The single best way to reduce irrational or false assumptions about being gay is just to refuse to be invisible, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - Last week, I asked Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown how she feels about reports of her being the first openly gay cabinet minister in Africa.
“I thought my portfolio is bigger than my person,” she responded. We discussed identity politics for a little while, and it is clear she isn’t fazed by these reports, but she is surprised that it matters.
“The sensationalising of my sexuality shocked me. But the president must be credited for appointing me,” she added.
Of course the president might neither know of, nor care about the minister’s sexual orientation.
Brown argued that there must be some protection around one’s identity but recognises that it might be “important to acknowledge our identities to the public”. We didn’t explore this qualification of her general surprise. I want to explore this exact point shortly.
The minister said she could also be described as “the first daughter of a truck driver from District Six” who made it to the cabinet. She wishes we had rather been able to talk about “the first paedophile to be arrested this week” as a much more useful use of the phrase “the first so-and-so”.
The minister is clearly very comfortable in her skin, and not ashamed of, or shy to talk about, her sexuality but would prefer to talk hard politics rather than being referred to as “the first lesbian… ”
I want to disagree with her, however. These identity labels matter more than the minister, or I, wish.
I noticed many people, including gay friends of mine, responding approvingly to these remarks the minister had made on Power Talk. But I think unqualified agreement with her is hasty. Here is why.
In South Africa – and perhaps even more so in the rest of Africa – sexual orientation matters. Should it matter? No. Does it matter? Yes.
This distinction between what is desirable and what is brutal reality is important. If sexual identity no longer mattered, why do lesbian women in particular get raped and killed in our communities on a weekly basis by men who specifically cite their sexuality as a motive for these attacks?
If sexual identity no longer mattered, why is Brown the first openly gay cabinet minister? I know a number of politicians, business people and entertainment stars who pretend to be heterosexual because they fear the social or commercial consequences of living openly as gay South Africans.
Heteronormativity, like sexism, infuses every aspect of our lives – it is the norm that we grow up respecting as natural law, and which many of us mimic awkwardly until same-sex desire announces itself.
There is nothing banal about being gay in a homophobic society. I was very effeminate as a boy, and suffered verbal and emotional taunts from kids at my primary school who knew that one shout of “moffie!” in my direction would make me cry instantly. I remember the huge relief in high school when my voice broke and my body started to feel and look less feminine.
That reality is still reality for tens of thousands of gay boys and girls, men and women. And the experience isn’t restricted to townships. Many wealthy gay people can tell you about institutional homophobia in the corporate sector or within the state. You may be mocked by police in Sandton if you are a man who is masculine in appearance but come to report your male partner for assaulting you.
Here’s the moral: the gap between gay citizens’ rights and gay people’s lived experiences is gigantic. I’m glad the constitution is on my side. But that means nothing when the police laugh at me or when a lesbian has already been raped to “correct” her sexuality.
This is the context we live in in South Africa. Now let’s re-evaluate Brown’s attitude. Her attitude is rightly and solely hers, and she has no duty to become a public activist for gay people. Let’s be clear that’s not the implication of what I’m about to argue.
However, it is crucial, if you care about substantive equality, that you think about how to bridge the divide between rights on paper, and reality. What’s the answer for me?
Visibility. I find that the single best way to reduce irrational or false assumptions about me as a gay person is just to refuse to be invisible. And of course to then get on with the projects in your life that matter to you deeply, and make it hard for the homophobe to reduce you to your sexual orientation.
But without such visibility in society in general, young people will continue to experience the taunts and abuses that many of us older gay people experienced.
Yet visibility is achieved only when you have visibility role-modelled. And this is where the power of someone in the public eye cannot be underestimated. We sometimes, rather irritatingly but understandably, become role-models against our will.
If, say, I’m a 16-year-old lesbian in Mitchells Plain, scared of my same-sex attraction, it must be enormously inspirational to know I can make it in life like Brown, who comes from my community.
The minister had also said to me: “The sensationalism about sexuality creates the sense of abnormality in our society, the sense of difference.” But this is not true. The opposite is the case: we are already viewed as abnormal, and that is the social “truth” that needs to be rooted out as false.
And the best way to do that is to refuse to live in the shadows. It is a luxury for middle-class gay people like me, and the minister, to be irritated by people who want us to confess that we are gay. But sometimes others who are less fortunate than us matter more than the irritation we can endure as empowered exceptions. My 12-year-old self would have had an easier time growing up if I had read about Auntie Lynne who is gay and successful.
Sexuality shouldn’t matter. But let’s respond to reality in the meantime.