More than just a thorny ride: (un) accounting for my silence in the company of homophobes

More than just a thorny ride: (un) accounting for my silence in the company of homophobes

By: Lerato Makate*

After I attended my first annual Soweto Pride — LGBTI Parade in Johannesburg, South Africa — it was time to head on home. I ran across a bumper traffic congested main road, which runs between Mofolo, White City, Jabulani and Jabavu township locations in a typical  Soweto Saturday night.  As my cousin gestures  a random sign to the taxis, a minibus taxi stops and I in a snail’s pace climb into the front seat, minding my hip injury. Inside the taxi it’s a buzz with two toddlers singing their rendition of the South African national anthem remixed with a nursery rhyme, women sharing their day’s events especially from the stokvels — social gatherings that bring women from across any township location together, over music food and drink.

A local pub in Jabavu called Roots along the same busy road was the venue for the after party of my day’s events. Members of the black LGBTI community hung around the area in their own clicks, with car boots opened and blasting music, drinks in hand and conversing and doing what we would all do at some or other festival. A snide comment from an older woman came shooting from the back of the minibus taxi.

She clicked her tongue “Nxa,” that felt as though it came from deep within her gut, laced in disgust. “What do these things think they are, men or women?!” “They themselves don’t even know. Look at them. “Jesus, this world is coming to a definite end,” she ends off.

As some women burst out from the packed taxi in clear annoyance at her judgemental attitude, yet another woman throws a verbal jab to reinforce the idea that indeed being gay, lesbian, transgender, etc is despicable and unnatural.

Women number two adds her support, “Sis, you can say that again. The Lord is going to punish us because of this filth”. The taxi driver finally contributing to the heated venom growing in the taxi as it moved slowly.

“These things are real shits, they don’t deserve to live.” They should be treated like that girl who was undressed by the people at the taxi rank in town. It will teach them a lesson”.

The guilt in me grew as I heard them speak foul of friends, cousins, brothers, sisters and ordinary citizens going about their lives without violating, yes I reiterate, violating anyone’s life.

I was quiet, the guilt grew in me. I had just been at this festival of fun, music and crazy, raucous madness. And I had an interesting and great time.

I couldn’t say to anyone of them, “Shut the hell up. While you are busy denouncing other people’s lives, we don’t know how much verbal or physical abuse you endure in your supposedly pure matrimonial life. For all we know, you consciously stay with a man who on alternate days spends nights at your neighbours, two houses down the street.”

Then out of nowhere, I heard the same women hurling out “Voetsek, nina maan, yekani la masimba e ni wa yenzayo!” loosely translated, “fuck off you all, stop that shit you’re doing.”

The insults came like stones being thrown from out of the taxi. You’d wonder what the cause was had you encountered this moment without knowing what had been going on in the taxi!

The sight was of two possibly drunk young males, who were passionately kissing on the side of the road as the taxi passed.

I felt like a coward as I listened and felt the metaphorical stone being thrown.

I felt guilty that I never throughout that journey home said anything to defend the honour of those who were there, living their lives openly.

I was reminded of a recent conversation with a friend of mine about why she never opted to be a black person living in the Grahamstown township of Joza; I had asked assuming it would be more comfortable based on my own decent experience. The answer was simple as it left her mouth, “I’m too gay for the township; I don’t want to lose my life because I want to be a martyr”. This led me to the simple realisation that fear is imminent and a painful and sad reality for members of the LGBTI community.

We have seen and heard of heinous ways black lesbians in South Africa are being killed. And have heard the shocking stories of how black gay men are treated in other African countries. And even know how the law has made justifications or rather provision (“to deal with the homosexuality problem”) for this treatment in other countries.

The vast majority of these people do not go around raping 96 year old women, hacking their family members to death, and causing internal injuries to 18 month old babies, due to baffling, gruesome rape of infants. (Acts caused by some adults, which confirm that the word adult is used because of their age and not because of their responsible actions or ability to understand that “adults” preserve the dignity of others who they deem different from themselves.)

Hate crimes are born with hate speech. An example that always comes to mind is the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The genocide saw over half a million people hacked to death by those they used to “break bread with” due to instigation by those with the unfortunate skill of knowing how to incite violence through words. This therefore emphasised difference to divide these people. “Cockroaches”, is what they called the people to be killed. Now, we spend time writing within our own circles, under the auspice of “discourse”, public discussion and debate, with some of us protesting against this treatment. But the question that begs to be asked is: aren’t we really just a bunch of a converted congregation, speaking to and amongst ourselves, as academics, journalists, activists? Do we recognise the people who denounce, and utter venom to homosexuals from inside the taxi as our mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, fathers and cousins?

Who is supposed to be an elder in the exercise of tolerance and filter it into our societies, when those like me, sink into the front seat chairs in taxis, cowardly and afraid to let common sense prevail by standing up against this? Or rather, afraid of the repercussions of doing so!

Maybe we are all like that in our families or communities when we stop intellectualising gender based homophobic discrimination and violence in our society.

Who is supposed to evoke humanism, when being gay or lesbian lands one a space at the slaughter house or under a guillotine?

Who am I really writing this to I ask? Is this preaching to the converted?

When I’ve stopped with my “snooty” model C  English, and I speak to the mama who sells fruits and has for all of my life, what do I say? What do I say, when she utters hate with her lips at a lesbian woman or a gay man or someone who is transgendered?

Am I more worried with protecting my own skin, afraid of being tarred and feathered at disgracing my community in standing against the hate and brutality? In standing and offering my support, am I afraid of immediately being assumed to be homosexual? Or do I understand that every comment of this nature should be met with a measured, yet stern response that will allow those who spew out the venom to put their tongues back in their mouths with shame and think a little?

*Lerato Makate is a default Joburger (dweller of the South African city of Johannesburg) employed as a talk-show radio content producer for commercial regional station (with her heart burried in the lush, and beautiful earth of the Eastern Cape province, South Africa). Her academic base has been in Media Studies, Media Management and and a Health Journalism Honours from University of the Witwatersrand and Rhodes University (South Africa). She prefers to be referred to as, and call herself, a radio junky and an ongoing media student and creative mind. This is because the radio bug bit her during her tender undergraduate years on campus radio. She also dabbles in the seaming of avant garde, comfortable, and possibly elegant women’s clothing items that most refer to as designing. With an interest in the different facets of the media and how messages are received by audience and social issues, she hopes to soon take up a Masters in Public Health degree programme: to look at how media and social behavioural campaigns can succeed or need to improve to be effective in preventive health and the improvement of the Economics of Health that are significant in achieving a health system all South Africans (especially those without the medical aid/insurance alternative) can benefit from.

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6 Responses to More than just a thorny ride: (un) accounting for my silence in the company of homophobes

  1. Interesting thoughts Lerato.People don’t think that homophobia is akin to hate speech.It’s still okay to say demeaning things about people who happen to be gay,lesbian,transgendered.And often it is safer to be complicit and keep quiet when we know we shouldn’t.But the guilt must not be debilitate us.You’re not the only person who has been in this situation

  2. Your post is thought-provoking. It forces me to question my own actions and silence on the issue.
    Your description of the event make the reader feel like they were there with you.
    An impactful post!

  3. As people we hate what we fear and fear what we don’t understand. Simply because we go through life reacting to everything without putting an effort to ask why we reacted in the first place. Only to find out that your reaction doesn’t mean you are right but its a choice you took without even realising. So choose to love don’t wait for your emotions to overwhelm you. Do unto others!! You know the rest.

  4. I have no fear of sexuality. I’m a curious being and love to ask questions. I have never come out as straight and see no reason to. I do not proclaim to love opposite sex as if society needs to know. And that is how I treat sexuality. And in the same token – I can comfortably ask you about your person and it usually goes like this: “So you don’t have a boyfriend? A girlfriend? No? Then what you have?” And at no point am I being judgemental – it’s usually a harmless jab at the single people. My point is sexuality is a such a natural thing that it shouldn’t be uncomfortable. Am I uncomfortable when a woman approaches me, no. But I do get uncomfortable when a certain type of man or women approaches me. I actually appreciate being hit on from either sex – I just love attention. I’m a flirt. Shoot me. I had a colleague who’s a lesbian – I flirted (Well, I think I was.) and I was a little hurt when she developed a crush on the girl on the bus. LOL! Loving someone can’t be confined to boy/girl. Love, love hard. And no, you don’t have to save everyone. You don’t have to come out. Live. Do you. Be happy.

    P.S Does me asking ludicrous questions about LGBTI relationships equal being forward? I just like knowing stuff. I believe in having tons of informtation (that I usually never use).

    P.P.S I appreciate you opening to the world. Sometimes a story goes beyond the therapeutic function for the writer but a healing effect for a reader. Bless you, my friend.

    P.P.P.S I hope my comment makes sense. I’m such a scatter brain. (Too many post scripts)

  5. I have too much too say about your short but oh so long taxi ride Lerato.

    Firstly, it isn’t easy speaking the truth. Its hard enough telling someone you really care about the brutal truth. It is very uncomfortable. Therefore I think that your silence in that taxi was a wise decision otherwise you might have ended up scarred on many levels.

    Secondly, I don’t have the solution as to who exactly is supposed to educate people about right and wrong, humanitarianism, or hate speech. The broader community is a sensitive creature that doesn’t respond well to random opinions about issues such as the one you have shared. This is why more formal strategies are ideal in trying to change the views of the broader community. The formal strategies I am thinking of are discussion groups where the dialogue is the only form of weapon is available to put forward a point. This is safer and not as dangerous as speaking out in a taxi to random strangers that could potentially get violent.

    Thirdly, with regards to the metaphoric stone throwing the people in the taxi were conducting; I think this stems from prejudice, myths, lack of information, and so many other issues I will not mention. Essentially my point is that the backgrounds of the individuals in your taxi were varied but had the common denominator of preaching hate against gays and lesbians, and that conditioning is hard to remedy with just one encounter from a random stranger in a taxi. Therefore we are not responsible for other people’s opinions. The only way you and I can ever really make a difference is at home and by this I mean that the people in our immediate vicinity (such as mother, sister, lover, friends, colleagues, and sometimes by chance acquaintances). Speaking to these people will make a difference in spreading the word about issues.

    Finally though I would just like to thank you for your article. I truly think that there is hope for change in our societies, albeit this will happen at a very slow rate. That’s just how it is. I have too much too say about your short but oh so long taxi ride Lerato.

    Firstly, it isn’t easy speaking the truth. Its hard enough telling someone you really care about the brutal truth. It is very uncomfortable. Therefore I think that your silence in that taxi was a wise decision otherwise you might have ended up scarred on many levels.

    Secondly, I don’t have the solution as to who exactly is supposed to educate people about right and wrong, humanitarianism, or hate speech. The broader community is a sensitive creature that doesn’t respond well to random opinions about issues such as the one you have shared. This is why more formal strategies are ideal in trying to change the views of the broader community. The formal strategies I am thinking of are discussion groups where the dialogue is the only form of weapon is available to put forward a point. This is safer and not as dangerous as speaking out in a taxi to random strangers that could potentially get violent.

    Thirdly, with regards to the metaphoric stone throwing the people in the taxi were conducting; I think this stems from prejudice, myths, lack of information, and so many other issues I will not mention. Essentially my point is that the backgrounds of the individuals in your taxi were varied but had the common denominator of preaching hate against gays and lesbians, and that conditioning is hard to remedy with just one encounter from a random stranger in a taxi. Therefore we are not responsible for other people’s opinions. The only way you and I can ever really make a difference is at home and by this I mean that the people in our immediate vicinity (such as mother, sister, lover, friends, colleagues, and sometimes by chance acquaintances). Speaking to these people will make a difference in spreading the word about issues.

    Finally though I would just like to thank you for your article. I truly think that there is hope for change in our societies, albeit this will happen at a very slow rate. That’s just how it is.

  6. great reflective piece. Gcobani’s article from nov 11 has a highly relevant quote to this situation: “We can’t combat white supremacy unless we can teach people to love justice. You have to love justice more than your allegiance to your race, sexuality and gender. It is about justice.” – bell hooks” Had those folks been white, spewing ignorance out to a black couple, or had that been a group of men saying inappropriate things to women, would that have made it easier to speak up? It is uncomfortable to speak truth and sometimes its even unsafe. But we need not rationalize our silence on some matters when we are much more open to speak on others. It is important to ask ones self why did I not say even one small thing. The truth is that even if no minds are changed, maybe one person in that car was also LGBTI and needed to know they had an ally, or the men on the street may have appreciated it, or maybe one person who was ambivalent may have been swayed by a clear and rational voice against hate. You never know the impact of speaking out and I admire this piece for even bringing up the internal conflicts we all face.

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