A book that changed my life

2011-09-20 00:00

I READ a book recently that changed my life. Titled Re-Claiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa, the book is a collection of stories by lesbian women in South Africa. I’m not an academic or an activist. I am one of the contributors.

It may seem odd that I say this book has changed my life, when my story is in it. The truth is, I didn’t really want to write it when I was first approached a couple of years ago. I was persuaded to by a friend who heard the editor was looking for diverse experiences.

When I got the book, I was keen to re-read my own story, given that it was some time back since I wrote it, and I also then read the stories of other women in it. Firstly, I was struck by how many women from diverse cultural, racial and religious backgrounds had also struggled with having relationships with people of their own gender. They had struggled in ways similar to the way I did with their families and backgrounds. It did not come easy. For some it was a matter of birth and identity. For others it was finally finding real love with someone from their own gender much later on and I guess that’s me.

When I read the other stories and then met some of the writers at the recent launch, I was completely struck by what seemed to be my own selfishness. How could I have been so blind to how difficult it was for others? Of course, I felt deeply sorry and outraged for those women who have suffered the obvious persecution of so-called “corrective rape”, assault and even death. But somehow I’d managed to close myself off in my experience and feel that mine was different (I had been married to men and had been

heterosexual all my life). It wasn’t and isn’t. I’ve resisted the lesbian label, as I’ve resisted labels all my life. I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend, a fledgling entrepreneur, but this one label seeks to define me utterly, as if to explain all my behaviour as a

human being. As a result, it colours the way people see me. I’ve lost business at times because of it and still will, but I am not alone. So many women who love other women and men who love other men suffer from this too.

Getting a glimpse into other

women’s lives through this book has changed me. I realise now that the world tends to be very intolerant of things they don’t understand and therefore fear. For those of us who simply try to find happiness in our lives and who don’t hurt others by doing so, it’s imperative that we stand against such intolerance, or where will it end?

When I first became involved with my current partner, I used to get upset by gay pride marches and the people who dressed in drag at such events. It made me angry that the general public possibly viewed all gay people in such light, assuming we’re all a bit “kinky” and outwardly promiscuous. As a result, I didn’t understand, or even try to, the vast complexities in being transgender, intersex and so on. I now realise there are many people who struggle with their own gender aspects and that these are not to be seen in a simplistic light, or worse, written off. Nothing is necessarily as it seems. For those who would scoff at what I’m saying, ponder this: the world is full of heterosexual people who commit travesties against

humankind (incest, child rape,

human trafficking, etc.) yet their gender preferences are not questioned and never is their hetero-

sexuality viewed as being “part of the problem”.

I have really changed my mind about a lot of things since reading this book: not really by writing my story, though I’m glad I did. I am more open, more tolerant and think more about what I feel, before I speak (I hope!). I would like this book to help get so-called “normal people” to try to see we are just as normal. Our fears and joys are the same. We are not some aberrant or mutant species of humankind. I feel privileged to be part of the voices in what I really hope is a life-changing book for someone else too.

• Re-Claiming the L-Word: Sappho’s Daughters Out in Africa is edited by

Alleyn Diesel (Modjaji Press). Cleo Ehlers writes in the book under the pseudonym Althea Lane, explaining that “at the time I couldn’t reveal myself for personal and complex reasons. Those have now changed.”

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