Being gay in SA

2013-04-04 00:00

GRAEME Reid might be living in New York at present, but his book How to be a real gay: Gay identities in small-town South Africa is the result of his extensive research among the black gay community of Ermelo in Mpumalanga.

Reid is with Human Rights Watch and director of its Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Programme.

His book charts the little-known legal and social changes among gays in the country after 1994 outside the main cities where attitudes were more liberal and accepting.

“I wanted to challenge the perception that being gay was unAfrican and that, in fact, many gay people in South Africa could live perfectly integrated lives,” he said. “But I had to question whether gay people’s lives had fundamentally changed since the Constitution.”

Had they embraced the freedoms that were now enshrined in the Constitution? The fact that gay unions and marriages were legally accepted and the Constitution guaranteed rights to minority groups were huge achievements. These rights were held in high esteem in far-flung corners of the globe, but were these rights just lip service? Or did they really filter down to the gay communities in the townships and rural areas?

Reid believed that research in these small-town gay communities would reveal new information and insights into the way these men and women lived in their communities. How to be a real gay is a compilation of his research done in Ermelo during 2004 and beyond.

I met Reid after his last presentation at the Durban Time of the Writer Festival. His copy of the book has many yellow stickers and notations. For him, the book is more than a study; it is also a collection of memories.

As Reid delved into the lives of black gay men and women who lived in the small towns, he found himself opening up to a new understanding of how traditional South African society adapted to cope with the innumerable permutations of sexuality.

“In my time, I have worn two hats, sometimes simultaneously — one as a social activist and one as a researcher,” he said. “As an activist, I have campaigned for gay rights and run meetings inviting men and women to learn about their rights, but as a researcher, my job was to listen, to question and to discover, and as I did this I found out that I had more questions than answers.”

The title of the book is a humorous take on an encounter he observed between gay activists and gay transvestites, who both claimed that they were “the real gays!” For many gay men in the townships, dressing and behaving like women is the norm. This feminine identity is assumed not only for the stage or for beauty pageants, but for their entire lives. Some local gay activists wanted to change that by running workshops on “how to be a real gay”.

Reid managed to connect with the gay community through community hairdressers, many of whom were gay. He notes in his book how the hairstyling profession in all cultures seems to attract members of the gay community. In this niche profession, gay men are able to express their feminine side and to use their creative talents without being stigmatised. Women clients are less homophobic and admire their artistic talents and embrace their individuality.

“Even in the townships, gay hairdressers are known to be especially talented and a salon will try to recruit a gay man to attract customers,” said Reid. Gay hairdressers in the black community are synonymous with style and fashion.

Reid attended a funeral of a gay celebrity hairdresser and he was surprised by the outpouring of grief and the huge attendance by the community — gay and straight people alike who came to celebrate the life of the man. “He was a very well-known figure in the township. He was gay and it was known. He was totally accepted and people loved him for being who he was.”

Reid says that gay men do not escape the HIV virus and they become statistics when they do not seek medical treatment because they do not want to be stigmatised. Often they may have an idea that they are sick and are HIV-positive, but they do not want to be seen getting antiretrovirals at the clinics.

Reid believes that there is only a conflict between traditional notions of masculinity and gay rights when gay men challenge the status quo of the cultural identity. He explained: “South African traditional cultures are usually based on a gender hierarchy where men are expected to marry a woman, lead the household and father children. These are his cultural obligations. If he does not fulfil these obligations, then he may be seen as a threat to society.”

Reid believes that the violence directed at black lesbians is a particularly cruel way of asserting male dominance because lesbians are seen to challenge stereotypical gender roles that are accepted by traditional society. He said: “A gay male who dresses and acts like a female is not threatening a male; he is actually seen to be assuming a ‘lower’ or ‘lesser’ role, but a lesbian who acts like a man is seen to be a threat. Violence, including rape, is used to show her that she is not a man and to punish her for challenging traditional gender norms.”

Reid believes that victims of so-called corrective rape are probably lesbians who are seen to be assuming a butch or manly identity. “It shows that gender politics on the whole has a long way to go because women may be seen to have equal rights, but that is not true in practice.”

Reid tried to unravel the subjects’ definitions of their own sexuality, but this was far more complex than expected. Effeminate gay men saw themselves as “ladies”, and when it was suggested that perhaps they would be transgender candidates (women born in a male body), they heatedly refused this suggestion. Most of these men liked their assumed female identities, but did not want to become women.

He also found that those gay men who were masculine or butch did not consider themselves to be “gay”, and they often had sex with female girlfriends and some were married. They would be described as bisexual and yet often their wives or girlfriends were aware they were having sex with a male partner. They were not jealous because it was not another woman.

Reid also observed in his book that there is a higher incidence of gays among sangomas, and this is not seen to be counter to cultural norms. Sangomas are seen to have a link to the ancestors and their choice of sexual partner is not necessarily of their own choosing, but may be seen to be decided by the ancestors. Reid also discovered that the Zionist Christian Church seemed to be the most tolerant of gay members, with many gay congregants dressing the part of women and singing in the women’s choirs and performing women’s duties.

Reid’s book is one part academic, one part anecdotal and one part educational. One chapter recounts a chaotic beauty pageant organised in the Wesselton town hall to celebrate 10 years of gay democracy. The pageant had to be relocated at short notice, one organiser quit as he had a fight with his boyfriend and the bouncers had to clean the hall with only minutes to spare.

During the show, the sound system kept breaking down and the glamorous contestants had to improvise during lengthy pauses while lip–syncing to Brenda Fassie songs.

Reid recalls that his friend and the originator of the pageant — Bhuti — made a speech that said so much about the state of the nation and about the state of gay affairs. Bhuti said: “Today we are celebrating 10 years of democracy, as the Rainbow Nation and as a diverse culture. Don’t ever set limits for yourself because you are gay. No. uNkulunkulu [God] created you for a purpose and a nice purpose. You are an apple and don’t ever pretend to be a banana, because you will be a second-rate banana.”

Reid says that although he is based in New York, people have the idea that the entire United States has a very progressive attitude towards homosexuals. “It all depends where you go. Only nine states have voted in favour of gay marriage, so there is still a long way to go. In South Africa, the Constitution is very progressive, but people at grass roots may not realistically be able to take advantage of the laws because society has not fundamentally changed.

“I found myself questioning all the assumptions I had made. As a gay activist, I had a whole lot of definitions about what gay meant and how one should behave to attain sexual liberation, but in practice I realised that there were many ways to achieve dignity and equality in culturally diverse settings.

“There is no blueprint for being gay. People have the right to live and survive in their culture and society in their own way.” Reid says the South African Constitution has been used as a case study in other parts of the world and this has been a great step for gay rights.

Reid’s current job with Human Rights Watch is to monitor incidents of discrimination and violence against gay communities around the world. Jamaica, for example, has seen a rise in violence against homosexuals, with a number of gay men being murdered.

Similarly, there has been a rise in homophobia in Russia and Eastern Europe. Reid says that worldwide, young homosexuals are battling to come to terms with their identity and many are still at huge risk of being bullied, being rejected by their families or committing suicide.

• How to be a real gay: Gay identities in small-town South

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