A new collection of African LGBTIQ writing has appeared in stores, adding to a growing archive. In this extract, Lwando Scott tackles how ‘effeminate’ boys like him are double-shamed – and how we all contribute to the othering that can cripple a life
When I was in Grade 4, my mother and I were walking a distant aunt to the bus stop and, just before we arrived at the bus stop, my aunt asked my mother if she was scared of “Satanism”. This was code for homosexuality. This is just one of the many times that I would endure wounding statements coming from people throughout my young years.
When I was growing up, queerness was often framed as a lack, a loss, a deficiency; a state of being that needed alteration, cleansing and praying over. This was first evident in the ways that adults spoke about my effeminate behaviour in my presence, sometimes with coded language, as if I wasn’t there. I was visibly queer at a very young age, where other people told me that I was queer – often using the most derogatory language – before I could even articulate that queerness for myself.
This meant that, in my young years, I associated my queerness with derision. While effeminate embodiment and intonations in a boy do not necessarily mean homosexuality, they do raise suspicion and, in my case, it was true that I did have romantic desires for other boys, even as I concealed these desires. The game of avoiding detection starts the minute you leave home as everyone you encounter is a potential threat armed with pejorative statements. The irony of me always trying to avoid detection was that it was almost impossible to hide, as everything I was pointed to my otherness.
They Called Me Queer compiled by Kim Windvogel and Kelly-Eve Koopman
What was jarring about my attempt at concealment was how impossible it was to conceal who I was because it was almost always visible. It was in my walk, it was in my voice, in the way I expressed myself with my hands, how I preferred the company of women to that of other men and how I envied all my girl friends who could go to home economics while I had to attend woodwork. It was a period I dreaded and had to endure.
For many of us, the process of discovering our sexuality is further complicated by our nonconforming gender identity and gender performance. When you are an effeminate boy, it is other people who first impose a gay sexual identity on you before you have actually discovered it for yourself. The linking of “effeminate” behaviour or mannerisms in boys to same-sex desire or attraction is misguided, of course, because there are plenty of men who are effeminate or have “girly” mannerisms or are considered soft, but are heterosexual. When you are a queer young boy, the name-calling creates all kinds of confusion because, before you have “weird” feelings for boys, you are already demonised.
By the time I was starting to have feelings towards other boys as a teenager, I was already bruised and dealing with feelings of shame. The feelings of shame only intensify in the teenage years. You fall in love with boys around you at school, but nobody knows except yourself. You are also afraid of being discovered, so you don’t stare for too long but, of course, you are already discovered.
Growing up queer in South Africa was to experience an unnerving feeling of a desire to belong and that desire never being met. With everything in my life, or so it seemed, I was doomed to exist on the periphery. Like many queer kids, I knew there was something eccentric about me. Growing up as a gender nonconforming young boy – in other words, growing up as an effeminate boy – I felt the brutal brunt of sanctions for being this way. I carried the burden of always trying to avoid detection because the teasing, the name-calling and sometimes violence were a real threat.
In hindsight, after reading many social science books written after World War 2, I was able to understand what was happening to me. Two scholars come to mind when I think about my young self and the trouble I went through, albeit often in vain, to avoid detection that I was queer. I think of the concept of stigma that was conceptualised by Erving Goffman, and how those who possess a stigma, in my case my queerness, will go to great lengths to hide that stigma so that they are not prosecuted for having said stigma. When I think of the way I would walk around wanting to be invisible at times to avoid detection, I behaved like someone who had a stigmatised identity, and this caused me great shame.
Another writer who has subsequently helped me think about my young self is Michel Foucault with his ideas on discipline. Foucault argues that we are disciplined in society through many techniques and so we modify ourselves to fit in; to be seen as normal. In my attempts to avoid detection, I was being disciplined by South African society because the threat of mocking, of name-calling, and of physical violence was enough to make me try to conform to avoid detection.
Shame became a part of how I experienced myself. There was a feeling of shame surrounding my “failed” masculinity and, later on, there would be a shame as I felt an attraction to other men. The shame I felt for being effeminate and the femmephobia I experienced because of my girly ways was the initial prejudice I experienced.
While growing up, at times, it felt like there was no greater sin, greater betrayal of your “own” kind, than deserting masculinity for femininity. The gender shame I felt as an effeminate boy was complex in that there was already shame attached to how I was even before I knew what I was and what I desired. This was most pronounced in men-only spaces as masculine hierarchies were enforced, like in the woodwork classroom. Shame is a feeling that followed me for a long time and remains a feeling I have to struggle against as it never completely leaves you. It creeps up on you when you are mocked by someone for your gender nonconformity. Shame rears its ugly head when you realise that even other gay men are femmephobic and that, in trying to find love, I have had to navigate a world of “Masc 4 Masc” and “No Femmes”. The rigidity of normative gender ideals in South African society meant that no one escaped unscathed, including those, or maybe particularly those, who were themselves escaping prosecution. The production of shame while growing up didn’t only affect me.