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Brenda the lesbian icon

The nation’s grief has been turned into a moment of affirmation for South Africa’s lesbians and gay men. In the wake of Brenda Fassie’s death, gay community organisations have issued expressions of condolence that celebrate Fassie as a local lesbian icon.

”Long live the spirit of Brenda Fassie, long live!” reads a press release distributed on Wednesday by the Durban Lesbian and Gay Community and Health Centre. It refers to ”Comrade Brenda Fassie — a role model to many township gay and lesbian people who have talked about how she inspired people to be themselves”.

The Gay and Lesbian Equality Project, based in Yeoville, wrote: ”Sis Brenda was a true national asset. In our community we thank her for entertaining us, but also for supporting our charitable causes.”

At the same time, heterosexual writers have been quick to expound the idea that Fassie was something of a victim of her own lesbianism. Wayua Muli of the Kenyan news site wrote: ”Unfortunately, the admission that she was a lesbian started to erode her image irrevocably.”

This is in stark contrast to the view expounded by presidential spokesperson Bheki Khumalo who, upon the death of Fassie, noted her as a ”pan-African griot”.

Fassie’s romantic life is indicative of the experiences of black lesbians living in a liberated South Africa. With the arrival of personal freedom came a greater access to life’s trappings. But for Fassie, the myth of fast cars, hotel rooms and expensive drugs was shattered in 1994 when she awoke in Hillbrow’s seedy Quirinal hotel beside her drug-overdosed lover, Poppie Sihlahla.

The public was treated to another new South African experience when Fassie ”married” her subsequent lover, Sindiswe Khambule, at Yeoville’s popular Times Square in December 2002. Both Khambule and Fassie have been portrayed by the media as ”lapsed lesbians”. In April 2003 Khambule was reported to have escaped from her relationship with Fassie. She returned to her mother in Imbali, KwaZulu-Natal, where she confessed to the Natal Witness newspaper that Fassie, whom she had met in a nightclub, was her first female lover.

Khambule was turning her back on the relationship because ”we’re not doing the right thing”. It was stereotypical reporting of homosexuality as a contagious addiction and it would seem to justify Fassie’s family’s refusal to let Khambule visit Sunninghill hospital last week.

Fassie’s talent and her open bisexuality have stood as proof that black lesbians can make an enormous contribution to popular culture, and can play the field of love on equal terms.

But ultimately, the singer, who told an American journalist in 2000, ”I use both sides of the toilet paper”, is possibly not the best role model for the lesbian cause. The troubling aspect of Fassie’s reception by the media lies in the manner in which the subject of domestic violence has been treated.

Characteristically, Fassie’s relationships broke down over issues of economic and drug dependency.

Given the lighthearted tone of reports about the singer, it would seem that many journalists do not understand that serial domestic violence in the gay community occurs for pretty much the same reasons as it does in the straight world.

The international gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organisation, Lambda, notes that lesbians and gays often don’t receive support from other gays because the community subsists on the myth that it is free from domestic violence. At the same time victims often don’t speak about issues of domestic violence because they don’t want to appear abnormal.

This, of course, was not true of Fassie and one can only speculate as to why she allowed the press such open access to her personal affairs. In July 2002, for example, the star was involved in a three-way fight with her manager Sello Chicco Twala and Khambule.

After the incident, Mduduzi Dlamini of City Press interviewed her and wrote: ”Fassie did not seem to give a damn about her condition or what the world thinks of her. She openly sniffed a white powder resembling cocaine during our interview.”

The answer to why Fassie opened herself up to scrutiny may lie in the manner in which the media conditioned her to behave.

In that way, she may very well resemble a naughty circus animal and not a fine, upstanding ”pan-African griot”. Either way, her life was fraught with pain and the public revelled in her tragedy.

On May 13 the Gay and Lesbian Equality Project scheduled a memorial service at the Yeoville Recreation Centre.

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Matthew Krouse
Guest Author

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