Sitabane. Faggot. Lesbo. Butch. Fem. Dyke. Mathanyula. A litany of words that are used to describe “the other”. The list is endless and the terms are offensive. Society has taught us to use them when referring to people who do not fit into the heteronormative and patriarchal framework of how we should be in the world.
These labels attributed to people in the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex (LGTBI) community further marginalise them, and activists across the globe keep trying to shift these experiences and life stories from the margins so that they can live lives free of discrimination. How do we make human rights meaningful for all people?
The book Proudly Malawian, compiled and edited by Makhosazana (Khosi) Xaba and Crystal Biruk, is another attempt to stamp out the stigma attached to LGBTI people. It was launched in Newtown last month and features a selection of life stories from this community. The quotes that follow are from this collection.
“Homosexuality is not a Western thing. It is normal.”
The first time I saw a lesbian couple on television was on the South African drama series Society. Beth and her artist girlfriend were a loving couple with the usual tensions everyone experiences in any relationship. The soapie Generations has also had a storyline concerning a gay couple with a baby and has now introduced a cross-dressing character.
These may seem like a bold move on the part of the actors, producers and writers, but the fact that I can recount only two instances tells me that more needs to be done. Telling stories, African stories, that show what the full spectrum of what love looks like, is political.
“I am not out to all my friends because Malawian culture is not friendly towards lesbians.”
Queer Africa. Queer Malawi: Untold Stories. Proudly Malawian. Journeys of Faith. A list of titles that have emerged as part of a body of literature and art, offering stories by LGBTI people across the continent.
I recently sat down for a chat with South African poet-activist Makhosazana Khosi Xaba, who edited Queer Africa with Karen Martin and, more recently, Proudly Malawian.
She also curated the exhibition Journeys of Faith (in partnership with Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action), which is on at Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum until mid-June. It reveals some of the experiences individuals in the LGBTI community have had with religion and spirituality, as well as religious institutions and activists.
“I am a Muslim and I go to mosque, but not every week. I am not comfortable at the mosque because the sheikh says bad things about lesbians.”
Xaba is mostly known for her poetry anthologies – Tongues of their Mothers, These Hands – and short stories, Running and Other Stories, which was named joint winner of the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award at the 2014 South African Literary Awards. It is her belief in the power of the pen that led her to explore the experiences of LGBTI people.
Reading stories written by and about lesbian and gay writers, she believes, “allows people to enter into a space they may not be familiar with because reading happens in a nonthreatening way”, usually in private spaces accompanied by a level of enjoyment.
She adds that “talking about LGBTI lives outside of research, policy, protest [and] court cases, [and] using genres people are familiar with [so] they don’t feel spoken to”, is important.
“I don’t like sitting around homophobic straight people because the only stories they tell are very critical of homosexuals.”
Writing about LGBTI people can be a fraught space because of the complexity of how to position the stories, but for Xaba, her work is about activism and penning stories in a way that confirms the humanity of their subjects.
She says more work needs to be done in this regard: “I don’t think it will ever be enough, whether we are talking about LGBTI people or women, or any group of people that are marginalised and discriminated against based on any ideology.
“In my wildest dreams I imagine it could be enough, but it’s not enough right now. Maybe it won’t be enough by the time I die. Because the power of these ideologies is also to work very well at erasure. There are many levels and ways where stories about people who are discriminated against are marginalised, erased, mistold and untold continuously.”
“I describe myself as a man because that’s how I feel. When I put on female clothes I feel uncomfortable, but when I put on male clothes I feel so comfortable.”
Proudly Malawian was born out of Queer Malawi, which focused more on the accounts of male homosexuals. On a continent where women – and especially lesbian women – are particularly vulnerable (with several even being murdered), this omission seems bizarre.
Xaba likened this trend of “not finding enough lesbians” to white people supposedly not being able to find enough black people for projects that need black voices.
“The other reason I came out was because a lot of institutions don’t think that lesbians exist.”
The Journeys of Faith exhibition reveals similar patterns to those in Proudly Malawian. A dominant thread running through the accounts of gender-nonconforming individuals is the pain that is often inflicted by loved ones. Furthermore, the dogma that pervades religious institutions is frequently one of exclusion rather than love.
Each participant whose story is told in the exhibition left me with many questions about the role of religion and where the philosophy of love begins and ends.
The exhibition also reveals how LGBTI people seldom have a neat journey with their religion. Their commitment to their spirituality means they move in and out of the church, feeling lost without their faith yet knowing that their sexual identity is part of who they are.
“God created me this way. I was born this way.”
I wasn’t surprised when Xaba told me about her involvement in these projects. Ngumntu, as my mother often says about people you encounter who make you feel like you’ve met them before. There’s something about her presence that is open and I like to imagine that the space she created for Malawian participants made them feel comfortable enough to share their life stories and personal experiences.
She is among those who seek to give voice to stories that may be discarded and dismissed in a conservative and homophobic society. Writing about queer lives in a time of discrimination and corrective rape is a political and, for an activist like Xaba, it’s another leg to the journey she’s travelled in telling stories that need to be told.
Athambile Masola is a Johannesburg teacher who is interested in education, feminism and (sometimes) a bit of politics.