In the article titled “Against Exceptionalism,” Keith Mundangepfupfu quotes my work as an example of the exceptionalism he writes against. He notes that narratives about “gay male success” can provide false reasons for marginalized groups to continue being subjected to violence.
Although he doesn’t quite define what he means by exceptionalism, one is left to read between the lines that he means perhaps a story too peculiar to be used as a standard example, because it doesn’t represent the broader majority as a result of its uniqueness. That is to say, mine is not a significant story to tell because it is not representative of the broader Black queer experience. This is a classist reading of my work and it is dangerous because it seeks to invalidate my story, and other stories by Black queer and poor people from townships.
Mundangepfupfu uses an example of a conversation between me and an Uber driver that appears in my memoir to crop an image of class that suits his image of the exceptional. After struggling to find a quiet place to write that wouldn’t demand me to spend money I didn’t have, I hop into an Uber, look out at the restaurant with white people, and say that I missed being around Black people, which is read by the author as me missing being around middle-class Black people. He chooses not to mention that this conversation comes after I have just been reminded of how poor I was as a Black person living in Cape Town. In one instance he says I am part of the “burgeoning middle class” in another sentiment he says that I am around middle-class people; either way, he appears to condemn me for being what he understands as upwardly socially mobile.
Black people are more likely to be reminded of the fact of their blackness in Cape Town, than in Joburg, and this is regardless of whether one is working or middle class, despite Mundangepfupfu’s suggestion. In Joburg, we are not unaware of the fact of our class or our race because we are surrounded by middle-class Black people or because it is easier to find “recreational spaces that do not compromise [our] economic standing,” as the author would have you believe. It is also not true that the Black people I talk about in my book do not have to reckon with the fact that many Black people around them may be living in substandard housing with limited access to water and electricity. In the Johannesburg I write about, young people from poor backgrounds are striving for opportunities to be upwardly mobile and I don’t think that striving makes them middle class by default, nor do I think it is a bad thing.
“Most of the narratives I read speak about success, and, importantly, gay male success. Oftentimes this professional success comes about as a consequence of not being able to participate in gender-normative activities at school,” he writes. To say that we are congratulated for being visibly queer with “professional success” is false and harmful to the progressive realization of queer liberation. Unless one passes as heterosexual, then one is attacked, silenced and killed for being queer, not congratulated for it with “hard-earned disposable income” (not my quotation marks, but unattributed by Mundangepfupfu).
In fact, a lot of people stay in the closet so that they can get professional success, out of fear of discrimination and violence. It is misleading to say that professional success comes from coming out of the closet, at schools no less. The lie about professional success contradicts Mundangepfupfu’s earlier assertion that some governments are actively hostile toward visibly queer individuals. Unless of course, the hostility is the professional success that the author speaks about.
Middle-classness is a precarious and broad idea that cannot be so neatly packaged in a country like South Africa. I write openly in my book about the difficulties of existing in middle-class spaces without middle-class resources. These difficulties are not coded as “success” in my memoir, they were just ignored by Mundangepfupfu because they were not suitable to his lamentations.
Am I middle class because I worked for a travel magazine even though I am underpaid? Am I middle class by virtue of having a Master’s degree? There may be a point being made here about access and privilege, but the complexity of these questions which I engage with in my work, is lost in the broad strokes that seem to denounce my work as invaluable. He notes that “I find that there are many books written by queer authors,” yet his case against exceptionalism is based on an obscure reading of my work, and my work dearest reader, is the only example of exceptionalism in the article, despite the alleged many other books about success. The other four books that the author mentioned have all been published in the past ten years. It is a dangerous lie that there are many books queer books, about success no less.
It is troubling to paint such a broad image of the middle-class among aspirational young people in a city like Johannesburg where there are more young people seeking opportunities in their quest for upward social mobility. While I agree that “upward mobility is not evidence for freedom,” I don’t believe that upward mobility should be a reason to invalidate people’s experiences, as Mundangepfupfu does with the article.
He uses broad sweeps to paint me as middle-class and glances over the heartstrings of the book—the brutal death of my mother to femicide, experiences of homophobia when I was sexually attacked as a child and again at university, the institutional racism I encounter and the classism, the power of queer friendships and community, and navigating grief—to drive his point.
What does aspiring to and living among Black, middle-class South Africans mean for a gay boy who grew up poor? Exceptionalism, often coded as “success” or “achieving against all odds” is dangerous to historically marginalized groups because it provides an easy, but false reason for said groups to be mistreated or subject to various forms of violence.
Mundangepfupfu goes on to say that “gay male success” is engendering an exceptionalist and nationalist narrative among queer individuals. These are all dangerous claims to make about marginalized people, especially when one considers the lack of evidence for the alleged success that is being condemned. Queer people will not be subjected to violence because of one, two, or five or even ten accounts of success that he fails to provide. Mundangepfupfu’s condemnation of this perceived queer success is concerning.
In a world where queer people are constantly misrepresented, underrepresented, or censored, to lie about queer success and overstate the number of stories about queer people, and to then call that alleged success “dangerous” because it doesn’t meet your expectations of poor, is to fan the raging homophobia that seeks to obliterate queer people. The success of marginalized people can only be dangerous to the oppressor. Sovereign indeed, “is he who decides on the exception” as Carl Schmitt once said.
Township life is not without its pains and glamors, and it is very colonial and whitewashed for one to insist that the township be seen merely as a place of pain. Those of us who are from townships despise those who insist on viewing us as merely poor people, who only want us to indulge them in the spectacle of poverty and pain. It would appear that the author is endowed with the power to decide who gets to be upwardly mobile. I do not mean to romanticize the township or city life, but there was a deliberate effort in my writing to move away from these perceptions as cast in stone.
If anything, Mundangepfupfu fails to recognize the importance of having multiple accounts of queerness, or Black queerness in particular, instead of a homogeneous, often limited, account of what it means to be queer. From the vantage point of diversifying the experience of queerness, one can appreciate the fact that we might be abused, silenced, and killed, but even in the face of that we can dance, drink mimosa, and laugh with our friends. To condemn the multiplicity of this kind of existence is to assert authority over an already powerless community, and to deny the agency of the marginalized to tell their stories. To assert authority over books like this is, as Virginia Woolf writes in her essay How One Should Read a Book, “to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.”
I wrote my memoir in part because I wanted to say that we are more than our oppression and to do so without romanticizing the difficulties of being queer. We are also joyful people who seek love, community, and belonging. To miss this part of the book, and refuse to engage with this part of the book, is to miss the point of the work altogether.
I will not argue with the alleged superiority of Khan and Edozien’s memoirs. I love both of their works and I think each has a unique and necessary contribution that I dare not dilute by putting them against each other’s work, or mine for that matter. However, it is worth noting that both these authors who are lauded for how they tackle class, are more middle-class-adjacent than my humble upbringing. It is in the review of these books that for the first time, we see names of characters in the books being reviewed and the author explores the themes—love, violence and with a sense of keenness (or kin?) because he appears to find them more relatable by their class proximity, since the author is an exceptional one who is gowned at Oxford. Here, Mundangepfupfu shows a softer side to my fellow authors and chastises the gays in my book for drinking champagne while lesbians are dying in the townships.
To put my story against theirs and rate it as frivolous, unnecessary or not urgent, is to silence me and other Black gay men and queer people from townships. This behavior is characteristic of the classist behavior that I have personally encountered at the hands of elite gay men who have contempt for poor people and their stories.
Why does he not want the queer people in my book to drink champagne? What about queer joy for queer people as a serious political goal? Does the author not see value in the representation of the joyful experiences of queer people as part of the broader experience of being queer? What about the varied experiences of queer life that he glances over in review of my work so that he could simplify me?
Telling one’s story as a Black queer person isn’t yet the luxury it is chalked out to be, particularly when it remains dangerous to be queer in the world. We are in danger, and our narratives are constantly being erased. We need to encourage more Black queer people to tell their stories, in all variety and not condemn them for it. To tell my story as a Black gay man is to confront the violence of erasure, and write myself into being where there had been no trail. Telling my story is an act of rebellion against a world that seeks to obliterate my existence.