Queer how much things have changed

Twenty years ago, I knew of only one gay person. Apart, of course, from rare characters on TV who caused me great unease and consternation whenever they appeared during family viewing.

They were always white, though – except that one time Sophie Ndaba’s husband lampooned an experience of the black AMAB (assigned male at birth) fem in the hair salon. But at the time I didn’t know things like that. I just knew of this one guy.

The Eastern Cape queer community was thin in numbers – or rather, thin in numbers of people living full, unhidden lives. I remember overhearing a conversation between my mother and a friend when I was in high school. They were talking about a mutual friend of theirs whom they knew to be gay, who had moved from Johannesburg back to her rural home somewhere in the Transkei.

“Yhuuu!” my mother’s friend exclaimed. “Uzotabaneka nabani ke apho?” (Who will she be gay with there?)

I don’t know if she knew how profound that question is. Having no one to tabaneka with is, I think, the loneliest experience.

A year later, in my first year at the University of Fort Hare, I came out to a friend, who was the first out lesbian I had ever met. There were two other gay guys on campus, she told me. But they were rarely seen because they were always in Port Elizabeth, where the social scene was more welcoming of queer bodies.

My friend didn’t appear to have this problem – but that’s maybe because she beat the dudes at basketball and they had mad respect for her or something.

Anyway, later she introduced me to that one guy I had known of. He was very popular in Mdantsane, where I grew up. He was Mr Ciskei at some point in the 1980s. He was possibly equally notorious for a number of reasons related to his sexuality. His house was like a French salon for those of us who ached to be among others like us, others who felt like us, people to tabaneka with.

We were a small clique of boys and men of varying ages and, as far as we knew, we were the only self-identifying gay men in town. We also knew all the lesbians. We spoke a local dialect of Gayle – the Cape gay slang – peppered with words borrowed from its Zulu equivalent, isiNgqumo. 

I never did become fluent in either – frankly, my isiNgqumo vocab is nonexistent. I only recognise it when it’s spoken in my presence. I know a bit of Gayle, just enough to know in which direction to “kala the vas beulah bag next to Alice”. (Translation: check the hot guy next to “Alice” – Alice is a placeholder and can be anything really, depending on the context.)

Over the years this small clique grew and splintered and eventually dissipated as we got older and moved on. I joined the nomadic economic migrant hordes and left for the big city, coming back for iBig Dayz like the rest of them, to find that I knew fewer and fewer of the queer people I was meeting.

Many of my friends from that period were felled by the HIV wave, which seems to have peaked in the early 2000s.

Today I watch with a little envy as my social media timeline floods with young people from East London and elsewhere in the Eastern Cape, expressing their queerness openly, fearlessly – expressing thoughts and desires that we only ever mentioned in the safety of the salon, hair or other­wise, or in Gayle when in mixed company. I feel a surge of pride every time a new video from Moshe (Ndiki) drops on the interwebs.

We have also come a mighty long way from when I knew the names of every out black gay man in East London, and we still have a long way to go. Killings of queer women and effeminate gay men in particular are still a fixture of our reality.

But, man, what a time it is to be alive. To live in a time when the mood is about decolonisation and everything in its way must fall is to live in a time when we begin to decolonise the many and varied queer experiences lived by millions of Africans as well.

Fumbatha May is a writer, data analyst and an internet troll who keeps falling off the wagon. He is based in East London. 

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