I was initially raised by a single mother and my maternal grandmother in Atlantis, about 55km from Cape Town. They worked in a factory and neither completed secondary education. I am the first in my family to have graduated from university and to have left the country to continue to study overseas.
When I turned 11, my mother remarried and he will always be known as my father; I love that man. My family became the family I saw on television. The nuclear family. Finally, no more thoughts like, “nobody picks me up from school”. Although my family life was hopeful, joyous and supportive, I want to write about my family in a different way.
How do you love your family so much yet all your life you have wanted to run away from them? How do you begin to explain to a seven-year-old that the fight-or-flight response should not be active when you are having a meal with the people you love the most? I wish I knew, because then I would build my time machine and go back.
Just as the universe orchestrated a meeting that would result in this conversation, it also took away the gift of childhood, which I believe is a beautiful and sacred time for any person. Instead of giving me the gift of childhood, it gave me the curse of childhood. A curse that ripples now in my young adult life.
I remember parts of my childhood fondly. I also remember playing poppehuisie (dolls’ house), a game where you emulate social life and what you see in your home. One day while we were constructing our society (a school, a factory and two houses) with cardboard and other junk we could find, the first blow hit.
As the older children in the group (I was seven at the time) we were sorting out who would be the parents and consequently the factory workers or the schoolteachers. I was cast as a schoolteacher because I had a culture of reading unrivalled by the other children. My mother created spaces of education in my daily life and thus I had a better mastery of language and general subjects.
One friend then asked who I wanted to choose as my wife, and I could not answer. I looked around and they looked back at me. I did not want a wife. I wanted a husband. Some part of me wanted to be the wife. Instead of choosing, I ran back home to pee. Of course, I could not run back home every time I had to choose a wife, but as I was running, it dawned on me that I was running from something more than just the game.
When I got home, I felt confusion and anger. Why could I not choose a wife? It is just a game. But it was never just a game. It was my first conscious encounter with gendered and sexual difference. After all, the game did emulate reality. In fact, the game was reality. Soon after this incident, the second blow hit.
I sat with the discomfort for a few weeks while I readied myself for a heart-to-heart with my mother. But whenever I tried to approach her, I would be overcome with fear and I would start having panic attacks. (Silly me, right?) She was my mother; she had always said that if I needed to talk, she would be there for me.
But the panic attacks were correct. For although I encountered my difference head-on during a game of poppehuisie, my spirit and ears and eyes had witnessed how my family disliked homosexuality. My ears picked up the revulsion that homosexuality presented to the people I loved most.
I then felt the same revulsion at my school. With the neighbours. I saw and smelled it everywhere. No, it was not the human excrement, cheap booze or smell of cigarettes that filled the sidewalk when I walked home from school or to the shop. It was their repulsion in response to my existence. Being called names, being shoved from boy to boy in the corridor while being faux smooched by unbrushed teeth and chapped lips, changing routes. All of this existed around me; that was my world, from the most intimate space to the most public.
Did I mention that I grew up in an uber-Christian household? My father is a pastor and my mother is religious in her own right and dutifully by his side. My parents really do love each other, and I am so glad that she found someone who could love all of her. I wish the same for me too. As a child I was loved unconditionally and with an even greater love than the love my parents shared. I was loved by God.
I grew up in the teaching that God loves me unconditionally. Of course, at seven I knew what unconditionally meant. When poppehuisie did not work out, books were my friends. My mother had stopped reading to me by then. I went on my knees, folded my hands and bowed my head. “God, please do not let me be gay,” I prayed. “I do not want to feel this way. I love you and I do not want to burn in hell for eternity. Really, I am sorry that I look at boys with these ideas. Please take this away from me.”
I would then get up and get into bed with my grandma. I shared her bed until I was 16 years old. She was the person I loved most in the world. I would also tell God that I would wake up the next morning and be cured. The next morning, I checked in with myself. Do I feel gay? No. God, it worked! I ate my cereal. Prayer really works! I picked up my bag with my completed homework. God is good!
I walked to school smiling. I turned the corner and I saw him, my crush, and then it all crumbled again. God, it did not work. I am still gay. I tried again. And again. And again. After all, God wants to see that you really want his help.
Perhaps I was not sincere enough. For months, I talked to a God that promised me unconditional love yet required me to dissolve myself. I did not know how else to exist. That is why I attempted suicide. My mother does not know this. Neither does God. I stopped asking him to take the “gayness” away. I stopped asking him to make my inclination for high-heels and ball gowns go away. In fact, I stopped asking Him for anything. I stopped begging for God and his priests to validate my existence. I was here and I was alone. In a family, but without one. With God forever near, but never present. I belong here, but I never belonged.
No child should have to choose between having food, love, and a roof over their head or being their full self. Yet, this is what many queer children do. I chose food and love and shelter, a choice that scarred me for life, but one I saw as the best at that time.
Flash forward to my decision to leave South Africa for the time being to get my master’s degree in Scotland. My research is primarily concerned with how displaced Africans in South Africa negotiate spaces and experiences of belonging. Before arriving, I was someone who had no choice but to slip into the fantasy world of books to live through the bullying, self-hate, pain, and fear.
On my third day in Edinburgh, I walked down the road, past old, towering buildings and twisting streets that gave me the illusion that I was in one of the Harry Potter books; except this time, they were not an illusion.
This is an edited version of an article that was first published by Africa is a Country