MATUBA MAHLATJIE: I am the older queer man I wanted to see as a child
My validation and affirmation came a bit late in my life. The world was such a limited place for my kind of imagination. The free passes I got from heteronormativity were from my parents. They'd let me wear yellow and pink clothes and told me how good I looked. It did feel like some sort of liberty because my friends at pre-school laughed at me.
It's a good thing many of them couldn't read English so well and missed the "Call me Pretty Poliana" written on one of my favourite T-shirts. It was white, trimmed in yellow around the collar and there were yellow pants to go with it. All I was teased on was the bright "girly" colours. It was my siblings who poked fun at declaring myself as Pretty Poliana. My English wasn't that great at the age of five and so I got to understand what my T-shirt said from them. I annoyed them because I'd repeat "Hi, I'm Pretty Poliana". After all, it was the little English I had then. To their disappointment, I liked the idea of being Pretty Poliana.
This was during the last days before the official end to white supremacy and apartheid in South Africa. I am turning 38 in October and as I look back at five-year-old me, I can't help but cry and laugh at the same time. That's because I feel like I am the older queer man I was looking for when growing up. Even the literature I was exposed to in my teens imprisoned me in the world of straight people and their expectations of a young man or woman. There was nobody who owned being gay or lesbian at that time. If you were ever referred to as gay, you'd be emasculated by the laughter of ridicule from peers.
My earliest memory of seeing a queer person was in Standard 1, or Grade 3 as it's known now in the new South Africa. His name was Andrew and he was in Standard 5 (Grade 7). He was in the school's drum majorettes and he was not among the boys playing the drums, but he wore the dress and led other girls in very cool moves. Andrew was flamboyant, smart and loved by teachers, but it was in a very condescending way in my assessment of those days.
But he got the protection he needed and earned himself space at the table for straight people. He was a girl to everyone and he was treated as such. Andrew was the point of reference for anyone who spoke about being gay. This confused me further and I wonder if it contributed to the kind of gay man I turned out to be. Having a beautiful soprano voice didn't help me from the bullies who enjoyed telling me how I should have been a girl. An upcoming Andrew is what some of them called me.
I cannot believe it's only now in 2021 that I reflect on the trauma of having nowhere to belong. I stole moments to play Kgathi or Mgusha with girls because... And I was good at all of them because the girls would argue over whose team I'd play for. And they loved me, but I knew I could not enjoy it for too long because someone would throw a homophobic comment my way.
My only counsel was my dad who would promise to sjambok them if they bothered me again, but Mama would tell me I had so many toys and I didn't need to play with the rude children. My siblings were never a safe space until much later when I was in my 20s and independent.
But before then, I learned a new word and another level of discrimination. It was not because I was “not a real boy", but because I was black. That's when I moved to a former Model C school in Valhalla. My tormentor was a boy called Justin who introduced the word moffie to me. And when I stood up to him, he still had k*ffir to use against me. My existence became layered and complicated. I don't even think that at that age I looked for a queer role model because I was told they didn't exist. And I'd think about it and could not imagine an older gay man living a happy life.
I still laugh at my brother's threat that if I turned out gay, he'd buy me Brentwood pants, a checked shirt and sandals to make me look like a man. It hurt me at the time, but I now understand it came from a place of ignorance. But somehow, all the prejudice remains with me, but not in a haunting way. My knowledge and experience of such trauma are what helps me navigate away from spaces I don't feel safe or calm.
Audre Lorde puts it so succinctly when she wrote:
“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors' tactics, the oppressors' relationships.”
But today, I am the older gay man I needed when I was a boy - although being 38-years-old is equivalent to 200 years in the gay subculture. Luckily, I rejected the gay subculture when it dictated I dress like other people, look like them and even talk like them. Complying was key if you wanted to belong.
But the highlights that play out in my mind when I reflect on my own life do not feature the hate and the prejudices so much.
Instead, I look back at how I found love, got married to the man of my dreams, Lesley Sekoto. We loved each other until his last day on earth. I still mourn him. But the way we loved each other so passionately and constantly in the eight years we were together, I somehow make peace with his early departure.
I look back at the 30 November 2006 milestone when South Africa became the first African state to legalise same-sex unions. It was a small victory, but it has to be acknowledged. I see it as small because it took the ANC government until the last day set by the Constitutional Court to sign the bill into law. It would be a lie to say there were no objections within the party. But that’s a story for another day.
The new legislation didn’t do much to save Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa from a hate crime that took their lives in Meadowlands, Soweto, in July of 2007. Many others were maimed and killed because of gender identity or sexual orientation. Our losses were punctuated by victories. It’s almost like the bad gave birth to the good, now and then.
In years to come, we started seeing the LGBTQ community interrupting the status quo with literature. Some of us even got jobs to be on national TV. Bookshelves in stores started piling up with literature that reflected our lives. Queer stories stopped being weekend or lifestyles features on mainstream media. But even that did little to stop the brutal killings of Siphamandla Khoza, Lindokuhle Cele and most recently, Andile 'Lulu' Ntuthela.
It’s unacceptable that we count ourselves lucky to be alive in a country that tells us on paper it’s okay to be who we are. I may well be the older gay man I was looking for when I was a boy, but I remain under siege from attackers, murderers and people I refuse to call homophobic. There’s got to be a fitting word to describe them.
Matuba Mahlatjie is a freelance journalist for Eyewitness News and as news correspondent for South America-based TeleSUR English and Turkish broadcaster TRT World. Follow him on Twitter: @mahlatjiematuba