Do We Really Have Freedom?

2012-11-13 09:02

{a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/cat.mhtml?lang=en&search_source=search_form&version=llv1&anyorall=all&safesearch=1&searchterm=freedom&search_group=#id=114928573&src=359bf7de7e5aaeafe664b3cd45b36304-1-73"}Are we free? (Shutterstock.com){/a}

With the rise of corrective rape cases making headlines around the country, I always wondered how my homosexual friends felt about these crimes. I never asked, until yesterday, when I read another article about how an openly gay young woman was murdered in yet another informal settlement.

I was not expecting the article to have as much of an effect on me as it did. I mean, I live in South Africa, such stories are the norm here, but after a while I had a few thoughts that started going through my mind and decided to speak to one of my lesbian friends.

I realised just how deep this issue runs during my conversation with her and felt that I couldn’t write an article about this because even though I’ve experienced something similar, nobody could word her experiences of being openly gay in South Africa better than she could, so I asked her to write down how she felt.

She has requested to remain anonymous for various reasons.

This is the email I received two hours later.

Late one night, fourteen years ago in Laromie, Wyoming, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson decided to give Matthew Shephard  a ride home from their local bar. Instead of taking the road to his house, they drove him out to the countryside, tied him to a barbwire fence and beat him into a coma for no other reason than his open sexual lifestyle. Fourteen years ago Matthew Shephard was tortured and killed for being gay and his story became the most brutal and publicised hate crime in history.

 Friday evening, Sihle Sikoji was walking through the streets of Samora Machel, Cape Town, with a friend and was met with angry cries from Vooras gang members telling them, “This is not a place for you to be walking!” Sihle and her friend froze and without hesitation one of the gang members took out a spear and stabbed Sihle in the chest. Their assailants did not rob them – instead they were attacked because they were openly gay in their community and known for trying to protect young women such as one who was a victim of ‘corrective rape’ just a short month earlier at the hands of the same gang.

 In South Africa alone, thousands of men and women fall victim to violent crimes, which their attackers believe to be corrective or justified by a higher power or ancient traditions. I’ve heard of cases where women have been penetrated by broken bottles and beaten with rocks. Groups of men have raped them over and over again in the belief that being with the right man would ‘change them back to being straight’ and these incidents are not limited to women. After winning a Miss Gay Pageant in Kuruman, Thapelo Makutle  was followed home by two men, beaten and mutilated and his genitals stuffed in his mouth right before he was killed.

 I’m a gay female living in South Africa and what saddens me the most about all of the stories above is not the death of the innocent or the ruthless manner in which they were taken from this world, but it’s the fact that the attackers in all these crimes believed that their actions had a righteous motivation. A close friend of mine made me aware of the Sihle Sikoji article and after I’d read it she asked me how we could educate these people. My response was that there is no way to educate them. Most people are set in their ways, especially those with cultures that hold a rich traditional background. Change is not something that can be taught or forced, it’s something that needs to come willingly from that person but until then, they will always fear what they don’t understand. As strongly as I believe that change isn’t something that can be taught, I believe even more strongly that hate is something that can. We adopt most of our prejudice behaviour from our parents and our community and that statement was developed through an image I saw a long time ago. It was a picture of a black baby and a white baby playing together on the floor and the caption said, “No one is born racist”. It holds so much truth since no one is born racist or sexist or xenophobic or homophobic. This is all behaviour we mimic or perceptions that we adopt at a young age.

 It is one of the most difficult things in the world to be gay and never let anyone convince you otherwise. We’re told by society that it’s a sin and many of us have violent sins committed to us in the name of what’s ‘right’. We’re told it’s ungodly, then raped for following our hearts and still expected to marry the men who commit these crimes against us. I’m fortunate as I don’t live in a community where being gay is as frowned upon yet it will still never be something I’d advertise. Even though my social groups are liberal and free thinking, I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard a man say to me, “OH you’re lesbian? It’s just because you haven’t f*****d the right guy yet. I can fix that.” Disturbing enough as it is to hear that, I always wonder how little it would take for that man to go from making a statement like that to raping me behind the bar with a bottle in the hope of ‘fixing’ me.

 I never speak to my friends about the obstacles of being gay. I’ve been lucky in the sense that they never see it as a handicap but rather, my attraction to women is as normal to them as their attraction to the opposite sex. I’m not as fortunate when it comes to family, as my parents are extremely religious and it’s a matter that everyone is aware of but no one speaks about in the house. It’s almost as if I’m dying of cancer and they tip toe around it pretending it’s not real, maybe it will slowly go away. I’ll never forget the day we were discussing two women we know who started dating. My father’s reaction was, “That’s wrong in the eyes of the church. I’ll never accept it.” My heart sank, as anyone’s would after hearing that, but then my 15-year-old sister responded, “Dad, if they love each other, what does it matter?” I’ve never been more proud and I realised that even growing up in such a prejudice household, the up and coming generation is much less influenced by judgement and hatred. Their viewpoints are adopted and developed from and by their peers and maybe that’s what we need in this world, to allow old hateful views to phase out.

 Many people take it for granted that they can come home and tell their parents that they met the women of their dreams or walk down the aisle of a church towards the person they love, but these are things I’ve never done and might never be able to do. On top of having to spend every day justifying to the ignorant why my heart skips a beat when I see a beautiful woman instead of an attractive man, some of us need to hide our true desires in fear of our lives. And too many times I’ve seen two men walking holding hands and heard people say, “I wish they wouldn’t flaunt their gayness in our face,” I didn’t know that’s what they were doing was expressing gay love, because to me it looks like they’re just expressing love. It reminded me of a quote I heard once, “It’s very dear to me, the issue of gay marriage. Or as I like to call it, marriage. You know, because I had lunch this afternoon, not gay lunch. I parked my car, I didn’t gay park it.”

 I feel this country is a far cry away from seeing two men walking the street and not thinking of it as gay love but just love. I could stand here and say it is a matter of ignorance but I believe it’s more a matter of past influence and fear. Men especially feel emasculated when a gay man flirts with them or when a girl they desire prefers the company of a gay woman over theirs. However both men and women can be held guilty for crimes such as those perpetrated against Matthew Shephard, Sihle Sikoji and Thapelo Makutle and whether it was out of fear or foolishness, I think we can all agree that it was tragic. Not just South Africa but the whole world has far to go from their justified acts of violence into an era where we allow people the freedom from hate, to live as they are, to love as they desire and to grow towards a generation of peace and acceptance.

We’re a nation that seems to continuously forget barbaric behaviour because for some who’ve been raised that way, it’s the norm; but in a progressive country, which gloats about the fact that it’s free and diverse, why do hate crimes occur so often?

Have we lost our compassion for humanity to such a degree that we don’t care about what happens to other people, especially if they’re not in our immediate circle of friends and family? Why do we not care when a young man’s dignity is stripped away simply because he chooses to be openly gay? Or when a young woman is murdered simply for being true to herself and what she feels?

South Africans have a high tolerance level, we tolerate and accept way too much even though we know that we can do something, but we’re scared. We’re a nation scared of change. It thus saddens me to see that our division is so great that it fails to bring us together to protect those who are ‘different’ – those who really need it.

Our great Constitution cannot help you once you’re dead.

So my question remains, do we have freedom – or is it a case of freedom within the boundaries of our fears?

You can follow me on twitter: @LeratoMannya

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