Love blossoms in unlikely places. It blossomed in 1735 on Robben Island, between Class Blank, a Khoi cattle herder, and Rijkaarts Jacobs, a sailor from Amsterdam.
Two men imprisoned on Robben Island find love and are punished for it. The Dutch colonial court sentences Claas and Rijkaarts to death – by drowning in Tafel Bay.
Something about this love gets me in the gut. The romance of it – an interracial couple, a same-sex relationship, a beautiful love in 1735. But this is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about the foundation of the gay narrative in Africa – it is one we cannot separate from our inherited colonial law. These colonial laws policed sodomy, and our reactive response to that law created a gay activism which has prioritised men (it was imagined that sex could not occur without a penis) and made women invisibile. There are few written accounts of same-sex relationships between women from that that time; this doesn’t mean they didn’t occur. But colonialism and patriarchy make handsome bedfellows.
Queer visibility blossoms in unlikely places. It blossomed once in 1910. I see the picture – labelled Moffies at the Carnival, year: 1910 – at the District Six Museum in Cape Town. A coloured person in a knee length dress peers back at me, peers one hundred years into the future. The picture is black and white, but I imagine some bright colours. I don’t know anything about this queer face. I wonder about their life, I wonder about how safe they felt wearing a dress at that time.
Something about this picture makes me weep. The beauty of a person of colour, a gender non-conforming person, just standing confidently in 1910. But this is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about how the queer narrative is always in conflict with a colonial notion of gender. This regressive binary gender writes over indigenous and creole languages and practices, which do not conform to the limits of the he and the she. I wonder why we lost the word moffie to the homophobes. I guess language and invisibility make convenient bedfellows.
Queer resistance blossoms in unlikely places. It blossomed in 1989. Simon Nkoli planned the first gay pride march in South Africa. The march of several hundred people started from the Centre for Race Relations in Braamfontein and knitted, for the moment, the racial divides of the city centre of Johannesburg. The march channelled the spirit of anti-apartheid resistance; its starting point aimed to highlight that racial liberation is inseparable from freedom from violence based on sexual orientation. Lesbian activist Bev Ditsie said of that moment: “I am black and lesbian and a woman – and these identities are inseparable.” The march aimed to iterate that reality.
There is something so powerful about this moment. But, once more, this is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about an awful error – the error of attempting to legitimise the struggle for a queer liberation with the iterations of the nation state. We won many legal battles after 1989, culminating in the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2006. But how useful is a state-sanctioned marriage when the state turns a blind eye to the recurring murder and rapes of black, lesbian women, often from townships? I guess civil society and the state make strange bedfellows.
Love dies in unlikely places. Love died brutally this weekend in Naledi, Soweto. Lerato Tambai Moloi was raped and murdered on Saturday night as she walked home after a night out. The brutality of the violence was as heavy as our colonial and apartheid history. I imagine it felt like 300 years of pain. This moment represents the contradictory position the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. They have world class legal protections, but how useful are these in the face of the cruel apartheid geography we inhabit? I’ve heard those who are paid to legitimise the laws enjoy their heavy dinners, but I can assure you none of the poor, black, unemployed LGBTI people have been able to eat those laws.
There is an unfortunate opportunity in this moment – the opportunity for LGBTI organisations, academics and donors to come together to respond clearly to this human rights violation. But, again, this is not the story I want to tell. The story I want to tell is about how focusing on LGBTI means we do not respond to the base realities which make such violence possible.
Would this violence be possible if we dealt with the toxic patriarchy in South Africa -from the president to the ground? We cannot honour Lerato without talking about the violence of a colonial gender binary.
Would this violence be possible if we dealt with the repercussions of a dangerous racist geography?
Would this violence be possible if we dealt with the repercussions of inherited economic injustice in South Africa?
I wonder what our focus on LGBTI helps us avoid talking about? Maybe LGBTI and silence makes for unhappy bedfellows.
Love, visibility and resistance blossoms in unexpected places for queer people. We need to change the base circumstances that produce this violence if we are to create a world where hate crimes and violence is not possible. We need to respond to racism and the toxic masculinity and the economic injustice, which produces our violent realities. If we don’t change the circumstances, our responses are doomed.