PALESA MANALENG: The importance of organisations like Queerwell for children

"I will never write a poem to another girl again", I wrote until the was no more chalkboard left and I was soaked in my tears.

I had been pulled out of sports day by the school guidance teacher. I can still hear my name being called over the school intercom "Palesa Manaleng, come to the office immediately.

My cousin Caroline and I looked at each other in confusion. I was 100% sure that I hadn't done anything wrong this week.

At the office steps stood Mrs Matthee the guidance and high school Afrikaans teacher.

"Palesa, follow me," she instructed as she headed towards the orchard.

We followed the path through the grapes until we ended up at the music rooms behind the office, inside one of them is Dr Smit, the school psychologist - well for as long as I can remember he's handled the aptitude tests for my school.

"Sit down" he barked.

My little 12-year-old body shrank into the wooden chair and I took a puff of my asthma pump hoping it would also slow down my heart.

Dr Smit slammed pieces of paper in front of me and I immediately knew what they were.

I had a crush on Nicolette. I was sitting in class one day and suddenly she was the most beautiful being I had ever seen. I just had to pass via her desk to go sharpen my pencil and volunteered to help her carry the overhead projector. She was the smartest girl in the grade.

Right in front of me were all the poems I had been sneaking into Nicolette's desk, I would push them through the opening between the desk and the lid just by the lock.

Nicolette was best friends with Taryn, who liked to get her way. With her mother as a teacher, she often got it. The day before I was summoned, Taryn accosted me before tennis practice.

"Palesa, are you writing letters to Nicolette? I know it's you, I can tell by your ugly handwriting".

I denied it because I didn't know how to talk to Nicolette and I constantly wanted to punch Taryn in the face.

"I don't mind the poems, I like them", Nicolette had said.

Sitting in front of Dr Smit, he shouted at me. His face was red and he looked like he wanted to shake me hard. Instead, he paced up and down as Mrs Matthee looked at me with disapproval.

I was told to sit in the music room for the rest of the day and think about what I did. They said they would kick me out of school for my behaviour.

No one told me what I did wrong. I thought poetry was beautiful.

eKasi, the older boys didn't want to allow me to play soccer anymore because I'm "now a girl". We got into fistfights and the boys my age take my side.

The women in the streets gossiped loudly about how I thought I'm a boy, and "how can her mother allow her out in the streets?" The men my uncles age used to say: "She needs to be raped until she knows she's a girl. If she was mine, I would kill her".

I carried a pocket knife that I bought from Skhosana for R11.10c, ready to be used on anyone who tried to "cure" me.

My mother talked about how she wanted her baby girl back and my father didn't talk to me at all.

Yet no one told me what was wrong with me.

I felt everything deeply and tried to silence the noise with pills. But I was then 16 and every attempt had me holding my head over the toilet or passing out in the bath.

I made friends with people who were treated like me and we drank on weekends. Drank to the lost ones, drank to the ones they tried to "cure", the ones they threw away and those looking for a pillow to lay their heads.

The LGBTQI+ community is one of the most persecuted minority groups around the globe. Most of us battled mental health issues at a young without a safe space to unpack all the emotions that come with being a child trying to find oneself, adolescence and society constantly trying to take us out.

Historically, the LGBTQI+ community has been marginalised, mistreated and has struggled to access adequate healthcare systems. We face various obstacles when it comes to accessing quality healthcare and this is why organisations like Queerwell matter in society. Finding a health care professional you’re comfortable with, when almost everyone is against you, is important.

Queerwell is a space for LGBTQI+ people and their families to seek help from professionals who live within the community, focusing on those in townships and rural areas.

The Queer community experiences a lot of health disparities. We are at higher risk of certain conditions, have less access to healthcare, and have worse health outcomes. The are various causes for the health disparities. Some include their minority status, lack of specific education and training for healthcare workers, a lack of clinical research on LGBTQI+ health-related issues, restrictive health benefits and fear due to stigma, safety, discrimination, and institutional bias in the healthcare system.

One of the healthcare workers who provides a service at Queerwell is Dr Mmamontsheng Dulcy Rakumakoe, a GP and the CEO of Quadcare Medical Centres, as well as one of the winners of the 2020 Santam Women of the Future awards.

In an interview with New Frame, Rakumakoe said: “I’m queer myself and I’ve seen what issues of access to healthcare looks like from the time I was a student. I saw how, as a lesbian, you would go to a doctor and how you would be treated once you disclose what your sexuality is – where sometimes the focus of the doctor changes completely from what you came for to your sexuality, even if it is not related to what you are there for, you know?”

Imagine if organisations like Queerwell were around when we were growing up in the 90s in townships and rural areas? Maybe that son who put a gun in his mouth to escape his father's verbal abuse would be alive, or the neighbour whose uncle and his friends wanted to "cure" that lesbian would have walked past her.

Queerwell is currently trying to raise funds to continue providing its services for the LGBTQI+ community.

Palesa Manaleng is an online writer for Eyewitness News, as well as a Paralympian. You can follow her on Twitter.

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