Wednesday, 6 November 2013

More than just a thorny ride: (un) accounting for my silence in the company of homophobes

Lerato Makate, Bokamoso

After I attended my first annual Soweto Pride — LGBTI Parade in Johannesburg, South Africa — it was time to head on home. I ran across a bumper traffic congested main road, which runs between Mofolo, White City, Jabulani and Jabavu township locations in a typical  Soweto Saturday night.  As my cousin gestures  a random sign to the taxis, a minibus taxi stops and I in a snail’s pace climb into the front seat, minding my hip injury. Inside the taxi it’s a buzz with two toddlers singing their rendition of the South African national anthem remixed with a nursery rhyme, women sharing their day’s events especially from the stokvels — social gatherings that bring women from across any township location together, over music food and drink.

A local pub in Jabavu called Roots along the same busy road was the venue for the after party of my day’s events. Members of the black LGBTI community hung around the area in their own clicks, with car boots opened and blasting music, drinks in hand and conversing and doing what we would all do at some or other festival. A snide comment from an older woman came shooting from the back of the minibus taxi.

She clicked her tongue “Nxa,” that felt as though it came from deep within her gut, laced in disgust. “What do these things think they are, men or women?!” “They themselves don’t even know. Look at them. “Jesus, this world is coming to a definite end,” she ends off.

As some women burst out from the packed taxi in clear annoyance at her judgemental attitude, yet another woman throws a verbal jab to reinforce the idea that indeed being gay, lesbian, transgender, etc is despicable and unnatural.

Women number two adds her support, “Sis, you can say that again. The Lord is going to punish us because of this filth”. The taxi driver finally contributing to the heated venom growing in the taxi as it moved slowly.

“These things are real shits, they don’t deserve to live.” They should be treated like that girl who was undressed by the people at the taxi rank in town. It will teach them a lesson”.

The guilt in me grew as I heard them speak foul of friends, cousins, brothers, sisters and ordinary citizens going about their lives without violating, yes I reiterate, violating anyone’s life.

I was quiet, the guilt grew in me. I had just been at this festival of fun, music and crazy, raucous madness. And I had an interesting and great time.

I couldn’t say to anyone of them, “Shut the hell up. While you are busy denouncing other people’s lives, we don’t know how much verbal or physical abuse you endure in your supposedly pure matrimonial life. For all we know, you consciously stay with a man who on alternate days spends nights at your neighbours, two houses down the street.”

Then out of nowhere, I heard the same women hurling out “Voetsek, nina maan, yekani la masimba e ni wa yenzayo!” loosely translated, “fuck off you all, stop that shit you’re doing.”

The insults came like stones being thrown from out of the taxi. You’d wonder what the cause was had you encountered this moment without knowing what had been going on in the taxi!

The sight was of two possibly drunk young males, who were passionately kissing on the side of the road as the taxi passed.

I felt like a coward as I listened and felt the metaphorical stone being thrown.

I felt guilty that I never throughout that journey home said anything to defend the honour of those who were there, living their lives openly.

I was reminded of a recent conversation with a friend of mine about why she never opted to be a black person living in the Grahamstown township of Joza; I had asked assuming it would be more comfortable based on my own decent experience. The answer was simple as it left her mouth, “I’m too gay for the township; I don’t want to lose my life because I want to be a martyr”. This led me to the simple realisation that fear is imminent and a painful and sad reality for members of the LGBTI community.

We have seen and heard of heinous ways black lesbians in South Africa are being killed. And have heard the shocking stories of how black gay men are treated in other African countries. And even know how the law has made justifications or rather provision (“to deal with the homosexuality problem”) for this treatment in other countries.

The vast majority of these people do not go around raping 96 year old women, hacking their family members to death, and causing internal injuries to 18 month old babies, due to baffling, gruesome rape of infants. (Acts caused by some adults, which confirm that the word adult is used because of their age and not because of their responsible actions or ability to understand that “adults” preserve the dignity of others who they deem different from themselves.)

Hate crimes are born with hate speech. An example that always comes to mind is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The genocide saw over half a million people hacked to death by those they used to “break bread with” due to instigation by those with the unfortunate skill of knowing how to incite violence through words. This therefore emphasised difference to divide these people. “Cockroaches”, is what they called the people to be killed. Now, we spend time writing within our own circles, under the auspice of “discourse”, public discussion and debate, with some of us protesting against this treatment. But the question that begs to be asked is: aren’t we really just a bunch of a converted congregation, speaking to and amongst ourselves, as academics, journalists, activists? Do we recognise the people who denounce, and utter venom to homosexuals from inside the taxi as our mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, fathers and cousins?

Who is supposed to be an elder in the exercise of tolerance and filter it into our societies, when those like me, sink into the front seat chairs in taxis, cowardly and afraid to let common sense prevail by standing up against this? Or rather, afraid of the repercussions of doing so!

Maybe we are all like that in our families or communities when we stop intellectualising gender based homophobic discrimination and violence in our society.

Who is supposed to evoke humanism, when being gay or lesbian lands one a space at the slaughter house or under a guillotine?

Who am I really writing this to I ask? Is this preaching to the converted?

When I’ve stopped with my “snooty” model C  English, and I speak to the mama who sells fruits and has for all of my life, what do I say? What do I say, when she utters hate with her lips at a lesbian woman or a gay man or someone who is transgendered?

Am I more worried with protecting my own skin, afraid of being tarred and feathered at disgracing my community in standing against the hate and brutality? In standing and offering my support, am I afraid of immediately being assumed to be homosexual? Or do I understand that every comment of this nature should be met with a measured, yet stern response that will allow those who spew out the venom to put their tongues back in their mouths with shame and think a little?