South Africa is a beautiful place. Not just aesthetically -with lush rolling hills in the Western, Eastern Capes; flowing from behind new-born concrete jungles in Gauteng and Mpumalanga, beautiful beaches and oceans in the Capes, thick forests in the Northern Cape and even vast formidable deserts in the Sahara- but also in its rich culture, diversity and the warmth of its people. But there is also a very sinister side to the country which is what I am going to be speaking a lot about here.
I remember being in matric (my final year of High School) and feeling that, as a queer black kid in a catholic School and from a staunchly Christian and homophobic household, I hungered for people to look up to. I needed to know somehow that I wasn't the only queer person in the world which -in spite of knowing and being friends with the only other three lesbians in my school- is what it often felt like because of the media's sparse portrayal of queer people. Ellen DeGeneres for all her adorableness simply wasn't enough. And quite frankly she was just too far removed from me -not just geographically but also in terms of my not being able to identify with her (I'm black and she isn't; I'm intensely political and she played it safe) - for me to be able to find any comfort in the fact that she was as famous as she was in spite of being queer. So I decided to do a Google search for "famous South African Lesbians". I really did just need someone closer to home.
What I found would turn out to be what I always use now as a justification for my strong need to be an activist. A queer-rights activist. The first 20 or so links Google showed me after my search were ALL articles about slain lesbians in my country. Now, don't get me wrong, sheltered as I was from the outside world I had always known that queer people were "not liked" in SA. That was clear for me when in the 8th Grade I was involved in a 22 against 10 debate about whether the government had done the right thing by legalizing same-sex marriages in the country. I knew it when my mother came home after weeks of marching and campaigning with her church for the Civil Union Act not to be passed, looking defeated and crestfallen about the government's decision. I saw it in the way people just reacted to anyone perceived as queer, with dislike, derision and mild hostility. All of this was clear to me years before I even knew that I was “one of them.”
But this level of hostility? The hatred feuling the brutal killing of human beings because of who they loved?
This was not something that I had anticipated.
It shocked me into an awareness of the place I called home which didn't cast a very positive light on how I perceived my fellow South Africans. In spite of this hideous revelation, I was still in many parts very sheltered from the full reality of what it meant to be queer in this country. I think I got a better understanding of the bigger picture when I started varsity.
Upon arriving in the liberated (and enlightened) space that is University I did a quick search of safe spaces in the form of societies and clubs run by and for queer people. I discovered the University's LGBTQIA society, ACTIVATE and signed up for it shortly afterwards. By now I had already come out to a lot of the people I had lectures with and had received mixed reactions to my identity. Some people were cool, "oh wow, nice. I have a friend back home who's gay and I'm chilled with it," while others were down-right ugly, "you need to sleep with a man in order to find out how sex is done properly." I wasn't deterred however. I had gotten enough bullshit from my high school class mates and teachers to know that becoming an activist for myself and others who identified as queer like me was not going to be easy. And I sort of felt -more than a lot of people- that in the face of the hate crimes and the inadequacy in how they were handled legally and politically I had a responsibility to use my voice -my hands, my legs, and my mind- to contribute in making a difference. So I went to the queer parties and spoke (and spoke and spoke some more) about my identity and why there was nothing wrong with it to anyone who would listen. However I still hungered for something more. More affirmation. My appetite for queerness was insatiable. It wasn't enough for me to sit around with other good-looking queer people, get into relationships and get drunk with them.
I was thus referred to a place which I now call my first true "home."
GALA –Gay and Lesbian memory in Action (formerly Gay and Lesbian Archives)- was introduced to me as “the gay library.” And that, it was. But I soon discovered that it was a whole lot more. Outside of housing the biggest queer-based library in the continent (a 6 by 8 space with two decent-sized shelves) it was also the home of archival material which documented the experiences of queer people in the history of Africa. In short: heaven. I spent every free hour I had in that library, so much so that they eventually approached me about a volunteering position in the library which would entail being allowed to take books and DVD’s out for free in exchange for about six hours a week of cataloguing books into their computer system and signing new members up in the library. Obviously I replied with a huge “YES!” and let them know that they would not be getting rid of me any time soon.
Through GALA I learned that queerness was not always abhorred and that queer people throughout the continent engaged in PRIDE marches and celebrations to show the world that they were not going to be silent about their existence. Every day at GALA taught me to appreciate my queerness and led to my coming into myself in a way that no romantic relationship or hungrily devoured article about Ellen D had done before. I was suddenly in a space that allowed me to be me, no questions asked.
Working for GALA allowed me to interact with and meet people who challenged me to be a better person. People who affirmed my identity and were also just completely accepting of who I was and the changes I went through in the 2.5 years they'd known me. A steady flow of activists and artists and intellectuals/academics forever filled the library with a vibrant and learning-conducive atmosphere. They played a huge role in creating my deep-seated admiration for people who dedicated their lives to fighting the Good [Queer] fight. (This admiration would later lead me to discover the sheer perfection that is bklyn boihood).
I still had to go home with my mother every day. Anything that I did in relation to GALA always remained a closely kept and fiercely guarded secret, the first year I was there. My siblings were the only people in the household whom I had come out to and they were amazing; supportive and forever interested in the stories I had to tell them about my relationships and GALA. Conversations held in hushed tones and whenever my mother wasn’t around. To say that my mother would not be accepting of my identity would be to make the biggest understatement of the millennium. If you’ve seen Pariah, you’ve seen my story (pre-coming out, though I know without a doubt that the end result would be identical in my own life). In that first year of varsity it was virtually easy to lead a double life. I had had to keep many parts of my identity secret before that; I could never express my dubiousness with the hypocrisy in the charismatic churches we went to; never express my anger about patriarchy and the way the women around me felt it was okay to let men treat them.
I couldn’t even speak about how I was becoming a little queer writer (GALA had accepted a short story I’d written for an anthology they were publishing). I had to celebrate this feat on my own.
But, as anyone who has ever had to be closeted will know; this double life soon became debilitating for me. I was depressed; I hated the clothes I had to wear, the conversations about marriage -and children being popped out of my body- I had to endure. And most of all I began to hate my silence.
Very soon, my closet became a glass closet. I ditched my pumps for converse sneakers and boots, sheared my hair off and made bow-ties out of old t-shirts I no longer wore. In little ways I started showing everybody –mom included and to her chagrin- who and what I was. I’ve even told her about GALA, calling it the Human Rights library. And while she has made her stance very clear about homosexuality and how much of a terrible sin she believes it is; I am learning daily that in the face of her prejudice and my country’s sinister ignorance, the only way I am going to make any kind of difference is if I live fully and fearlessly as my true self.
Love and Light
Facebook: http://www. facebook.com/mercymedusaminah
Twitter: @blacqqueer black queer artiste
My blog: http://www.medusaprose.wordpress.com
Mercy Medusa Minah is a 20 year old, 2nd year Law student currently based in South Africa, Johannesburg. I identify as queer, go by female pronouns and I also identify as a feminist/womanist/humanist. I sing and write, act and draw and I read more than I breathe. I work part-time as a Math and English tutor for kids from the ages 4 to 18; some with learning difficulties and others who come from rough backgrounds. I also continue to work at GALA and am an internet-hog.