queer south africa: politics, privilege and the safe spaces we create

No matter how hard I try, I cannot separate my queerness from the other core parts of my identity: my race, my class and my cultural heritage. I am gay, but I am also white, I am privileged, and I was born Afrikaans – an ethnic group that once upon a time committed some of the greatest atrocities in South African history. Perhaps, this is why it’s difficult to talk about being queer, especially in this country, with its painful past. 

I vaguely remember when I first realised I was different to the other men around me. As a young boy growing up in a small town in the countryside, I was surrounded by the kind of masculinity that seems to flourish in conservative spaces: hard men, who did hard men’s work. They married soft women who bore them hard sons and soft daughters. It was in this environment that, from an early age, my parents had to defend my sexuality from concerned adults and inquisitive children who asked, ‘why isn’t he like the other boys?’ 

There was an afternoon that the entire family gathered for a braai (a typical South African barbecue). The rugby was on the television, and all the men were huddled around it. Looking to their fathers, the young boys sat at their feet. I didn’t because I couldn’t. I don’t know why it frightened me so much. Everyone noticed, everyone tried to encourage me to go and join the men and the rest of the boys. But I couldn’t leave the women, and that was when my aunt called my father. She asked him in front of me, ‘Is hy dan ’n moffie?’ (Is he a faggot then?). Oh, how that word burned into my young ears. I didn’t even know what it meant, but I knew a moffie was the worst thing a boy could possibly be. 

Growing up I heard the word moffie a lot. Especially when people spoke about, and to me. I heard it in the hallways of my school, I heard it in the cubicles of the bathroom where I hid from having to use the urinals with the other boys. And I heard it when neighbours gossiped in hushed voices at church. Growing up Afrikaans though, I suppose you’d get used to hearing ugly words, especially from the old people. They spoke about moffies with almost the same contempt as they would when they said the word ‘kaffir’ (a cruel and derogatory word used in Apartheid to refer to black people).

It’s funny how conservatism sometimes looks like safety. When you look from the outside, it seems perfect. I was in a famed, predominantly Afrikaans Christian boys’ school, what could be better for a young child? Even in that place the queer kids somehow found one another. It was in stolen moments, in hushed conversation that I heard their stories of sexual and physical abuse, about various forms of punishment, and religious guilt. The dream is just that: an illusion that looks beautiful until you wake up. 

The author, Edwain Steenkamp; photographed by Marnus Meyer.

Everything I experienced and saw around me made my escape inevitable. I abandoned Afrikaans as my language. I abandoned celebrating its culture, food, literature and history. I fled to one of the only few cities in South Africa I felt I could truly be myself. Why Cape Town? Well, I think what appealed to me most was that it was a space inhabited by people just like me. I saw boys that looked like me, talked like me, who had similar and worse stories and I gravitated towards them. It looked safe. It looked like the sanctuary I had prayed for. 

But we cannot easily shake off the things we are exposed to as children, and I was drawn to a false sense of safety. All around me gay men desperately clung to whatever form of masculinity and whiteness they thought they could achieve: ‘masc 4 masc,’ and ‘no fems, no fats, no blacks,’ are plastered over every gay dating site profile, but don’t be offended they would assure, ‘it’s just a preference.’ Toxic masculinity is everywhere, the gay culture in the city is saturated in it, and I had the dreaded feeling that I hadn’t escaped my small town after all.

It wasn’t long before I realised that the sense of safety so many queer people felt in Cape Town was at the expense of others. Here, I’ve seen homophobia and racism cloaked in a different, more sinister form, and it comes from within the queer community itself. Walls have been built that you cannot see, and the very people that should be protected are kept out: queer people of colour, especially women. It was in these moments of reflection that I realised how truly privileged I was to even have left my hometown. So few people have that option. So few people in South Africa have the option to leave their town or neighborhood, or even their families behind in search of acceptance and safety. And when even their fellow queer people are enforcing spatial separateness, what sanctuary do they have to hope for? I began to ask myself a troubling question: Was I safe here because my queerness was accepted, or was it because I was white? When I looked around me I could see the answer to that question. 

Since moving here, I’ve had moments where I felt the same urgency that caused me to leave my hometown. But I’ve come to realise that sometimes there are things we cannot run from. Instead, we have to embrace them and fight to change them. I’m still trying to find the space where I can be a queer man, and be proud of being Afrikaans. A space I can shed my shame and embrace all the beautiful parts of my heritage. But right now, there is too much pain to do that. 

In this country we should be carving out a new narrative, we should be fixing the errors of the previous generations. But somehow, despite knowing better, we’ve replicated our history, but we’re disguising this new evil so well, that we sometimes don’t know that it’s there at all. 

 

Edwain Steenkamp is a writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. Over the last several years, he has spent his career telling the stories of creatives and innovators in his country and elsewhere on the African continent. 

 

 

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