I found my Christianity in high school. At the peak of my faith, I attended youth groups every Friday, embarked on an annual church camp to Port Shepstone and scoured the Bible for quotes that I would then write in my school diary.
Delighted, my parents relished the fact that they no longer had to force me to attend church, often with my deeply Catholic paternal grandmother. Before I was willing, I found that the incense was too heavy and the constant stand up, sit down, on-your-knees routine interrupted my naps. I far preferred having heated conversations with my youth group friends about the lessons we had learnt from various weekly passages.
Like many, my varsity days saw me deeply conflicted in beliefs I thought I held. The parts of my sexuality that I hadn’t felt comfortable enough exploring in earlier years awoke within me. I found myself having painful internal tête-à-têtes.
Before long, I renounced my Christianity, as simply as slipping out of a jacket. We’d had a good run.
Years later, I read a simple sentence somewhere that had me thinking back to my days of faith: “Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.” He is the author of You Have to Be Gay to Know God.
I chuckled to myself as I did some research on one of the authors I was going to be in conversation with at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. This book is for me, I decided, before I’d even seen its cover.
Four words written just below his name drew me in before I reached the contents page: “Strong language, multiple triggers.” Words in which I sensed a succinct encapsulation of exactly what the memoir contained.
In his memoir, Khumalo took me on a journey so filled with insight that it left me with questions I found quite terrifying. I found myself wishing I had had this very book when I decided that Christianity was no longer for me. Not as a saving grace, but rather as a conscious effort to make more informed decisions for myself.
Khumalo’s prose strapped me in and took me along on his life journey, and I found myself in pain as he experienced homophobic violence throughout his life. I gushed, cringed and swooned as he navigated his crush on a person named Josh.
My heart dropped to my stomach as he wrote, almost self-punishingly, about how he experienced Christian anti-gayness taint the purity of his love of another named Daniel. I felt my emotions swell so greatly that they were an entity outside of me when his mother responded to his coming out: “A gay son? God must have taken a shining to me. Why else would I be so blessed?”
I sat with my legs tightly crossed as I breathed through his sexual experiences, through all his recollections.
Chapter by chapter, Khumalo delves deeply into how his lived experiences, peppered with the influence of his faith, got him to the point of sharing his words with the world. His articulation of the intersection between his sexuality and his religion — the basis of the memoir — reminded me of a conversation between Kimberle Crenshaw and Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane on local literary podcast The Cheeky Natives:
“[Intersectionality] is a tool to help make visible a set of dynamics that had been completely obscured by conventional law. It is a word picture,” Crenshaw emphasised.
“It’s not primarily about identity, it’s about how power could be used as a vehicle, as a consequence of vulnerabilities for these identities,” Mokgoroane responded.
I took this conversation with me as I read Khumalo’s words, struck by how he was able to speak on intersectionality with an ease that had me smiling as his storytelling evolved into an investigative discussion of just how the Good Word, along with politics in this country, shaped the way in which he’s able to interact with our society.
I was struck by a man who had every reason to renounce his religion, as many before him had, and countless more will continue to do. Instead, he continues to thrive and exist in his fullness.
From his experiences in the army to his participation in Mr Gay World, as well as his own relentless interrogations, Khumalo seems painfully aware of the importance of critical engagement.
“I had to fight the beast from within,” Khumalo says. “I can’t run from church into atheism. The fight is not done. I needed someone to tell me, ‘The church was wrong, God loves you just the way you are.’ ”
My reaction to hearing such a simple string of words surprised me. I found myself thinking back to a time when, before I had come across the words for my own sexuality, I was happy and content in praise and worship. It was a community that allowed me to question, and to feel.
I’ve since found a multitude of reasons to remain without a religion, outside of my sexuality, and I asked myself: Are Khumalo’s words not exactly what so many of us need to hear? That we are loved. Where we are. As we are.
“I couldn’t imagine a life without something as basic as holding another in my arms,” Khumalo writes.
“History dooms us to condemn the guiltless (and ourselves with them) when we don’t choose mercy over sacrifice. Homophobia in God’s name is horseshit. The blasphemer who condemns gays in the name of a God loves neither gays nor God. No one who hates his brother, whom he has seen, can claim to love God, whom he has not seen. For all we know, God could be lesbian.”
For all we know. Khumalo’s journey into uncertainty, and finally into himself, is a journey I hope many more are honoured to take.