Fighting for respect

2008-01-16 00:00

I was born in 1981 in a small conservative South African town to wonderful, middle-class parents. Decidedly “gay” and blissfully unaware, my early childhood was uneventfully idyllic.

When I moved to Pietermaritzburg at the age of 10, my new school peers soon acknowledged my fey behaviour in a most unfavourable way. Introverted and shy, I was an easy target for them to inflict their disdain upon me, often walking home in tears. I withdrew completely. I have absolutely no fond memories of my time at primary school, recalling torment and snide remarks as my daily staple, and apathy from my teachers.

I saw high school as a new beginning, thus I began my secondary education optimistically. Things did not get better, and I spent many a lunch time in the library hiding from my peers as their scathing words continued unabated. I felt severely misunderstood, although in my youth I barely understood myself or perhaps I merely did not wish to acknowledge my emerging queerness. Nevertheless, being a sensitive adolescent, I found solace in art. I was good at it and this garnered mild approval from the very people I had come to loathe. Thus, I concluded that it was better to be weird rather than queer.

Surviving school, I decided, after some deliberation, to study further and unsurprisingly found my utopia within the walls of the fine arts department at university. My secret dominated my life, finally materialising a couple of months later in the form of a four-page essay to my mother, filled with the naïve fear of the unknown. Taking this maybe not so surprising news in her stride allowed me to take my first tentative step out that proverbial closet. I did, however, refuse for a few years after my unnerving revelation to disclose my sexual preference to the rest of my family. Only my mother shared my burden and life continued, as it has a tendency to do.

It was 2004, I was 23 and in my third year of study. Realising that the time was right for me to address the issues that had plagued much of my youth, I found in art the perfect tool with which to express myself. This next chapter in my life was inspired by a young American man named Matthew Shepard, who, in 1998, was brutally murdered for simply being gay. Deeply upset, I became obsessed with Shepard’s story and decided to enlighten myself, by immersing myself in gay literature.

In my honours year I dabbled in performance art. Walking semi-naked through campus wearing high-heeled boots and a thong was no mean feat, but my self-pity had turned to anger and I was determined to inflict myself on society — and was almost arrested for my trouble. I made front-page news on the student newspaper, effectively showing my family who I was. I revealed myself to those who mattered in my world and hoped that I had made a difference in the life or lives of those who felt as alone as I did a few years earlier.

Emotionally drained and needing a change, I took the earliest flight I could get to the United Kingdom and grew up.

I let my spirit fly with gay abandon in the gay clubs and pubs of London as the adolescence I was denied played itself out. I was no longer invisible, but surrounded by people just like me. In retrospect, I was looking for love in all the wrong places, but having a fabulous time in the process. While in the UK, I designed a tattoo to remind me of my journey toward self-enlightenment. In creating my own narrative, these symbols have come to represent facets of my gay identity.

I have been fortunate to see a bit of the world and these experiences have allowed me to accept my homosexuality as a non-issue. Also having wonderfully supportive family and friends has allowed me to grow and appreciate myself as someone who has a future.

I do not, however, want to become complacent about the privilege I’ve had in my life. It is my hope that this article inspires those who are lost and can see no way out. The point is that gay or queer issues need to be addressed openly at school level. Furthermore, homophobia in schools is unacceptable and staff members need to take responsibility and become proactive in addressing this very serious issue. Gay pupils need to know that they have a trustworthy and reliable support network. Parents need to confront the possibility that their son or daughter may be gay, educate themselves and love their children for who they are, regardless of sexual orientation. Your child’s value of their life is mirrored through your eyes, so you need to accept that sexuality is innate and certainly not a choice. Respect your child’s right to love and be loved.

I understand that homosexuality can be socially crippling in a sometimes harsh and narrow-minded world, but one has only to look at the statistics of gay teen suicide to wake up to the reality that change is vital. Yes, currently the law is on our side, but this has done little to sway preconceived, misinformed notions of what it actually means to be gay. Gay people do not have the support structure our straight counterparts take for granted. While we are conditioned to assume certain social roles, when reality checks in, life’s certainties become somewhat less certain.

One should note that gay (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) equality is neither a political issue nor a religious one — it is a human rights issue. Even if we subscribe to different world views we can still continue to strive for a happy coexistence founded on mutual respect. I understand that change is a process and not an event. As we’re in the 21st century, however, is it not time that we celebrated the diversity of our Rainbow Nation?

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