Boet/Sissy – Black. Queer. Xhosa.

I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.

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In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.

After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi   restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.

The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.

The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid cloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.

The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.

Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”

Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.

Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.

In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”

After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.

Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.

In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.

The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.

The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for it.

 

Khumbulani LGBTI Pride 2015 – Thinking differently about Pride

On the 16th May 2015 I was part of Khumbulani Pride that took place in Khayelitsha. This was my second Khumbulani Pride, I went to the first Khumbulani Pride in 2013 which was primarily organised by Free Gender Khayelitsha. Khumbulani Pride 2015 was organised by Free Gender Khayelitsha in partnership with Triangle Project, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, and Gender DynamiX. These are NGO organisations that are working towards advancing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Rights in the Cape Town Metropolitan area. Khumbulani Pride was publicised through social networks, LGBTI e-mail networks, and word of mouth. These modes of communication were successful because many people were at the Pride march, which started at the O.R Tambo Mew Way Hall and ended at the Buyel’embo Village in Nelson Mandela Park. Having an LGBTI Pride march that starts at O.R Tambo Hall and ends at Nelson Mandela Park is significant in linking the anti-apartheid struggle with the LGBTI struggle.

Khumbulani Pride takes place a few months after Cape Town Pride 2015. Most of the people and organisations that attended Khumbulani Pride had staged a protest at Cape Town Pride 2015 and created an Alternative Cape Town Pride schedule. The protest was calling out the exclusive nature of Cape Town Pride and the unwillingness of Cape Town Pride organisers to have more voices in the planning of Cape Town Pride. Prior to Cape Town Pride 2015 a Cape Town Pride Oversight Committee was created, that consisted on ten individuals, to look into the potential reorganising of Cape Town Pride to be more inclusive and accountable to LGBTI communities at large.

The Mandate of the Oversight Committee was as follows:

  • Review the constitution process, draft a constitution and prepare for adoption at AGM in 2015
  • Set a date for the 2015 AGM facilitate the meeting
  • Oversee the organising of Cape Town Pride 2015 and ensure the calendar in inclusive and balanced

 The Oversight Committee Report “OC end out report final – Apr 2015” states that the current Cape Town Pride director is unwilling to cooperate in the building of more inclusive and accountable LGBTI Pride. The report states that the festival director, Mathew Van As, is evasive when asked questions about financial accountability of Cape Town Pride. The non-inclusive nature of Cape Town Pride and the unwillingness of Cape Town Pride director to engage with the concerns of the people forced activists and individuals who felt marginalised by Cape Town Pride to create an Alternative Cape Town Pride. The Alternative Pride was a protest and a call for an inclusive Pride. If you are unfamiliar with debates that took place around Cape Town Pride you can read them here, and here and here.

Of course these debates are not new nor are they unique to Cape Town Pride. Johannesburg Pride has had its fair share of controversy surrounding issues of inclusivity, which you can watch here and read about here.

Khumbulani Pride was very different from Cape Town Pride. Firstly the Pride march was much more political in nature. By political I mean that the placards that people were carrying were addressing issues of homophobia, xenophobia, and transphobia. The slogans chanted and the songs sang while marching at Khumbulani Pride speak to the homophobic violence, they speak to violence targeting gender non-conforming lesbians and gay men, they speak to the xenophobia that is experienced by people who are read as foreigners. There was recognition of different struggles and the pain of others and making links to other struggles that at first glance do not seem like LGBTI concerns. Khumbulani Pride is an emphatic assertion of queerness in Khayelitsha, and a demand to be visible.

Walking and singing and chanting through Khayelitsha was emotional and very uplifting. Asserting our queerness in the township space, a space that is often seen as opposed to sexual diversity, was affirming for many of us who grew up in townships. There was something, dare I say, revolutionary about being open and claiming our queerness in Khayelitsha and not being coy or apologetic about it. Our visibility in Khayelitsha as black LGBTI people plays a significant role in challenging the die-hard narratives that same-sex affection is white or a western phenomenon or that it’s ‘unAfrican’.

After we had marched and we arrived at Buyel’embo Village in Mandela Park there was a formal program, a rally if you will. The formal program of speakers is something that has been eliminated at Cape Town Pride. It’s the marching and then the after party celebrations, devoid of any political content. Khumbulani Pride included a program of formal speeches from the Oversight Committee that was looking into keeping Cape Town Pride accountable, the chair of the LGBTI Task Team, and then entertainment in the form of poetry and singing. There was a formal program that addressed issues affecting people in LGBTI communities like the reporting of hate crimes to the police and how the police are dealing with hate crimes. We heard about the amazing work that Free Gender, lead by Funeka Soldaat, has done in creating a relationship with the Khayelitsha Police to fight hate crimes targeting LGBTI people. There was also a moment of silence for all the LGBTI people who have been brutally murdered for their gender non-conforming ways ways of being. People in the LGBTI community were urged to get involved in organisations and in thinking about what kind of Pride they envision in the future because it is clear that in its current form Cape Town Pride is unwilling to embrace the diversity within LGBTI communities in the Cape Town Metropolitan area.

Khumbulani Pride was completely free to attend, and it was free to get into the enclosed Buyel’embo Village space after the Pride march. Money is an issue because when Cape Town Pride events cost money to attend them that excludes people who can’t afford tickets, and those predominantly excluded are black and coloured LGBTI folks. The legacy of apartheid has ensured that black and coloured citizens are still economically disadvantaged. This is a factor that Cape Town Pride refuses to engage with in a meaningful manner. I have heard Matthew Van As, the Cape Town Pride Director, callously say that people who can’t afford to attend Pride events must just not go or not drink at the events. This is someone who is leading Cape Town Pride. This type of class violence informs the programing of Cape Town Pride and creates an atmosphere where black and coloured LGBTI folks feel that there is no place for them in Cape Town Pride.

In attending Khumbulani Pride I have experienced the success of a diverse Pride organised by people who are interested in LGBTI politics and other struggles connected to LGBTI people. Khumbulani Pride provides us with a different model of what Pride can look like, where it can take place, and what it can achieve. Those of us who are interested in creating a diverse and inclusive Pride should really build on what Khumbulani Pride has started. Khumbulani Pride gives me a sense of a different Khayelitsha, a sense of a different Pride and ultimately a different South Africa.

In order for us to create vibrant LGBTI communities in the Cape Town Metropolitan area we can’t leave some LGBTI populations behind because they are not in the correct economic class or racial group. Because of apartheid and its legacies that are still entrenched in South African society, because of the way the world is unequally structured, because of the power of whiteness, we have to be vigilant and active in the engineering of equality. As the LGBTI community we need to check our own prejudices that are filtered through our class, our gender, our nationality, our race, our gender performance, and our physical abilities. We as the LGBTI communities must know that we are not exempt from the hard work of creating a more democratic, a more free, and more equal South Africa.

The inclusion of Sexuality, Gender, Transgendered issues in the #RhodesMustFall movement

I first went to Azania House (formerly known as Bremner Building) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), on the Saturday after the first night of the occupation. The energy was amazing, the discussions were vibrant, and at the time I wasn’t sure if the Rhodes statue would ultimately fall or not. I was just excited to be in the presence of black students who are fighting for transformation at the university. I was excited to see students demanding to see themselves represented at this African university.

On my next visit to Bremner I witnessed a heated discussion on the issue of Gender Neutral bathrooms on the first floor because there are transgendered students in the #RhodesMustFall movement. One of the transgendered persons in the room suggested that the female and male bathrooms on the first floor should be made Gender Neutral. Others met this request with resistance for a number of reasons. The cis gender woman mentioned reasons of safety that they do not want to go into a bathroom where males can also go. One of the guys sheepishly voiced not wanting transgendered women entering the male bathroom.

The cis gender woman tried to explain that firstly she respects the transgendered person, but she really doesn’t understand transgendered issues and why the bathrooms have to be Gender Neutral. The concerns of the cis gender woman about safety issues in the bathrooms are valid in the climate of sexual violence on women in South Africa. But transgendered persons and other gender non-conforming bodies also face physical and sexual violence in this country.

The transgendered person in the conversation tried to explain that they also feel uncomfortable going into male or female bathrooms. Male bathrooms are often hostile and you are treated like someone who is there as a voyeur on male penises. The trans person also voiced that female bathrooms are also filled with cold stares and judgements and sometimes-verbal abuse.

While listening to this conversation I couldn’t help but think of how Simon Nkoli conscientised some of his comrades about homosexuality while they were arrested in the Delmas Treason Trial in the 1980’s. Simon Nkoli’s fellow comrades in the treason trial often spoke about Simon Nkoli with affection and how they learned about gay and lesbian rights from him. The transgendered person in the conversation at Azania House was conscientising fellow comrades on transgendered issues and I was moved by this interaction. It was a real and honest moment and although these students had different opinions and feelings about Gender Neutral bathrooms, it was an open discussion; it was on the table and the students were grappling.

In the end the students decided to stick paper signs designating the first floor male and female bathrooms Gender Neutral? and Gender Neutral. What I saw was the first of many discussion that I would witness about transgendered issues in Azania House and in the #RhodesMustFall movements as a whole. In the following weeks during the occupation of the Archie Mafeje room the politics of gender, sexuality, and transgendered also became central as intersectionality as a framework took shape within the movement.

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The #RhodesMustFall movement has adopted Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness as the foundation for the movement. The Black Consciousness movement has in the past been critiqued for not incorporating gender struggles within the movement. The #RhodesMustFall movement made it a point to incorporate gender, sexuality, and transgendered politics as they fall part of the emancipatory project of post-apartheid South Africa.

The inclusion of gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues within a predominantly black student movement is no small victory. My sense is that continuously invoking gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues in the race conversation is what is going to deliver us. The battle for gender, sexuality, and transgendered rights has always been ghettoized and only fought by people directly affected by these issues. Our strength actually lies in our ability to see that the race issue is connected to the gender issue and the sexuality issue and the transgender issue and the class issue. In the piece How Black Women Claimed Their Place Mbali Matandela articulates the significance of having black women’s voices in the movement to amplify the specificity of the pain of black women in this country.

The psychological, emotional, and sexual violence that black women, gender non-conforming people, transgendered people are subjected to is from predominantly black men. And this needs to be addressed. The violence these groups of people are subjected to is because of the systemic patriarchal order in this country that black men are part of and need to be part of its undoing. And so it is critical then that a movement created for the dismantling of white supremacist patriarchy embodied by the Cecil John Rhodes statue must include the dismantling of black patriarchy.

Addressing the issue of black patriarchy remains an issue as some black males within the #RhodesMustFall movement remain stubborn about their conservative views about gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues. There is hope because many are willing to learn and strong black feminists and gender non-conforming LGBTI people challenge these black men.

The adoption of intersectional politics in the #RhodesMustFall movement was a genius move because intersectionality is immensely beneficial in understanding the multi-layered South African context where race, class, gender, disability, and sexual identity intersect with complex results. The very lives of black students at UCT are an example of the complexity of intersectional identities in South Africa because black students come from different class backgrounds, have different sexualities, and have different gender identities and all of these must be navigated in this often hostile white environment.

For me the #RhodesMustFall movement represents the hope for the future. A future where black students see themselves in the architecture of the universities they study in. Perhaps this is a sign of how future South Africa movements will look like, that they will recognize how struggles are connected. It is in the recognising the different ways that we as black people, as poor people, as LGBTI people, as women, as disabled people, are all chained by systems of oppression. This recognition then becomes the impetus for us to come together and dismantle the systems that oppress us.

Lwando Scott 

The politics of Pride – Cape Town

“Gender is about race is about class is about sexuality is about age is about nationality is about an entire range of social relations.” – Kath Weston

In this quote Weston captures the intersection of social and identity struggles and how these struggles pull and push on each other. The intersection of struggles is no more evident than in the South African LGBTIQ community, where race, class, gender and sexuality intersect and produce a complex set of relations between people.

During Cape Town Pride this year, 2015, there were two schedules that were put out. There was the official Pride that was organised by the Cape Town Pride organisation. There was also an Alternative Pride schedule that was organised by members of LGBTIQ community in Cape Town who felt unrepresented and ignored by the official Pride organisers. Leading up to Pride there were numerous meetings that were held with the organisers of Cape Town Pride but these meeting never yielded any agreements about the events on the Pride schedule. Cape Town based LGBTIQ activists, NGO organisations and other individuals requested an inclusive Pride, where all within the LGBTIQ community can be represented in Pride events. The efforts to create a more inclusive Pride fell on deaf ears. The Alternative Pride schedule was created because of a lack of diversity and a lack of consideration for marginalised LGBTIQ people within the Cape Town LGBTIQ community.

I attended one of the official Cape Town Pride meetings after they had sent out an e-mail requesting volunteers. The meeting was help at 6 Spin Street in the Cape Town city centre. The organisers of Cape Town Pride chaired the meeting and they solicited ideas about pride events, but rejected most of the ideas because of “budgets” constraints. We were then asked to sign up for volunteer hours to help with Pride but then never heard from the organisers again. During the meeting, it sounded like the Pride was already fixed and that there was no real input needed, even volunteers weren’t seriously wanted. It felt like a smoke and mirrors exercise, not really geared at engaging the people, and I didn’t appreciate the waste of my time.

Looking at the 2015 Cape Town Pride schedule, the schedule had 9 days of events and out of these 9 events only 2 were free. The rest of them you had to pay a fee in order to access the events. If I decided that I wanted to go to all of the events on the Cape Town Pride schedule, it would cost me R850. Now the important question becomes, who can pay to get into these events? Who are these events geared towards? Are these Cape Town Pride events representative of the L-G-B-T-I-Q communities in Cape Town? What is missing in these events? What is a Millionaire Gala that costs R450 per head? I think the answers to these questions will reveal much about the politics of the organisers of Cape Town Pride.

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As mentioned there was an Alternative Pride schedule, which was a direct response to the lack of representation of the diversity of the LGBTIQ community by Cape Town Pride. Some of the events organised under the Alternative Pride schedule were free, and when they did charge it was not ridiculously expensive, so many could attend the events. I attended a number of the events and found that they spoke to the experiences of many LGBTIQ South Africans. The Alternative Cape Town Pride schedule included events that were located outside of the Cape Town city centre, like Gugulethu. The Alternative Cape Town Pride events were organised in a really short space of time, but they were a huge success. While attending some of the events I couldn’t help but imagine how impactful and inclusive they would make Cape Town Pride.

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The Pride Parade is usually one of the last events on the pride calendar and this year was no exception. The LGBTIQ activists, NGO’s, and individuals who were opposed to the way that Cape Town Pride is organised planned a protest. The details of the pride protest were ironed out at the “Talk Pride To The People” event that was part of the Alternative Pride Schedule. In this meeting activists spoke of the non-accommodating and non-inclusive stance taken by Cape Town Pride organisers. The activists also spoke about how there shouldn’t be just a “stay away” from Pride, that it must be protested, people must show up, and reject the bullying tendencies of the Pride organisers.

The protest took take place during the Pride parade. The protesters consisted of people from different NGO’s in Cape Town, individuals, and LGBTIQ activists. There was so much solidarity during the protest amongst protesters from different LGBTIQ communities fighting for inclusion. The Pride protest was filled with songs, the beating of African drums, and chanting, calling for the recognition of black, of poor, of disabled, of transgendered, and of sex worker LGBTIQ struggles. Cape Town Pride organisers seem to lack an understanding of the way struggles are connected. There’s a refusal to comprehend that organising Pride in a socially and economically divided city like Cape Town, you have to consider how the events accommodate people who are not middle class, who are not men, who are not white, and who don’t live in the Cape Town city centre.

“Pride is a celebration” is one of the arguments used by Pride organisers for the lack of politics in South African Pride parades. How Pride events situated in South Africa can be devoid of politics is mind-boggling. Many LGBTIQ South Africans are still fighting for the right to exist. Many black gender non-conforming LGBTIQ are targets of violent assaults and murder. Transgendered individuals are fighting for access to social services, access to health services, and the creation of laws that allow people to live their lives in their preferred sex and gender identities. Not to mention the everyday bullying, and taunts, and the indignities that LGBTIQ people struggle against because of institutionalised homophobia in this country. Under these conditions how do we embrace Pride parades that are devoid of politics? Under these circumstances how can LGBTIQ communities be asked to only “celebrate” Pride?

It is clear that the Pride protests in South Africa target the depoliticization and subsequent commercialisation of Pride, and the resulting exclusion of certain groups of people. This is not unique to Cape Town; Johannesburg has had its fair share of Pride protests. Both Cape Town and Johannesburg Pride events have been mired in complex politics of representation. Although there had been a number of protests during Johannesburg Pride in the past, it was the disruption of Pride by the One in Nine Campaign protesters in October 2012 that really placed a spotlight on the problems with Pride in Johannesburg. The disruption of Joburg Pride in 2012 started a conversation within the LGBTI community about the politics of pride and the meaning of pride in the context of South Africa. This is an on going conversation and it remains a touchy subject because the issues that caused division have not been solved, chief amongst them the representation of “black” struggles within Pride.

When the One in Nine protesters disrupted Johannesburg Pride they were asking for a minute of silence from the organizers of Pride to honour members of the LGBTI community, particularly gender non-conforming black women who have been murdered because of their disruption of normative gender expectations. They were demanding Johannesburg Pride and its organizers to focus more on LGBTIQ politics in the country and less on the commercialised aspects that had become a priority for Johannesburg Pride. Johannesburg Pride organisers and the pride goers responded to the call for silence from One in Nine with hostility and assault.

You might be wondering what exactly are LGBTIQ NGO’s, activists and individuals demanding from Cape Town Pride? What would an inclusive Pride look like? If Cape Town Pride is going to be inclusive it will have to consider the following points very seriously:

  • Cape Town Pride does not seem to care about poor LGBTIQ people in Cape Town and so does not make attempts to include such people in the Cape Town Pride schedule.
    • The events surrounding Pride and the after Pride enclosed festivities are expensive and this excludes people who can’t afford.
    • Cape Town Pride does not exist in a vacuum, it can’t just ignore LGBTIQ people who are poor by just saying “if you can’t afford, don’t come.”
    • Because of the history of colonialism and then apartheid economic classes are racialized in South Africa, which means that the majority of people who can’t afford to access the paid sections of Cape Town Pride are predominantly black. This means that black people are mostly excluded from Cape Town Pride events.
  • Cape Town Pride does not organise events that include LGBTIQ people who have children. The schedule does not attempt to have family friendly events.
  • Cape Town Pride does not engage with feminist politics and lesbian feminist politics, in fact Cape Town Pride does not engage in any kind of politics. It’s just a “celebration.”
    • The struggles of black gender non-conforming peoples within the LGBTIQ community needs to be taken up and seriously engaged with. There is something seriously wrong with the politics of Cape Town Pride when we have people in LGBTIQ communities assaulted and murdered and the response during Pride is silence and “celebration.”
  • Cape Town Pride does not engage transgendered issues, and this needs to change. The T in LGBTIQ seems to be decorative only. There’s a negation of transgendered people’s experiences and their needs.
  • Cape Town Pride shouldn’t place financial gains before political struggles.
  • Cape Town Pride needs to include LGBTIQ communities in organising Pride. It’s understood that Pride programming will never fully satisfy everyone, but there has to be an open process that tries to be as inclusive as possible.

The creation of a better South Africa, of a more democratic South Africa, of an inclusive South Africa is the responsibility of all of us. Cape Town Pride is not exempt from this. Cape Town Pride needs to consider the different communities in the alphabet soup – LGBTIQ – when designing the Pride schedule. The 2015 Cape Town Pride schedule caters to the needs of middle class white gay men. If Cape Town Pride is for middle class gay white men, then it should be termed as such, and rebrand, and not give the illusion that it caters to the whole LGBTIQ community. Cape Town Pride should also remember that Pride has its roots in protest. But most crucially Cape Town Pride must remember that the situation of the African queer necessitates that Pride be political.

Indigenous language complexities with LGBTI terms

This week one of my pieces titled, iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English, which focuses on the trouble with indigenous South African languages and the derogatory terms they use to describe and talk about LGBTI communities was discussed on different platforms. The piece also tackles the way that African languages in South Africa are not evolving as fast as they should and their evolution is not documented. I use my mother tongue IsiXhosa as an example, that there is little to no academic work in the vernacular.

The piece was picked up by three other publishing websites. Holaafrica picked it up and then it was picked up by Voices Of Africa and lastly picked up by The Guardian. This obviously exposed me to more readers and subsequently more people engaging with the piece. This is something I am happy about because it means that we are having a broad conversation about this issue.

Towards the end of the week Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk requested a conversation with me about the piece and the issues it raises. Here is a recording of that interview.

The feedback from the piece has been awesome. People have challenged my assertions and some people have affirmed my arguments as they also have experienced the lack of vocabulary in indigenous languages to talk about LGBTI issues. Some people on twitter have argued that some of the derogatory terms in IsiXhosa referring to LGBTI people are not in fact derogatory. Many others and I obviously disagree. In this process I have learned of a new Xhosa term for gay that I didn’t know before that may not necessarily be derogatory from a friend on Facebook, the word is “Omakhanukanodwa” which loosely translates to “those who want their own.”

Here are some of the issues raised and feedback from people while discussing the issue of language and LGBTI terms.

“It’s broad and the issues are varied and intricately intertwined. It’s a conversation that needs to happen at all levels and we, as the LGBTI population should lead it. I think you nailed by linking the derogatory language and discourse used to talk about the LGBTI population and the oppression of African languages in referring to how Western languages and discourse has been nurtured to evolve while “Other” languages have be ignored and not given space to evolve. Or how such evolution is not documented…because in everyday life in the streets the languages remain dynamic.”Thiyane Duda

This is a great exchange I had with Fumbatha May on Facebook:

  • Fumbatha May: There are words like “amakhanukanodwa” and “oodlezinye” that aren’t necessarily derogatory.
  • Lwando Scott: First time hearing “amakhanukanodwa” which is very descriptive. And I’m on the fence with “oodlezinye”. But all in all this language thing is something we should wrestle with a lot more. Particularly in bridging the “culture” gap between LGBTI & Afrikan. Thank you for engaging. I’m learning as I go.
  • Fumbatha May: I enjoyed your article immensely. I have long dreamed of turning the former Pick n Pay building in Bhisho into an Africana library that would house a think tank to tackle the issues you raised in the article. I do, however, disagree with your point about academia being the source of new words to describe human behaviour. Yes, for less “obvious” or “tangible” phenomena like gender identity for instance, it does become necessary for academia to give us the words to describe and explain them. However, we should not preclude the possibility of regular folk coining the phrases and popularising them (e.g. the two words I mentioned in my other comment). Also, social networks are making that process a little easier as words trend like wildfire (e.g. ukutowna – a word that existed only in East Londond, Mthatha and surrounds until it was popularized by Khaya Dlanga).

 And lastly here are some exchanges on twitter:

 

Reflections: The Quiet Violence of Dreams

“Growing up is a treacherous activity. You never see it coming.” – Mmabatho

For my birthday last year, a good friend of mine gave me K Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams. I had never read the book and my friend insisted that I read it, so he bought it for me. I often like to relate how books come to me because the journey of the book into my tiny library is often telling about the book itself. So there is a story about the book before I even get to the story in the book. Just before I started reading this book, I saw it was listed on “100 African reads” and so I was excited to start reading it.

The tittle is captivating, The Quiet Violence of Dreams, and it absolutely captures the essence of K Sello Duiker’s work. Mental health is one of the least talked about issue in black South African communities, and this book places it centre stage. Growing up people with mental illness were often referred to as people who were bewitched, and often they received no real treatment. Even today people with metal illness roam the streets of South African townships without any real medical assistance. This book shows up how people without mental illness are so ill equipped to deal with people who have mental illness.

We often think we know the line between good and bad, normal and abnormal, crazy and sane, but reality is a bit more complex than these binaries. When Tshepo, the protagonist, is admitted to a mental institution in Cape Town he makes this observation, which I thought was very telling:

“In here everyone knows that there are more crazy people out there, and that most of them are politicians, lawyers, judges, accountants & bankers. It seems only a matter of chance that we are in here and they are out there.”

Tshepo is spot on here about the unpredictability of life and how only so much is up to us and the rest we are left at the whims of the universe (whatever form the universe is represented in your life). The unpredictability of life and options being left to chance is revealed later in the book when we learn about the traumatic incident that Tshepo went through when he was a child living at home and the subsequent troubled relationship he has with his father.

I never knew Duiker personally, but reading this book I am inclined to believe that he was a feminist or believed in feminist philosophy. Through the character of Mmabatho we see the sometimes heart wrenching difficulty women have navigating relationships with men in a patriarchal society like ours. I treasured the moments Mmabatho had in dialogue with herself about her tumultuous relationships with men; it’s captured when she says:

“I’ve been carrying residual depression from failed relationships for too long… I’ve been kidding myself that I could tame love, that I could meet a man on my terms when it suits me. I’ve been reading too many magazines, listening to too much pop psychology and experts who only seem to have succeeded in leading me further into confusion…. And the sad thing is he will never know. He will never know the amount of preparation it takes to be a woman, the degree of caution. He will never know how I struggle with myself, with other women. To him I will be just another woman bawling her eyes out because women do that… A woman has to go far to look for herself.”

dreams

Cape Town and its racial, spatial, class, gender, and sexuality complexities are a prominent feature in the novel, and brilliantly so. Tshepo even has a theory of Cape Town and it’s damning. His theory of Cape Town would support some of the recent accusations that Cape Town is racist and does not work for people who live in the Cape Flats and Gugulethu. The articles were published here, here, and here. When Tshepo, who is black, gets to know Chris, who is coloured, you see the residue of apartheid in the way they interact with each other. You see the boxes that South Africans put each other in, and how we don’t know much about each other, and seemingly don’t care to. Chris’s reading of Tshepo is comical and enlightening when he describes him:

“He’s a little spoiled, one of those darkies who went to larney schools and learned to talk to them (whites). He also dresses like them (whites). Doesn’t wear All Star tackies like the others (blacks), never eats white bread – you know how they (whites) are about health – and sometimes listens to 5fm.”

Although the forces of darkness eventually swallow the relationship between Chris and Tshepo, when Chris does the unthinkable to Tshepo, it is this relationship that we first experience the homosexual tendencies of Tsepo. Tshepo falls in love with Chris but never really lets Chris know. Reading the two pages dedicated exclusively to the way Tshepo feels about Chris, it stirred emotions in me, of when I used to fall for my straight friends growing up and not knowing what’s going on and how to channel those feelings. The realisation that you are in love is at once exhilarating and bewildering. Tshepo describes his crush on Chris:

“There is determination about his eyes, like someone madly chasing the sun even though it only wants to set peacefully. There is a do-or-die resolve about him. It is devastating to look at him. I just want to run towards him and be swallowed whole by his sensual presence. I want to disappear forever in his eyes.”

I am always in favour of stories depicting black men falling in love with other black men. It’s a narrative that is lacking in South African literature and it’s always such a pleasure to read such stories. Many have lamented that black men loving other black men is a revolutionary act, and I am inclined to agree.

One of the striking characteristics about Tshepo is how he lies to everyone. Almost everything in his life is concealed from the people who are his friends and acquaintances. I suppose he feels he can’t trust anyone with the truth, his truth, and so he is compelled to lie even about small things that do not really necessitate lying. This made me think of the culture of lying in this country and how pervasive it is, from the highest people in government to lay people on the streets. Even when telling the truth will not cause damage or embarrassment, people choose to lie.

Tshepo’s journey leads him to work as a sex worker at a male “massage parlour” in the gay district. Ironically (or maybe not ironic at all) it is during his stint as a sex worker that Tshepo discovers himself. This is where he explores his own sexuality, and how to be somewhat comfortable with that sexuality in the world. Through working at the underground escort agency he learns much about people and their different journeys through interacting with them as co-workers and as clients. One such interaction is with Afrikaans speaking West, a fellow escort employee who becomes a close friend, and says he became a sex worker because he “wasn’t prepared to be a casualty of mediocre.” And he describes mediocre as marrying, having children and then getting a divorce. Another arresting interaction is with a client called Peter, who says to Tsepo:

“The truth is I have become lazy, complacent. It’s an English South African thing… Back in the old days I learned that hating Afrikaans was a convenient way of suggesting you are condemning the government without having to do anything about it. It was cop-out because while the Boers took the blame we, generally, took advantage.”

K Sello Duiker really captures the intersection of race, class, sexuality that permeate South African’s experiences in this marvellous novel. He captures the hardness of South African society and the violent nature of restricting people’s identities and choices. He particularly captures the hardships that even “larney” middle class black people experience navigating the die-hard beliefs and stereotypes about blacks from apartheid years.

Towards the end of the book, the protagonist Tshepo says, “perhaps I sense that I will die young…. Death is begging at my heels in my dreams.” This is poignant only because K Sello Duiker committed suicide in 2005, and reading this book I was struck by the “life imitating art” sense of that passage. In that sense I can’t but agree with Siphiwo Mahala who described K Sello Duiker saying “Duiker is to literature what Steve Biko was to politics, both having died at the tender age of thirty but leaving indelible footprints in our collective memory.” And I would add, although under different circumstances, both of them somewhat professed their deaths.

What I take from this novel and what this novel represents for me is captured in the interaction between Tshepo and West after making love for the first time and going for a swim after. West says to Tshepo as they lie in the dark in different beds in the same room somewhere in Stellenbosch “you must go where love leads you, even when you are going towards trouble.” Imagine a South Africa where we all did that.

Lwando Scott

Chomi – the black gay experience

                                      chomi

Written by Lwando Scott 

The play Chomi was long overdue. The play focuses on the intricacies of the lives of four middle class openly gay black men who live in Johannesburg. The play was part of the 10th Anniversary Spring Drama Season at Artscape. The program brochure said that the playwright Pfarelo Nemakonde who wrote Chomi wanted to “explore the relationships, friendships and otherwise, experienced by black gay men and the complexities that arise.” Mr Nemakinde achieved this goal. It was exciting to see the lives of black gay men presented on stage in a nuanced and affectionate manner, something that happens very seldom. This play felt fresh, and nicely captured aspects of the black gay experience; it felt both affirming and largely true.

I loved seeing black gay men being represented on stage in mostly non-stereotypical ways. The characters were presented as having intricate lives that were emotionally complex. Yet it did not shying away from exploring the self-destructive tendencies of some of the characters.

Watching the four friends interact with each other on stage reminded me of my relationships with my own gay friends. It reminded me of the special bond I have with my gay friends, cemented by our common experience of homophobia and racism. The friendship between these four gay men reminded me of the “family” we often choose for ourselves as LGBTI people because we don’t always connect with our kin. It’s not going on limb to say that my close gay friends are my family, and they know me better than my kin family does. It was great fun to try and match the characters’ personalities in the play to the personalities of my friends.

Watching this play was like seeing my life and the lives of my friends reflected back at me and that was a powerful and affirming feeling. The representation of black gay lives in our cultural institutions and productions reflect a new maturity of our democracy. When the black gay experience becomes part of the cultural landscape of the country, we know that we are moving in the right direction in dignifying the experiences of LGBTI people.

Part of our marginalisation and oppression as black people and as gay people stem from the fact that we do not always see ourselves represented in mainstream culture (whatever that may mean). The politics of representation continue to “other” us – in gay publications, events, and gay clubs. We can’t underestimate the politics of representation because not representing the black LGBTI experience in the cultural realm reinforces an already strong narrative of LGBTI people being “unAfrican.” Not seeing representations of the black LGBTI experience, young black LGBTI youth are denied opportunities to develop positive images of themselves represented in cultural spaces.

When I say the play provides positive images of gay black lives, I do not mean sanitised and unrealistically idealised images of black gay men. These men have sex and talk about it. They have other types of fun too. They are real people: neither the stereotype of saintly, innocent victims, nor the stereotype of the hysterical, shallow pleasure seeker, has any place in this play.

The one gripe I had with the play is the way gender is performed. The play does not avoid the stereotypical notion that “tops” are masculine guys, and “bottoms” are feminine guys. Although these stereotypes do exist in people’s lives, there are other diverse ways in which gay black men live their sexualities and I wish there was a more nuanced take on gender performance and its link to sexual acts.

With that being said, I really applaud Mr Nemakonde for the way he scripted the sex and the sex scenes in the play. Although gay sex whether in theatre, television, or even in books has come a long way in terms of being visible, it is still a thorny issue. Remember the drama a couple of years ago when the local soap opera Generation had warning signs scrawling down on the television screen when the characters Jason and Senzo were to have their first onscreen kiss.

Scripting gay sex and doing it right can be tricky because of the tightly monitored boundaries of gender performance underpinned by a heteronormative framework of understanding sex and intimacy. This framework is often embodied in questions such as “who is the man and who is the woman”, “who is the bottom and who is the top” and these constructs are often limiting and they seek to imprison our sexualities within heterosexual binaries. One of the characters in Chomi really takes ownership of his sexuality. The character has a monologue where he goes on about his love for sex and loving being penetrated and I think that was a revolutionary moment because even in some gay circles bottoming has a negative stigma attached to it.

What Chomi has shown me is that we really need to be intentional about representing the black LGBTI experience in South Africa. We need to be conscious of and actively support the insertion of black LGBTI experiences in the cultural sphere. And most importantly we need to support these creative efforts. I want this play to come back. I think it needs to be seen and appreciated by many more audiences. Mr Nemakonde has created something beautiful and we should follow his lead and create more black LGBTI affirming productions in more plays and more books, where black LGBTI experiences are the centre.

Only after watching Chomi did I realise just how thirsty I am for black LGBTI storylines in books, on television, in theatre plays, in magazines; stories that appreciate the complexity of black LGBTI life in South Africa. Chomi really quenched that thirst and I want to thank Pfarelo Nemakonde for his work. I hope to see more productions like this not only from Mr Nemakonde but others as well. I for one am very inspired by Chomi!

Miss Uganda, Miss Gay Ekasi – constructions of African beauty

                  Miss Gay

Written by Lwando Scott 

I was recently asked to be a judge at the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant organised by the Desmond Tutu Aids Foundation. You can imagine my excitement when I was asked to be a judge at the pageant. The competition took place at the Delft Community Hall in Delft. After giving the crowd a Queen Elizabeth wave as I was introduced as one of the judges, I took my seat and waited for the contestants to come on stage in their casual wear. When I arrived at the competition I was under the impression that Mr Gay would be women in drag, as in dressed up as men to compete for Mr Gay and the Miss Gay would be men in drag. To my surprise both the Mr and Miss contestants were men. I suppose the Mr “Gay” and Miss “Gay” tittle should have been the first clue, but that will teach me to assume the gendering of gay pageants. Although after the pageant I couldn’t help but think about whether there are any Mr and Miss Lesbian pageants? I don’t ever remember attending one, or hearing that it’s taking place, which brings up a number of questions about gender in LGBTI pageants.

As soon as the competition began I realised that this was going to be a tough job, but I was ready and willing with my scoring sheets. The contestants strutted on stage trying to impress us in the second round with “wild life” themed outfits. The contestants came out in swimsuits and other “wild life” interpretations including what looked like goatskin. This round was followed by eveningwear, which was the last round the contestants could use to impress the judges. Throughout the competition the crowd was really not shy about whom they thought should win, and became more aggressive about it by getting closer to the stage towards the end of the completion.

After much debate and deliberation we, the judges, chose the top five Miss Gay and top three Mr Gay and after questions and answers we came to a conclusion of who should win.

The Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant is community centred. It is an annual celebration of young LGBTI people who are living their lives, the best way they know how, under extremely harsh social conditions. In the participants I saw young people who are brave, who challenge their communities gender expectations and defining for themselves what it means to live free. In the participants I saw a determined spirit that I hope burns on in other areas of their lives. I was inspired to be in the company of black LGBTI people who are marvelling in each other’s presence. The energy in that Community Hall can’t be described it had to be felt.

I am not new in the world of beauty pageants. My fascination with beauty pageants began in the mid 1990’s when I still a primary school going little boy. I used to watch Miss South Africa every year and then watch Miss Universe and then conclude the holy trinity of pageants with Miss World. I used to have a note pad and a pen and I would closely watch the scores and write them down so I could predict the winner. I became very good at predicting the winners because after watching religiously I picked up on the patterns of the competitions. I think maybe these were the first signs of my interest in social science.

As I grew older and began to have a more nuanced understanding of the world, I began to see beauty pageants in a different light. Pageants are not divorced from the racialized ideas of beauty. The politics of apartheid ensured that black women were excluded from entering the national beauty pageant but after apartheid fell Jackie Mofokeng was crowned the first black Miss South Africa in 1993. The following year Basetsana Khumalo (Makgalemele back then) was named Miss Africa 1994.

It is important to note that the black women who win Miss South Africa in the post-apartheid era are women who closely resemble white ideals of beauty. These ideals include slender figures, relaxed hair or hair extensions, etc. By saying this I am not condemning black women who choose to straighten their hair and wear weaves, but what I am saying is that beauty pageants seem to ONLY accept this style of black women to enter and win. This was largely replicated in the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant, although the woman who won Miss Gay Ekasi had a shaved head, which was refreshing for the judges.

The racialized politics of beauty continue as we have seen with the crowning of Leah Kalanguka as Miss Uganda 2014/15 and the amount of abuse she has received because she is seen as “ugly.” On social media platforms Ugandans and other people have called Leah Kalanguka all kinds of derogatory names and have said that she does not deserve the crown because she is not beautiful. People often talk about beauty as if it is something that is “natural” but society is actively involved in the process of constructing beauty. The ways in which beauty is constructed in society, including African communities, does not take place outside of the notions of white supremacy. I would argue actually that current constructions of beauty are based on white supremacist foundations.

We live in a world where black people are obsessed with “yellow bone” beauty. I have written about the white supremacist foundations of the term “yellow bone” and I think calling Leah Kalanguka “ugly” is a manifestation of “yellow bone” narratives. I don’t think Miss Uganda 2014/15 is “ugly” she has dark skin and it is her dark skin that people are equating with ugliness. In a world of “yellow bone” beauty, where beauty is measured by proximity to whiteness, of course people will find her “ugly.” The statements made by people on social media platforms about Leah Kalanguka do not shock me. This is not a surprising at all. Actually, sadly, it’s quite expected.

This story about Miss Uganda speaks to the desperate need for black people to deprogram themselves of white supremacist notions of beauty. Although there are many platforms like magazines, books, websites, twitter accounts, Facebook pages that celebrate African beauty, the venomous colonial narratives of beauty persist. We live in postcolonial times on this continent, and post-apartheid in South Africa, and the possibilities of constructing African beauty according to our own ideals is infinite. As people who are working towards the realisation of an African Renaissance it would do us good to shed the limited conceptions of beauty, of love, of sexuality, of the good life, of success, of gender, of Africa-ness, left behind by colonialists.

Achille Mbembe articulates quite successfully the essence of what we should be striving for when he states “we need to reopen Africa to the circulation of ideas and mobility, against models of post colonial, internalised boundaries.” We need to break the narrow confines with which we work with to define African beauty and identities.

Queer Consciousness

The on going homophobic hate crime attacks on black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in various townships in South Africa, the rape and murder of black lesbians, and the anti-homosexuality legislation in Nigeria and in Uganda in recent months cloaked as protection of African cultures is enough for you to loose hope. As LGBTI Africans we are often told that we come out of nowhere, that we do not have a history in Africa, and that we are a western invention. We are often depicted as people who are ruining African cultures, cultures falsely assumed to be without homosexuality.

As LGBTI people, just like black people during colonisation, and during apartheid, we have internalised that we are less than human. We often adopt the inferiority complex projected on to us by society. Our lives are riddled with shame because of our sexual identity. Anecdotal evidence and studies show that LGBTI youth are more likely to be homeless than non-LGBTI youth because of homophobic families who make home life unbearable. Many transgendered youth turn to prostitution to make a living because they can’t find employment.

Living in a world that discriminates against you, a world that denies you the right to exist, how does one develop a healthy self-view? The feelings of shame that LGBTI Africans harbour about themselves can be self-destructive. The feelings of unworthiness can and have led many LGBTI to endanger their lives with drug and alcohol abuse and high-risk sexual behaviour, and experience trauma and mental health issues that impact personal growth.

How do we then counterattack the seemingly ubiquitous homophobia in this country, indeed continent? How do we as LGBTI individuals and communities face up to the prejudice we experience in society? While there are many things that we need to be doing, and many we are doing, like protests, supporting LGBTI organisations, supporting LGBTI art and scholarship etc., we need a way to think about ourselves that moves us away from internalised prejudice towards a Queer Consciousness.

Queer Consciousness entails understanding that sexual diversity is part of the human experience. It is the self-acceptance of LGBTI individuals with full knowledge that there’s nothing unnatural about being Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and/or Intersex. It is learning to be comfortable with yourself and your sexuality while learning about other people’s sexuality and ways of being. Queer Consciousness is about fostering LGBTI communities that are underpinned by pride, solidarity, and a steadfast approach to LGBTI Rights and wellbeing.

Firstly we have a responsibility to ourselves, secondly to our communities to reject the inferiority complex we have adopted. We have to reject negative images and assumptions about ourselves that we have come to believe that have been created by society in their aim to demonise us because of who and how we love. In the same vein as Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness, Queer Consciousness recognises “that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

As LGBTI Africans we need to discard the psychological grip that homophobic rhetoric has on us by vehemently rejecting the constructions of homosexuality as “un-African” and subsequently Western, as immoral, as unnatural. Queer Consciousness is more than just a fleeting verbal assertion against false constructions of homosexuality, but must translate into our deeds, into the way we approach life, into the way we relate to each other as LGBTI, and the way we take pride in our sexual identity as both individuals and as a community.

Queer Consciousness can impact society as a whole. Perhaps this consciousness can impact both LGBTI and broader society, and perhaps be adopted by people who are not LGBTI. In sync with feminism, Queer Consciousness questions the way we think about, talk about, and “do” gender. It is an attitude that embraces, celebrates, and encourages the disruption of gender norms. It encourages the blurring of the lines of what is expected of women and of men.

Queer Consciousness confronts the complex intersection of race, class, and gender that makes black lesbians vulnerable to ‘corrective rape’ and murder. It is the recognition that black lesbians are victims of hate crimes because of their gender non-conforming behaviour that challenges patriarchal dominance. It is a stance that challenges the dominant forms of masculinity not only in the larger society, but also within LGBTI communities. Queer Consciousness is therefore at odds with patriarchal structures of society and it is constantly wrestling with these structures.

Homosexuality is not at odds with African-ness. Queer Consciousness is about understanding that one can hold an African identity simultaneously with a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and/or Intersex identity. It is about knowing that difference is not something to be feared but something to be engaged with because we grow by learning things we have never encountered before.

The discovery of someone’s unorthodox sexuality is an opportunity to learn about the fabulously complex myriad ways in which we love, lust, and sex. Queer Consciousness is about opening yourselves up to other people’s life experiences, because we take different paths to get where we are. We cannot sanitise the complexity of life by legalising anti-homosexuality bills and by terrorising people who are assumed to be homosexual. The stifling of people’s gender and sexual expression is really the stifling of people’s humanity. A Queer Consciousness outlook understands that sexuality is as complex as human existence. That we do not have a hold in the multiple ways that people’s sexuality develops.

Queer Consciousness is recognising that the way LGBTI communities structure their relationships has the potential to educate us all about gender, about shifting the boundaries that society places on sexualities, and about liberating people’s sexuality, including heterosexuality. An unintended consequence of homosexuality is the liberation of heterosexuality, that society might see heterosexuality as nothing static, but adaptable and influenced by other sexualities.

Queer Consciousness demands that we in LGBTI communities be very vigilant about the ways in which “new” normative standards of establishing relationships and life in general can be used to subjugate others within LGBTI communities. Same-sex marriage is legalised in South Africa, but Queer Consciousness demands that we as LGBTI communities emphasise that forming personal relationships goes beyond the “one guy, one guy” or “one woman, one woman” relationship structure modelled after heterosexual coupling. Queer Consciousness is knowing that there are myriad ways in which people can organise their relationships, and that the simplistic ways in which marriage laws are structured are inadequate to fully capture the ways in which people love.

Queer Consciousness is about letting the imagination run wild in trying to answer the existential question of “who am I?” It is a way of thinking and seeing the world that encourages and nurtures the creative fashioning of the self. It gives you the ability to reject the models of “how life should be” from the everyday and gives permission for new ways of being in the world. Self-invention is at the centre of Queer Consciousness.

Self-invention becomes that much more prescient because we are busy with the postcolonial project of Africa’s Renaissance. The spirit of the African Renaissance revived in recent years by former South African president Thabo Mbeki emphasises a creative, intellectually stimulating, and self-directing Africa. He asserts, “They (Africans) are determined to define for themselves who they are and who they should be.” If we are truly invested in Africa’s Renaissance we cannot prescribe the ways in which Africans should express themselves and live their lives in a free postcolonial Africa.

Binyavanga Wainaina’s recent coming out and the videos he subsequently released talking about how “we need to free our imagination” capture the spirit of Queer Consciousness – we need to step out of the boundaries of what we know and into the creative world of imagining. The blue prints of how life should be, left behind by the colonial and apartheid administration are inadequate for life in postcolonial times and beyond. Our imagination in fashioning our lives in 21st century postcolonial Africa needs us to be without boundaries. The human potential is infinite and if we are to prosper as countries and as a continent we cannot limit the possibilities of innovative self-identities.

Written by Lwando Scott 

Queering Postcolonial Reality

Many of us who grow up intersex, lesbian, gay, or generally with a gender non-conforming way of being often have a difficult time in developing positive self image and self identity. Growing up is complicated further when you have to negotiate this non-gender conforming way of being and/or same-sex attraction with having an African identity. The now very famous adage “homosexuality is un-African” is a deeply held belief that has seeped into almost every segment of African society.

It has been repeated ad nauseam by different statesmen from different corners of the African continent people like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, Jahya Jemmeh of Gambia, the Congress of Traditional Leaders in South Africa. This axiom has come to hold as much power as bible scriptures. It is used at once to denounce the sexual immorality of Western society that is supposedly infiltrating Africa while at the same time promotes the sexual morality of Africans. Growing up in South Africa I was very aware of the supposed contradiction of African identity and homosexuality and how these two things couldn’t and shouldn’t intersect.

The sentiment of homosexuality as un-African is a postcolonial phenomenon. Anti-colonial movements never really addressed the question of homosexuality. The ANC was forced to deal with the issue of homosexuality towards the end of apartheid. We need a queering up of postcolonial understanding of Africa through problematizing the logic used to discriminate against homosexuality. The recent anti-homosexuality laws that have been enacted in Uganda and Nigeria and the passive response, which I read as consent, from African leaders, including South Africa, speak to the narrow and limited interpretation of postcolonial existence in postcolonial Africa.

What does it mean to be an African in postcolonial times, a time that some argue is not as “post” colonial as we would like to believe? What do we do with a postcolonial existence that does not look like the postcolonial world imagined when independence was won and democracy instituted? The ongoing battle over the “authenticity” of the African homosexual is really a battle of what does it mean to be African in the fraught postcolonial existence. Who are we and where are we situated in history? These are really big questions. It is not the task of this piece to address African existential questions. I want to take issue with the ways in which homosexual discrimination is constructed, and then talk about the possibilities for self-invention that are created by a free imagination.

The complexity of postcolonial life needs to be negotiated carefully, and moving away from simplifying human experience in African is paramount. There are three main arguments that are often evoked against homosexuality in Africa. Firstly there is a fictitious Africa that we are often told about where homosexuality never existed. Secondly, religion is used to substantiate the arguments against homosexuality. Popular scriptures are used like the famous Leviticus 18:22 to demonstrate how it is against god to have same-sex attraction. Lastly I interrogate how African homosexuals are misguidedly used to snub supposedly Western imperialism.

Postcolonial reality is burdened with complexity that will not be solved in the near future. Complexity that is baggage from colonialism, the partition of the continent, independence/democracy with “development” loans, which has all lead to unstable economies, poverty, and civil wars. People underestimate the deep and long lasting consequences that colonialism, and in South Africa apartheid, has had on African states.

One of the ways in which Africans deals with the heaviness of a colonial past that paints the African as savage, with no history, hyper sexual, and with no contribution to the development of the world – there is a creation of what Africa looked liked, what Africans used to do with their bodies prior to colonialism. This fictitious Africa is without same-sex attraction, same-sex love, and same-sex marriage. It is an Africa without any homoerotic tendencies. This fictitious Africa is a place where homosexuality doesn’t exist. In this artificial pre-colonial Africa, same-sex love has never existed. It is seen as learned from Western colonizers upon arrival.

This argument makes me wonder what does it mean to learn, adopt, and/or copy from Western countries? The structures of many African universities, physically and philosophically, are modeled after European universities. Shouldn’t they be outlawed as well? Albeit sometimes reformed, the parliamentary systems and “democracy” are all systems of governance adopted from the West. The very constitutions governing African states outlawing homosexuality as a Western construct are rough drafts from Western countries. The “homosexuality is copied from the west” excuse is an ignorant and inconsistent excuse to discriminate against homosexuals.

Anti-homosexuality arguments are draped with concern over the disappearance or pollution of African culture. The many ways in which African culture can be preserved for future generations does not include the execution of homosexuals. The best ways in which African culture and traditions can be preserved is by writing books that chronicle African life, we should be writing textbooks and novels in isiXhosa and isiZulu and other indigenous languages. We should be building language institutes and cultural centers whose main goal is to document and preserve culture. We should be making sure that schools in townships, in rural areas, in far flung areas are well equipped to teach students in the vernacular and to teach the history of the very culture in which society is trying to preserve.

Preservation of African culture, African traditions, and African ways of being means that you incentivize people who speak, read and/or write more than two, or three or four African languages. Create and subsidize publishing houses that publish work in indigenous languages. This will go much further and will actually help in preserving some essence of culture, at least in archival form. Indigenous languages are only glorified in the constitution, and South Africans love boasting to foreigners that they have eleven official languages. In reality South Africans mostly use one language, English, all the other ones are basically ornamental, unless of course you live in Stellenbosch.

Now if government leaders were interested in the preservation of African culture, languages would be a priority because we know that culture is lived through language. This is more so for African communities because many of our cultures have not been written down like most of Western culture. Our cultures are passed down mostly orally which means they live and breathe only as far as people speak and practice them. What I have outlined here are concrete steps towards the preservation of African culture and traditions. The creation of laws that seek to prohibit two people of the same-sex from loving and sexually pleasing each other will not do much for the preservation of African culture and traditions.

The issue here is not about African culture. If it were, other strategies of preserving the culture would need to be employed. Moving away from talking about a fantasy Africa is important because we need to be talking more about the Africa we want to live in, an Africa that Nelson Mandela hoped would be “at peace with itself.” An Africa at peace with itself will not be achieved by “correcting” African lesbians through rape or by imprisoning people that are suspected of being homosexuals.

In trying to understand the anti-homosexuality laws, discrimination, and violence I wonder how in the postcolonial narrative homosexuality is Western but Christianity is not branded the same. Christian fundamentalists do not even bother to engage with the arguments that Christianity is un-African. Africans who live according to the bible often act like they are better than people who don’t read the bible. It has been my experience that religious people are the most heartless and will maim people in the name of god.

When listening to the news, reading newspapers, or listening to friends talk, religion is always tip toed around. There is a double standard in our society on calling out religious fundamentalists about the ways in which they inflict pain, harass, and oppress people who are non-believers. African homosexuals have been heavily affected by the hatred of the church, and that’s what it is, hatred.

Religion is not unlinked to colonialism, and I would have imagined that as a society we would have reservations about religion, especially Christianity because it came to be a force on the African continent through missionaries. The missionaries saw the African way of life as barbaric, savage like, and in much need of civilising. The Christianity that is used to demonise homosexuality is the same Christianity that was used to demonise black people during apartheid. We often skirt around the horrible role that religion played in the construction of black Africans as other in colonialism and in apartheid South Africa.

The very people who orchestrated apartheid were reading the same bible that black South Africa were reading then, and continue to read. We are oblivious to the fact that the very notions that are used to lash out by the majority of black Africans on African homosexuals were used by white Europeans in rationalising colonisation of the African continent; indeed apartheid in South Africa.

When I think about colonisation, apartheid, and the bible I am reminded of Eugene De Kock’s confession that he really believed that he was carrying out the mission of God, that black Africans, particularly in the ANC were against God and the state and so should be killed. The bible that Eugene De Kock and many others in the South African Defence Force during apartheid carried the state issued bible with a message from P.W. Botha and it partly read: “The bible is an important part of your calling to duty. When you are overwhelmed with doubt, pain, or when you find yourself wavering, you must turn to this wonderful book of answers. …… It is my prayer that this bible will be your comfort so that you can fulfil your duty.” The “fulfil your duty” from P.W. Botha includes the mutilation of thousands of African bodies at the hands of the South African Defence Force written in a bible. The bible has now found new use, to oppress and to vilify people with divergent sexual orientations. So yes, I am extremely skeptical about the bible and I am vigilant on whom and how it is used to oppress. Religion can and has been used for the most evil of purposes. As Africans we need to be attentive indeed critical of religion because it is the very religion that was used to justify our enslavement.

The convoluted nature of postcolonial reality is revealed when draconian anti-homosexuality laws, which harken back at puritanical anti-sodomy laws, are being created by Africans to oppress fellow Africans in the name of a colonial Jesus. The messiness of postcolonial life is also revealed at burials where priests and church leaders preside over mutilated bodies of African lesbians in South Africa but fail to link the church’s hatred of homosexuality and the consent it generates for the murders of African lesbians. The Christian obsession with people’s sexuality and “how” homosexuals have sex knows no boundaries, to a point where gay pornographic videos are shown in church.

In the tirade against homosexuals many are oblivious or look the other way at African men and women who are not “gay” or “lesbian” but engage in what sociologist would call situational homosexual sex. This is the sex between people of the same-sex that would occur in prisons, in boarding school, in the mines, and in woman only spaces, not because these people necessarily identify as homosexual but the opportunity for same-sex sex presents itself. With this then I would echo Michelle Foucault’s assertion that people are not really affronted about homosexual sex per se but are unsettled by the audacity of people to actually love each other.

I advocate caution with the ways in which everything “African” is measured by “going against the West.” We need to interrogate the narrative that ALL that we are as Africans is what the West in not and vice versa. This is not to say that there aren’t differences between African cultures and Western cultures, there are, but we need to be vigilant of the simplistic rendering of acts, in this case sexual acts, as black and white. Human life is far more sophisticated than that. Human existence and world history provides a precarious and fraught colonial history that impacts on African life today. A history that is difficult to understand because it is ever shifting.

This reactionary business of always going in the opposite direction of the West, for the sake of moving in the opposite direction, just so we are not like them, is not helpful to the African Renaissance. It is not helpful in our journey of building a continent with people who are at peace with themselves. We cannot un-do colonialism; we cannot create legislation to govern people’s lives in 2014 with an invented pre-colonial existence. This is not to say that there was no pre-colonial African life, or that life should be ignored, on the contrary, we can write books about it. What I am suggesting is that, yes, we need to deal with the fact that what we are as Africans today is probably not what we would have been without colonization. But we also have to know and believe that even without the influence of colonization, what we were in 1652 we wouldn’t be the same people in 2014.

The insinuation that African homosexuals are only but a product of the West is really insulting and negates LGBTI people’s agency. It is misguided because the African homosexual has worked tirelessly to create a self without a model. The African homosexual has against horrendous odds claimed an identity that is demonized and relegated to the bottom of humanity. In spite of all of this, the African homosexual says I am here. It would seem to me that African homosexuals embody the spirit of the African Renaissance. They have taken the possibilities afforded by postcolonial reality and in South Africa by post-apartheid freedom and crafted a self, a sexual self.

Remember amongst many things taken from us by colonialism, it robbed us of a way to construct ourselves, but living in postcolonial times we have the opportunity to imagine and subsequently create the Africa and the African-self we envision. The African homosexual is probably one of the greatest examples of the prospects fashioned by living in postcolonial times, the opportunity for self-invention. Freed from the shackles of colonialism, the possibilities are endless and they include forming a sexual self that is different. There cannot put a limit placed on how we imagine a future Africa. We cannot cap the potential of human imagination in how people see themselves and their world and their future. So, instead of stoning, imprisoning, or maiming African homosexuals, I would advocate using them as examples of an uncapped imagination, of possibility, and freedom in a convoluted postcolonial reality.