Growing Up Gay In South Africa

Whilst sitting back and enjoying a cup of tea on a cool winter’s day in Johannesburg, my mind wandered as to what my first article for Vada would be. Then it struck me, what is it like to be a gay male in South Africa?  What was different about growing up gay in South Africa? With the nation nearly reaching its 20th year as a democratic nation, after the fall of Apartheid in 1994, there are a number of factors that make South Africa a gay friendly nation; namely:  all rights towards homosexuals are protected under the constitution of 1996, along with the law to allow for gay marriage as of 2005. The balance between these legal rights and the social reality of growing up sexually different, deeply influences gay life in South Africa, and has helped mould my own.

By the age of 14, my life as I know it began to change rapidly. I had just started high school and was surrounded by a group of people who had epitomised masculine ideals of the South African society. Being a nation where sport is an integral part of the culture, there is a certain belief that is instilled by parents to their children that you should take part in sports such as rugby, football and cricket to be noticed. I took part in none of these, allowed me to become alienated from the masculine ideal, based on the thought that I was not “manly” enough to be a part of their society that they expected from me.

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Little did they know, that I was indeed gay, something you could say I was almost 100% sure of when I had started high school. This was supplanted further by my attraction purely to men from such a young age.  This led to bullying, as I was different from the Springbok dream. This continued throughout high school, so much so that by the time I graduated, I was relieved to be leaving that bad history behind. Yet, it led me to seek answers. Why is the bullying of gay kids so prevalent in high schools? The simple answer, as always, is ignorance, a lack of education about homosexuality in high schools. Most education based on life experiences was that of sexual health in order to curb the HIV/AIDS epidemic and religion.

However, most of the education drives have proven to be unsuccessful, on the grounds that this form of education did address the constructs of the societal problems at large, but did not underline the values that could have been learnt at a young age at home. Therefore, I believe that if there was education about homosexuality, it would foster a level of tolerance and understanding of what homosexual kids go through, and a light at the end of the tunnel for confused and isolated LGBT youth. In the process of educating young children, it must be instated that homophobia has no place in a democratic society, as equally unacceptable and objectionable as sexism and racism.

As I entered the adult world, there was a feeling below the surface that I would suffer further at the throngs of intolerance, but I was mistaken. I learned that society as a whole in South Africa is generally a lot more accepting to homosexuality in ways that one would not even begin to imagine. Yet, amongst gays themselves, especially in the Johannesburg gay community that I have grown accustomed to, I was soon assimilated into stereotypical gay culture. This normally manifests itself in a number of characteristics, such as: love for partying, doing drugs, having lots of sex, etc.  If you did not assimilate to these ideals for the better good of the community, you would be shunned. This alone had helped me to grow as an individual and better shape my understanding of what I need in life, in order to make it a lot more fulfilling.

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Coming out is an integral part of being gay, as much as we would like to avoid it, or not. Coming out in South Africa symbolises a greater strength and pride in what one is, and how it is not one’s choice to change, than elsewhere due to the residual risk of alienation. Coming out, especially within the Black, Indian and Muslim communities, poses a danger of not being accepted, as well as potentially being outcast for your sexuality. The same could be said of myself – being of Greek stock – the expectations of sexuality and levels of acceptance are a lot more conservative than you would like to think in the 21st century. When coming out to my mum, she was struck by a look of disbelief, yet ultimately supported me. My dad, however, was supportive from the get go. This had shocked me, as I was preparing myself for rejection, which led me to believe that SA is a society that is a lot more accepting of these issues due to our given history on unjust inequality of Apartheid, along with our Progressive Constitution, and finally the responsibility on the part of South Africans to uphold the democratic values as a beacon of democracy in Africa.

So all-in-all, not all gay men experience the same treatment, whether it be from the US, UK or SA, but rather there are a number of factors that determine how your attitude and acceptance comes about. The South African experience, however, takes away the spotlight from the UK and US, and gives a better understanding to a different view, a different perspective that we may have on the individual’s reality, with the raw inequality of Apartheid directly influencing acceptance today.

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Due to the unjust nature that the Apartheid regime had posed on the South African blacks, the duty of the new democratic regime was the protection of rights for all, so that no one may be unfairly treated. This in essence, provides a positive attitude towards homosexuals in South Africa, as South Africa can be regarded as a major advocator for LGBT rights in the world. Yet, it lacks in a few areas where it fails to educate the masses, during the important years of school life, as to the importance of tolerance and understanding. Furthermore, stereotypes that are created by the gay community by itself can be eliminated if the gay community pushes for the awareness of responsibility, and acts as a role model for future generations of LGBT people in South Africa.

The Rainbow Nation shines on.