/ 14 December 2016

The holidays: A queer time of year

Children call the US Air Force base asking where fAther Christmas is and when he will deliver presents to their house
Children call the US Air Force base asking where fAther Christmas is and when he will deliver presents to their house

“Are you a moffie? Do you sell your ass to men? Where does your money come from?”

This was Dean Williams’s Christmas greeting when he returned to his family home in Bontheuwel on the Cape Flats, after months of living abroad.

“I’d returned with Christmas gifts for everyone but my father would not allow me past the garden gate. He was screaming, ‘You are not my son; I never made such a creature … You are the scum of the earth’. The verbal abuse eventually became physical, with my family just standing there, watching.”

For many, the holiday season is a time of family, festivities and feasting. But it can also be fraught with anxiety, particularly for queer folk like Williams.

Clinical psychologist Itumeleng Mamabolo puts it this way: “Going home for the festive season is an issue in general for a lot of people because family dynamics can be complicated. But for a lot of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual [or] transgender (LGBT), it can be even more of a challenge.”

Bradley Hendricks* has his own war story, albeit one that doesn’t involve physical violence.

He left Port Elizabeth for Johannesburg to pursue a career in television. “Going back home to Port Elizabeth, after being gone for a few months and having found my feet in the big city, Johannesburg, was seriously scary because so much had changed. In that short time in the big city I became more comfortable with myself.

“I allowed myself to become exactly who I always knew I was. I started surrounding myself with like-minded people and stopped suppressing my ‘gayness’ because I was surrounded by people who expected you to be nothing but yourself.”

This made his first home-for-the-holidays visit – with new boyfriend in tow – an experience the television presenter would rather forget.

“Going back home for the first time was terrifying. I went back with someone I had met … someone I told the family was a ‘friend’. Of course, everyone in my family made sure to tell anyone they knew that he was one of my ‘friends’ from Johannesburg.”

The joint family effort to pull wool over any prying eyes failed when “we were caught kissing each other”, which, he laughs about in hindsight, “did not go down well at all”.

“They didn’t hesitate to let me know what they thought of ‘the gay lifestyle’ and spoke of the moffie hairdressers in the area who, they said, were all sick. On Christmas day we were completely ignored. It was horrible – something I will never forget.”

Mamabolo says that spending time with more conservative family members can be difficult for LGBTI people if they have not told them about their sexual orientation and gender expression. Their families struggle to accept them and queer people anticipate ongoing questioning of their identity.

Hendriks, who makes it clear that he will not be spending this holiday season with his family, says: “I think we as queer people are freaked out by what the family will say next. It’s the ones we love the most who hurt us the most with what they say. I think we are also freaked out by once again having to become someone we are not.

“Even if it’s only for a short time, the idea of pretending and constantly forgiving family and friends who don’t understand your lifestyle and choices is what freaks me out the most. It’s as if the anxiety builds up inside of you and you are once again a small little boy from that small city who needs to just ‘stay in your lane’ and pray nothing hectic will go down.”

Mamabolo says the distress is caused because their identity is being called into question: “Sexuality and gender expression revolves around one’s identity.”

Lesiba Mothibe is a transgender woman who lives in Daveyton, Gauteng. Mothibe realises her fortunate position when she says her family accepted her for who she is even before she accepted herself. For this reason going home to the village in Polokwane where her mother lives is “a time of reflection and reconnecting with family”.

Her luck in this regard does not, however, preclude her from the realisation that “there are so many LGBT people – people I know – who were disowned because of who they are, so are not able to go home to their families. You can really see how it devastates them.”

Despite living abroad for several years now, Eric Majola makes his way to South Africa to spend time with his family in KwaZulu-Natal as often as possible.

“It’s great but it can be daunting because you just never know when the big pink elephant will make itself at home in the middle of the room,” says Majola. “But I know that, whatever is said, I can somehow try and control the direction the conversation goes in.”

It’s a tactic Mamabolo recommends. “If the conversation around sexual orientation or gender expression or religion comes up, a possible way to deal with it is to say, ‘I am happy to talk about this some other time but can we, for now, enjoy the time we have together?’”

Enjoying the time spent together is what Tamlynne Thompson’s family insists on doing – no matter how uncomfortable it may get. “Even though my family might not have been accepting initially, Christmastime has always been a time of acceptance, a time where you wouldn’t turn anybody away – when everybody is welcome.

“The rest of the holiday season might be different,” she laughs, “but on that day we set aside our differences.”

It’s what Williams and his family have decided to do, following the incident with his father years ago.

“My siblings asked me to join them for Christmas this year,” he smiles. “When they asked me, I swear my heart skipped many beats. I couldn’t believe it. It was honestly the best gift ever. I’m running around making sure I got my ‘look’ just right, and calling them to organise who is cooking what.”

Williams adds: “I do wish my dad could see me now, could be with us now. But I’ll keep a seat for him at the table. I might even dish up a meal for him.”

* Names have been changed to protect their identity

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation