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Akanyang Merementsi
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Why South Africa needs to talk about LGBT, and now

05 November 2011, 14:08
On 23 June 2011, being a book collector myself, I bought We Need to Talk by University of Free State Rector and The Times newspaper columnist, and a scholar in his own right, Professor Jonathan Jansen. 

Published this year, the book is a collection of his many selected columns dating from 2009 to early this year. In an interesting analysis, Jansen said the purpose of his column was to get South Africans talking and in doing so he discovered that we were such an angry citizenry because of the “extreme anger, violence and brutality in our society”. This is because as a society we were more traumatized than we thought. Jansen said as a society we had internalized the brutality we had to bear, and that we did not moan enough as a nation having been led by the apartheid government with its discriminatory legislations that classified white people as better-off than their black counterparts and with the former [white people] being seen as more superior than the latter [black people].

This, however, is not a review of We Need to Talk but just a reminder of a topic we, all of us South Africans, must talk about. And with recent developments here in the country, the continent and one specific in the US, I think we seriously need to talk.

We need to talk about our sexuality, whether accepted or not.

A few days after I bought the book I had a conversation with some of my colleagues about accepting homosexuals, transgenders and bisexuals for who they have come to learn and accept themselves that they are because even the law is very protective of them as it is with all (who regard themselves as) heterosexuals and that given the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution this year, all governments should acknowledge all persons as having the right to freedom of sexual orientation.

Therefore, we, the so-called straight and the society at large, we really need to talk. This also follows New York’s lawmakers approving and signing a same-sex marriage into law in June this year.

From that discussion there was a clear resistance to change and accept the LGBTs as a society because they are seen as doing things that are ungodly. For example, having sex or how they choose to make love (different from the heterosexuals) was one of the issues my colleagues seemed to have had a problem with. Of course they did not have to say it loudly but their sentiments were as clear as a mirror. Being gay and a lesbian, one said, was disgusting, a sin and ungodly, before adding that even the bible made reference to that effect.

My colleagues spoke as if sex before marriage was not a sin, one sin I suspect ninety percentage of the world population has committed. I tried to explain to these chaps that there are of course many ways to achieving sexual satisfaction and that to the LGBTs, it may be different to the way the so-called heterosexuals do it and that they were fine with it and has to be respected.

What was shocking for me was when one colleague [a father, by the  way] said that at a certain age he expects his son to have girlfriends, a family and children and to have sex with girls and that if that does not happen he would sit him [his son] down and explain to him what is expected of him as son and that if he happened to be gay or bisexual and therefore could not have girlfriends and bring Makoti (daughter-in-law) as is expected of him – he would nicely ask him to get the heck out of his house and do those things [things he believes gays and transgenders do] far away from his house because he would certainly not accept that his son had turned out to be someone he did not expect: gay or bisexual.

This means in order for my colleague’s son to live with him (if he still wanted to and wanted to be accepted by him) he would have to suppress his feelings for people of the same gender/sex as he, and thereby remain trapped and live his life with discomfort. This, I told, my colleague, puts their children in an awkward position because they surely cannot live their LGBT life to the fullest as they would have liked to if it had not been for their parents’ threat that if they ever happened to be LGBTs, they would disown them.

This expectation of my colleague of his son having a family and of course children is that which was made by a father to his gay child despite having told him that he was gay. The gay-child said his father, after his confession, made “an uncompromising demand” that he “needed a child from me, preferably male, to serve as an heir to the family line”. “Later, finding that I was not heeding his demand, even after numerous reminders and hints, he dropped his expectations—at least give him a girl child, he begged”.

I tried explaining to my colleagues that if they continued to have their LGBT children live a trapped life of being straight (heterosexuals) when they are not, then they should not be surprised if they [the parents] later find out that their children grow to become the After9s. After9 is a term given to (married) men who have relationships with other men and only engage with them sexually at night where and when no-one can suspect anything. Now that’s how some of my colleagues would rather have their children live: living a trapped life and living a lie, isn’t it?

My trying to explain this gave my colleagues gave a wrong impression that I might be gay, something I could not care less about , and one impression I think even if it were to be true it would not be any of their business because I certainly do not think they should change how they have interacted with me previously and it should not bring any change to our future relationship as colleagues for if it would, it would amount to discrimination based on my sexual orientation – a transgression of the law that is unconstitutional and punishable in most countries.

I deliberately drove the discussion with the purpose and aim of assessing whether as a society we have indeed come to accepting LGBTs as our friends, brothers, sisters, family members, colleagues, managers, Pastors, etc, and whether we will continue to respect their lifestyle – however ungodly, unchristian and unAfrican we might think they are – because they themselves have respected those of ours [heterosexuals] and therefore we should give them the space and liberty to be who they feel comfortable being and not having to dictate to them as a society on how they should live their lives and just let them be.

We can only do that if we start to talk, and now. This is because our failure as society to accept the LGBTs and talk about the problems they encounter on a daily basis and our discrimination of their choice of lifestyle will lead to these incidents we have seen whereby lesbians are gang-raped by us (men) because they [lesbians] are accused by these men of taking their girlfriends. Further, if we do not talk and now, these poor woman will continue to being sexually and brutally abused and killed by us men and the society at large because we believe that our “manhood”, “masculinity” and “sexuality” will help “cure” their lesbianism and thereby “convert” them into real women.

So we need to talk, and now!

South African President Jacob Zuma’s comments in 2006 that when he was growing up “[a gay] would not have stood in front of me” as he “would knock him out” – for which he has since apologised – also seem to have justified people’s discrimination of the LGBTs. As if that was not enough, comments last year by FIFA President Sepp Blatter that gays should have refrained from “any sexual activities” also did not go down with many people as they were seen as discriminatory. It is quite disappointing to have heard leaders [or people we assume to be leaders] making these discriminatory hate comments against LGBTs.

When discussion this sensitive issue we need to guard against statements such as these made by one particular blogger who wrote in his blog in June this year that all LGBTs should not be ridiculed but that “they need psychiatric help”. The writer said “justifying their [LGBTs’] behavior that they are made that way or that they could not help it is nothing but sheer non sense”. “If we buy this argument”, said the writer, “any immoral activity can be justified including murder and rape for murder/rape may make some one happy”. Because many LGBTs may at one stage of their relationship decided to adopt a child, when they do, the writer asked: “who will take care of their children if they adopt?”

I personally think the question is stupid because surely the couple, if they choose to, would not be the first couple to adopt a child and have a child-minder to look after the child while they are at work. Also, it is also not like it is only LGBTs who decide to adopt children and that other heterosexual couples never do. Therefore the question is not only narrow minded but that smacks of discriminations and fails to take into account that even people across all sexualities would choose to adopt children and not necessarily conceive their own due to career choices, or medical reasons while for others it is just natural. Worse, the writer went on to say US lawmakers who signed the same-sex law into law were “making a mistake” because “human beings by nature demand progeny”.

Of course it is well known and clear that before the LGBT couple decides to adopt a child there are very strict and complicated procedures to be followed which may, at times, result in many couples dropping the process half way. Too, when deciding to go that route it is expected that the couple would have considered the questions that the child would ask especially considering that his family (of either lesbian or gay adoptive parents) would be different from others’ (heterosexuals parents). So the writer’s question of how these adopted children would “grow up with out normal family life, or with out the affection of a mother” is one that can only be addressed during the adoption process and later in life. So I believe it is certainly not for the writer to predetermine the future of that child, let alone his lesbian or gay family bringing up.

Yes, there will obviously be challenges. There will of course be psychological challenges that the child would experience, challenges that even heterosexual couples experience with even their own blood children or those adopted. So for the writer to suggest that by going the adoption-route and later having to explain this to the children would result in the society “producing depressed individuals who may turn out to be antisocial” is not entirely true because there are many father-mother families that have the same “antisocial” children. In that case who do you blame: the mother or the father or both? And by “normal family” what is the writer referring to? I ask.

How many broken families – with one or both parents deceased and leaving the kids to fend for themselves, or where the father has abandoned the mother with the kids, or where the mother has left the father alone with the kids (and took off with another man) – have lived the odds of “normal family” or lack thereof?

An admission by the writer himself – a professional and a more than thirty-years married father of two from Bangalore, India – that he has “no answer to those who try to debate what is normal, abnormal, what is Morality” is a clear indication that maybe, and just maybe, the writer had no idea what he is talking about to begin with. And these are things that I think we, South Africa as a country, need to talk about. But this should not be limited to our boarders only because it is happening in many parts of our beautiful continent and the world over too.

Kaene – a ‘very proud gay gentleman’

For example, a couple of months prior to writing this story I came a very interesting story of a young, black and proud man in Botswana who shared his ordeal about being a gay man in that country. Writing in Mmegi newspaper in February this year, Kaene, as he called himself, acknowledged that he was a “very proud gay gentleman” and described in lengths how he had gone to trying to deny his sexuality. Kaene said he went from one church to another thinking he would be a “born again”. He went on to saying how much he not only relied on others’ prayers, but that he even prayed for himself believing that God would change him to being a “normal” person like other men he was told of and that he even consulted a shrink during this gay-discovery-journey process thinking he’d be told something different to what he had long known, that he is gay.

As he grew older, said Kaene, he became “more miserable” with his gayness-hard-to-believe part of his life. “I would cry myself to sleep every night but still had hoped that one day I will be a changed person. I ended up being depressed and distant from everyone”. And as a last resort to his hard life, Kaene thought of committing suicide for it seemed the only option he had because others that he had tried failed. “My other option was suicide”. Like any other suicidal person, Kaene “would plan on how to kill myself and everyday something stopped [him] as [he] would pass out before (he) went ahead with it.” That must have been God talking to him, I think. That what he was trying to do was so not on and just had to stop. Remember, God [for those who believe in him] resembles himself in different ways to many of us. It is Kaene’s story that one of my colleagues’ child may attempt if his father – assuming he is an LGBT – does not accept him for who he is. That’s why we need to talk about not just about LGBTs’ acceptance of themselves but our effort and need, too, as a society and a democratic country, to accepting them.

A ‘pretty gay’ Floyd

Prior to Kaene’s story I came a very moving story and account of Brandon Floyd – a graduate from Ohio University – when he wrote about his father’s expectation of him as his son. Writing in The Fresh Expression web site in June this year, Floyd (@bfloyd86) describes what a “pretty gay kid” he was when growing up, how he “played with Barbies with my female cousins for a tad too long” and that his favorite Disney movie was The Little Mermaid”. 

“I was obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, says Floyd, and that “the first (second & third) artist I saw in concert was Janet Jackson. I was young”. “I was obviously gay”, admits Floyd. Raised by a single, black father who had “no CNN special or scholarly debate panel teaching him to raise a boy, who might be gay” – Floyd says his “sexual orientation became clearer to my father”. At 11 year-old and while listening to Aaliyah, Floyd speaks of how his father told him: “I’ve only ever wanted a son, and if you decide that you’re gay don’t ever tell me. I’ll want nothing to do with you.”  “I wanted to hate him, but I didn’t know how to do that because I knew that he loved me. Instead I settled for being angry with him, and hating myself because I knew that I’d never be able to change myself”, wrote Floyd of how he felt after his father told him that he would want nothing to do with him if he ever were gay.

“Being gay had never been a cognitive choice for me, and so the only ‘decision’ I had in the matter was whether or not I would tell my father or any other person. In the instant that my father told me it was wrong for me to be gay I felt like I would never be anything else. No other part of my being mattered, as my existence seemed to turn exclusively toward finding a way to hide what I had been told was an unforgivable flaw,” said Floyd. It took him years to “recognize that cycle, and begin to make peace with my sexuality” and that a “large part of that journey has been about forgiving my father and working to see him as a person, not just as my parent”. He asks: “What does it mean for a man to recognize that his only son is gay; and how does he negotiate the space where expectation meets reality?” Well, I think it differs from one father to another and from parents to parents.

What is interesting about Floyd’s moving and personal account – a point from which I think the writer mentioned before wrote from – is that a boy’s sexuality and masculinity from an African-American family cites a “strong father figure as the necessary component to rearing a boy toward manhood”. But I think this wrong. Americanly, Floyd says, single parents are “praised… for their vitality, but still consider them in the absence of a male presence”. He says there are people who argue that “gay men weren’t properly conditioned as men by an older male in their youth, and that’s the reason for their sexuality”. Really?

“On a larger scale, so much of American culture is still rooted in dated gender expectations and nuclear family concepts that our fathers can’t help but find themselves consumed with the idea of raising “a man,” instead of the more thoughtful notion of raising an individual. My father went to work every day. He attended every single parent/teacher conference, and was the first one at any extracurricular event I participated in – even as it became obvious that it would always be school plays, and never a football game. He knew that he was a good provider, and the best parent that he could be. But I imagine that noticing that his only son might be gay made him feel like he had failed at being a good man –because he had been told that a good man raises his son to be the same, and a good man is not a gay man. So I watched my father work to appreciate me, and separate the son he was raising from the son that he thought I should be. I’m sure that for so many fathers of gay men the struggle is quite the same: working against the confines of traditional masculinity,” said Floyd.

Taking a point my colleague raised in our discussion at the time: if his son happened to be an LGTB, would he also feel like Floyd feels his father did that he would have “failed at being a good man” because he would have been told that “a good man raises his son to be the same, and [that] a good man is not a gay man”? If so, then what makes a father a “good man”?

And speaking of fatherhood I am reminded of a quote from Robert Kelly’s Reality song that: “Any man can make a baby but it takes a real man to be a father”. This makes one ask the role of a father. Is it to raise children to become responsible adults or to just make sure he raises a boy to a not-gay man and a girl child to a not-lesbian woman? That is why need to talk South Africa and by so doing we will be relieving the “tension by continuing in thoughtful conversation, and ultimately working to at least reconsider what we’ve deemed socially conventional”.

South African, we need to talk, and now.

To borrow from Floyd: “We have to complicate what it means to be a man in [Africa], so that our fathers don’t feel like failures when their sons say ‘I’m gay’”. We need to talk because by so doing, “any boy in the world working” will understand and know his sexuality, whatever comes of that journey, says Floyd, the boy will know “he is worthy of love, and the only thing he ever has to be is himself”. That’s why we need to talk South Africa. 

Alarming HIV statistics and the way forward

Our failure to talk will result in these alarming statistics of about 50% of black [and maybe white too] gay men or men having have sex with men (MSM) in Soweto living with HIV increasing and even spreading across the country because this is just one specific issue about our children’s and the society’s sexuality we do not want to talk about. Or like in the US whereby Centre for Disease Control and Prevention found that young black gay and bisexual men were the only population in the US among which the pace of HIV was increasing – if we keep quiet, it should then come as no surprise that we keep having alarming statistics such as these, many of which are attributed to a number of reasons. 

Director of the centre Jonathan Mermin said they were “deeply concerned by the alarming rise in new HIV infections in young, black gay and bisexual men and the continued impact of HIV among young gay and bisexual men of all races”. He said: “We cannot allow the health of a new generation of gay men to be lost to a preventable disease. It’s time to renew the focus on HIV among gay men and confront the homophobia and stigma that all too often accompany this disease”.

So by talking, as the first step, we help stop:

And that’s why we South Africans we need to talk and Now!

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