I have fond memories of my childhood. The majority of these are awakened by songs I listen to or by walking past the animal-like biscuits in the supermarket. I do not remember eating them a lot, but I do remember begging my mother to buy them. When you beg, you ask under duress or extenuating circumstances. You are in need and the act of asking is filled with the idea of anticipated relief. Now, this was not the case with the biscuits but there was something that I was begging for too.
I remember playing a game with some kids called poppehuisie. It’s very simple: you just role play a family. I think this was the first time I realised I was different. Just like on TV and in our own homes, we used to divide each other into families. The senior girls and boys would be the parents and the rest would be children. Sometimes we had weddings or school meetings, but most of the time we were just a family.
I was once cast as a father and I have never been more confused. A father goes with a mother, right? No, I did not want to be with a girl; I did not want to be a father at all. When I saw how easily my peers simulated their roles of mother and father I began to worry. Something felt different; I felt different.
My realisation of my queer identity has its roots in many uncomfortable and alienating spaces. When I did not feel out of place in the game of poppehuisie, then my real life never failed to remind me. I was raised in a conservative, Christian household and, after becoming aware of my gender and sexuality, I found myself spiralling further down the rabbit hole. Believing in the church meant that I knew how abominable homosexuality was. I knew I had to get rid of it, otherwise I would damn my soul to hell and my family would most certainly reject me. Luckily, there was a solution: at nine years old, I knew I had to go on my knees and pray that God would heal me.
At night I would pray and beg God to “stop me from liking boys”. I would then get into bed with my grandmother, who used to sing hymns to ease me into sleep. Silent prayer and silent struggle. No surprise that there was also silence after every prayer. I started to read more about homosexuality and soon I developed a consciousness and thought process of my own. How can I pray for healing when I am not sick?
Silently, I started accepting the truth. I now realised that much of my childhood was spent in self-imposed silence and fear. I had to protect myself from the church and my family. At 13 years old, I gave up on the idea that my soul needs saving because of my gender and sexuality. I am convinced that God is more worried about the famine, slavery, violence and environmental degradation that humans cause, right?
Simultaneously, I had to erect and police several boundaries between my family and me. The distance allowed me to have short breaths of air while remaining within the love and care of my family.
No child should have to feel like a disease. Neither should a child trade their humanity for safety and food from a family. We cannot push our children to contemplate suicide for fear of being “outed”.
When I write about this now, I pause, and it feels as if I am writing about a different era. A period in which gay people were violently killed or raped. A time when, in the worldiew of the church, gay people were likened to demons in need of holy fire. An era during which parents rejected their children and sent them to live on the streets. Then I look around me and see that it is still happening. It has not stopped. The constitutional protection of LGBTIQA+ people does not translate into social integration. Legally it matters that we are seen as equals, yet my story and that of many others shows no sign of the Lady Justice.
I am thankful that my family, at least those who matter, accepts me and chose to love me unconditionally. It took me 22 years before I had the courage to have a conversation about my gender and sexuality.
As a child I figured that after I had gained independence from my parents, it would be easier to live my truth. This was the case for me. Although the feeling of liberation fills my life, the childhood memories linger. An essential and beautiful time was filled with self-loathing, pain, unbelonging and alienation.
As a gay and gender-queer person I now have to tell the child in me that it is okay to let go. I can explore self-love and actively work towards sharing my love. I hope that you do not have to wait so long before you can live. It is still not easy navigating life when you are seen as an abomination, but there something powerful transpires when you acknowledge every part that makes you.
Brindley J Fortuin is a sociology masters student at the University of Cape Town