Difference and belonging

No child should choose between having food, love, and a roof over their head or being their full self.

Kids, Langa, Cape Town. Image credit Anouk Pilon via Flickr.

I was raised by a single-mother and my maternal grandmother in Atlantis, a coloured township on the periphery of Cape Town in South Africa. Both of them were factory workers and neither of them completed secondary education. I am the first to have graduated from university and to have left the country to continue to study overseas.

When I turned eleven, my mother married my stepfather (for all intents and purposes he shall always be known as my father, I love that man), and suddenly my family became the family I saw on television. The famed nuclear family. Finally, no more thoughts like, “nobody picks me up from school anymore;” my mother or father could do that now. While my family life was hopeful, joyous and generally supportive, I want to write about my family in a different light. I want to finally write the “sociology of the family.”

How do you love your family so much yet all your life you have wanted to run away from them? How do you begin to explain to a seven-year old mind that the fight-or-flight response should not be active when you are having a meal with the people you love the most? I wish I knew, because then I would build my time-machine and go back. See, just like the universe orchestrated a meeting that would result in this conversation, it also took away the gift of childhood which I believe is a beautiful and sacred time and space for any human being. Instead of giving me the gift of childhood, it gave me the curse of childhood. A curse that ripples now throughout my young adult life.

I remember parts of my childhood fondly. I also remember playing poppehusie, a childhood game where you basically emulate social life and what you see in your home. One day as our group of children were constructing our society (just a school, a factory and two houses) with cardboard and other junk we could find around, the first blow hit. As the older kids in the group (I was seven at the time) we were sorting out who would be the parents and consequently the factory workers or the schoolteachers. I had a culture of reading unrivalled by the other children in my area as my mother created spaces of education in my daily childhood life and thus, I had a better mastery of language and general subjects. I was cast as a schoolteacher.

My one friend then asked who I wanted to choose as my wife, and I could not answer. I looked around and they looked back at me. I did not want a wife. In fact, I wanted a husband. Some part of me actually wanted to be the wife myself. Instead of choosing, I ran back home to pee. Of course, I could not run back home every time I had to choose a wife, but as I was running, it dawned on me; I am running from something more than just the game.

When I got home, I felt confusion and anger. Why could I just not choose a wife?! It is just a game, for goodness sake! But it was never just a game. It was my first conscious encounter with gendered and sexual difference. Afterall, the game did emulate reality. In fact, the game was reality. Soon after, the second blow hit.

I sat with the discomfort for a few weeks as I was readying myself for a heart-to-heart with my mother. However, whenever I tried to approach her with this topic, I would be overcome with fear and I would start having panic attacks. (Silly me, right.) It was my mother; she had always said that if I needed to talk, she would be there for me.

But the panic attacks were correct. For although I encountered my difference head-to-head during a game of poppehuisie, my spirit and ears and eyes and body had been witnessing how my family disliked homosexuality. Unlearned, but biologically wired to pick-up sound, my ears picked up the revulsion that homosexuality presented to the people I loved most.

I then felt the same revulsion in my school. With the neighbors. I saw and smelled it everywhere. No, it was not the human excrement, cheap booze, or smell of cigarettes that filled the sidewalk as I walked home from school or to the shop. It was their repulsion in response to my existence. Being called names, changing routes, being shoved from boy-to-boy in the corridor while being faux smooched by unbrushed teeth and chapped lips. Oh, who I am to judge, I was ashy after all. All of this existed around me, and that was my world from the most intimate space to the most public space.

Did I mention that I grew up in an uber-Christian household? My father is a pastor in church and my mother is religious in her own right and dutifully by his side. My parents really do love each other, and I am so glad that she found someone who could love all of her. I wish the same for me too. As a child I was loved unconditionally and with an even greater love than the love my parents shared. I was loved by God.

I grew up in the teaching that God loves me unconditionally. Of course, at seven I knew what unconditionally meant. When poppehuisie did not work out, books were my friends. My mother had stopped reading to me by then. I went on my knees, folded my hands and bowed my head. “God, please do not let me be gay. I do not want to feel this way. I love you and I do not want to burn in hell for eternity. Really, I am sorry that I look at boys with these ideas. Please take this away from me.”

I would then get up and go and get into bed with my grandma; I shared her bed until I was sixteen-years old. She was the person I loved most in the entire world. I would also tell God that I would wake up the next morning and be cured. The next morning, I checked-in with myself. Do I feel gay?” No. God, it worked! I ate my cereal. Prayer really works! I picked-up my bag with my completed homework. God is good! I walked to school smiling. I turned the corner and I saw him, my crush, and then it all crumbled again. God, it did not work. I am still gay. I tried again. And again. And again. After all, God wants to see that you really want His help.

Perhaps I was not sincere enough. For months, I talked to a God that promised me unconditional love yet required me to dissolve myself. I did not know how else to exist. That is why I attempted suicide. See my mother does not know this. Neither does God. I stopped asking him to take the “gayness” away. I stopped asking him to make my inclination for high-heels and ballgowns go away. In fact, I stopped asking Him for anything. I stopped begging for God and His priests to validate my existence. I was here and I was alone. In a family, but without one. With God forever near, but never present. I belong here, but I never belonged. No child should choose between having food, love, and a roof over their head or being their full self. Yet, this is what many queer children do. I chose food and love and shelter. A choice that scarred me for life, but one I saw as the best at that time.

Flash forward to my decision to leave South Africa for the time being to obtain my master’s degree in Scotland. My research is primarily concerned with how displaced Africans in South Africa negotiate spaces and experiences of belonging. Before arriving, I was someone who had no choice but to slip into the fantasy world of books in order to live through the bullying, self-hate, pain, and fear.

On my third day in Edinburgh, I walked down the road, past old, towering buildings and twisting streets that gave me the illusion that I was in one of the Harry Potter books; except this time, they were not an illusion.

Further Reading

Music is the weapon

During Christmas 1980, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba performed at a concert in Lesotho that deeply challenged and disturbed South Africa’s apartheid regime. The record of that concert is being reissued.

Carceral colonialism

On the United Kingdom’s attempts to finance the construction of large-scale prison facilities in former colonies, to where it wants to deport undocumented migrants.

Fanon’s mission

The works of Frantz Fanon can be read as architectural renderings of rights, futures, and generations toward a “very different Afro-futurism.”

History time

The historical novel is in vogue across the continent, challenging how we conceive of the nation, and how we write its histories.