Staring out at the sea a short distance away, Wentzel van Neel says: “We have a desire to go to church because — and I don’t know if you’ve heard this before — but there is a saying that goes, ‘Moffies are the people who live closest to the Lord.’ This is because we live with so much fear.”
Van Neel and I are meeting at the Elands Bay hotel, a bleak, yet popular tourist spot in the West Coast town of the same name, located 220km to the north of Cape Town. The 35-year-old has lived all his life in this windswept fishing town’s predominantly coloured neighbourhood, a short walk away from the hotel.
Priding itself on being a God-fearing community, faith is a central part of the lives of the town’s 2 000 inhabitants. For Van Neel it is no different but as a gay man he has had to fight for his and other queer folk’s place in the Apostolic Church in which he was raised.
Being queer was tough
“Did me being gay affect my faith and presence in church? Yes, it did. People would saying things like, ‘You’re a faggot.’ People in our community, generally, as well as in our church. It made me feel really terrible, initially.”
For some of the church’s queer parishioners, the slurs escalated to physical altercations.
“I remember one of my girlfriends, Charmy*. She and Rita* were the only two transgender women who attended church services dressed as their gender. And there would be this one lady who would always stand up, go across to them and wipe the makeup off their faces. She would say, ‘You are men and you are not allowed to wear makeup.’ They would wear these big earrings and she would say, ‘Remove these earrings. You are not allowed to wear earrings.’ These are the kinds of things we struggled with to hear the Word.
“I left the church at that stage because our church mothers and church councils were extremely opposed to LGBT people in the church … But later I decided that I am gay, so I can’t let words get me down. I have to stand up and fight for who and what I am.”
It was then that Van Neel contacted Sharon Cox, Triangle Project’s health and support services manager, who, for about 10 years, has been meeting and helping the town’s queer community.
Cox says that Elands Bay is different from many other rural Western Cape towns in that no hate crime “in the typical sense” has occurred.
“In other words,” she says, “there was nobody that had been murdered, or had been stabbed. There was not that kind of hate crime. But there was a huge amount of religious intolerance.”
Cox adds that life in the small town was particularly difficult for its trans and gender-diverse people, who, “to fit in and to receive some form of being treated as human, would toe the line and try to conform. So they have that immense pressure in that community of, ‘Who you are, as yourself, is not acceptable and you need to conform. And only when you do that, then we will accept you.’ So it’s very difficult.”
In September 2020, at Van Neel’s request, Cox — who is an ordained minister — addressed the church’s congregants.
“I wore my collar,” says Cox, “because I know that in such spaces, a collar holds some kind of power, if you will. I think that it was important for there to be the presence of a person who is clergy standing in front of them, saying: ‘Here I am, this is me, this is us, and we are also people of faith. And we also belong. And just as you, the congregation, has been discriminated against by people like me in the past — and that was not acceptable — so too it is not acceptable to discriminate against us as people for being who we are.’”
What followed, says Cox, was a moment that “will forever stand out in my mind”. Having sat together throughout her sermon, the queer folk who attended that morning’s service stood up, moved in single file to the front of the church and sang.
Swaying from side to side, heads lifted and eyes closed, the group sang: “I don’t know why Jesus loves me/ I don’t know why he cares/ I don’t know why Jesus sacrificed his life/ Oh, but I’m glad, so glad he did.”
Says Cox: “There they were, standing in front of the church, dressed as they wanted to dress. I mean, they were wearing heels, hair and makeup. You know, nice and respectfully dressed, as they would be dressed if they were allowed to go to church in an affirming space. It was beautiful. Just beautiful to see them take up space like that. And to see that whole congregation just sitting up and listening. It was phenomenal. Just phenomenal.”
A short distance from Van Neel’s church is Asla Kamp, a neighbourhood densely populated with RDP houses and pondokkies. In one such house, Shana Mouton is readying herself for the weekly choir practice. A lifelong member of the town’s Uniting Reformed Church, 23-year-old Mouton has been a member of the church choir for the past “seven or eight” years.
“Being in this choir is very important to me because, in Elands Bay, there are no activities for young people. As a young person in Elands Bay, you have to drink to fit in. Rarely would you see a young person becoming a member of a choir.’
But, as a transgender woman, she has faced fierce pushback to her presence in the choir. Like Van Neel, she left — only to make a defiant return.
Ruben Afrikaaner is the chairperson of the nine-member choir. Afrikaaner laughs as he says that getting Mouton to toe the line is no easy task.
“Some of the previous choir members had a problem with Shana being a member. But with Shana it was always ‘in one ear, out the other’. And so, at some stage, we accepted that this is who Shana is.”
Drieka Nero, a fellow choir member, takes a more resigned approach. “There are many gay people here in Elands Bay … we just have to accept it. We can’t push them out of the church. We just have to accept it. Shana is Shana.”
For all her defiance, the soft-mannered Mouton has compromised somewhat with some of the choir’s rules about the dress codes for men and women.
“Whenever we perform as a choir and we have to dress up, sometimes I would dress in my women’s clothes … But with our latest uniform, I have a tight-fitting jeans — which is unisex — and flat-heeled shoes. But sometimes I’d wear high-heeled shoes.”
On a misty Sunday morning at Mouton’s church, hymns are being played through a tinny-sounding black speaker placed on a bright red plastic chair. Outside, a makeshift bell tolls, calling parishioners to the morning’s service.
“I’m late this morning,” Mouton says by way of apology as she hurriedly enters the church dressed in high-waisted pants, high-heeled boots and her lips covered in a glossy, deep-red lipstick.
“Thank you that we can gather here this morning without fear,” the preacher says in her opening prayer.
For Cox, Elands Bay’s queer community’s sucessful push for inclusion could potentially serve as an example for other rural queer communities to follow.
“What makes Elands Bay unique is, firstly, they’re a small group. But they’re a group with a very strong leader,” says Cox, referring to Van Neel.
“Look,” she adds, “there are some who have turned their backs on the church. But there are others who have said, ‘We’re not letting go. This is our space, too.’ And this is another lesson with this group: they are very disciplined. They take it seriously. Human rights are something they take seriously.”
Back at the Elands Bay hotel, Van Neel smiles as he says he is now “oor-gelukkig [more than happy]” to be back in his church.
It is close on 10 years since his initial decision to leave and, in the two or three years since stepping back into the fold, he has been asked to serve as an elder on the church council. It’s a position he accepted “as a foot in the door to protect my LGBT people who belong to the church”.
“Our church is one the stricter denominations, I would say, but it is now much easier for LGBT people to come to church. There is no longer that hate speech. Because they were actually slapping us with hate speech.
“But they no longer do that. Because we stood up and said, ‘No, no, no. This is unfair.’ And if something is unfair in the church, I have the fullest right to say so.
“We are now like one big family in this town. No matter if you are gay or lesbian or whatever. Everyone knows everyone. We understand each other’s troubles. And yeah … We tackle things together.”
* Not their real names.