piece painful. I don’t think I’m the activist that Uganda deserves. I’m discovering that an honest existence can often be a difficult one. I got my kiss and it was transcendent. The world around it wasn’t, but perhaps that’s why it felt so significant.
The relationship didn’t prove to be a perfect match, but I know those fireworks are out there. I can exist exactly as I am, and perhaps that white-picket-fence dream isn’t all too far off.