Opening up, not giving up on being different
Why do we hate lesbians, gays, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex, queer people? Is it because of our irrational and unscientific heteronormativity? What do we find so threatening about their presence and being?
Is it because we think it is being ungodly, un-African, unnatural? I was confronted with these questions after meeting and talking to Smakaleng Mothapo, a 30-year-old, who identifies as a heterosexual transgender woman.
She shared her journey to discovering and accepting her sexual orientation and the hatred she's encountered and had to endure along the way.
"Sma was born in 1988, in the small tourism town of Bela Bela and has only gotten a chance to be alive and experience real life over the last four years.
"This because her chance to live and experience freedom was taken away the day her mother gave birth to a baby girl born with a male reproductive system," she says.
"At the age of five, she already knew that she was a girl and not a boy that society kept wanting her to be.
"She recalls being called a ngwanyana mosimane, which means "boy-girl", by her peers in primary school.
"Up to this day, she still experiences derogatory and discriminatory name calling."
This highlights just how early this hatred starts as it is passed on to our children through careless and hateful depictions of gays and lesbians in our family conversations.
This, in a way, normalises hatred and discrimination as a way of life. You've probably heard or even participated in sexist, homophobic jokes shared over meals at family gatherings.
What is striking is that we wouldn't have seen anything wrong with this because that is how we were also raised, thereby making hatred a part of our grooming and our being.
So essentially we hate, because that is what we are taught to do and, consequently, what we pass on.
To paraphrase our former president Nelson Mandela, who observed that no one is born with hatred but it is something we are taught and learn and, therefore, something we can also unlearn.
"At the age of 13, Sma stopped playing with girls and conducting herself in effeminate ways and adopted masculine traits so that 'he' can be accepted by society," she recalls, while strangely continuing with her 3rd person self-references, which I found sad as it disrobed her of her agency and her freedom of being.
Our hatred has not only alienated her from society but also from her authentic self.
This is the lived reality of millions of LGBTIQ community members, who continue to suffer the indignity of having to accommodate our bigotry. Can we afford to look the other way and pretend to be a normal society when we treat those different to us with such disdain?
Sma has been fortunate to enjoy strong and unconditional support from her family and significant others. Her parents have been a solid source of support even in her darkest hours, but she is a very rare exception more than the norm.
Sma's experiences led me to reflect on the poignant and profound words of German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller.
"First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - Because I was not a trade unionist, he said.
"Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out - Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me."
Could it be that our hatred for LGBTIQ people is a form of self-destructive self-hatred? What if in destroying them, we are essentially destroying ourselves? Destroying what could be the next big invention or even the creator of a job opportunity, thereby destroying our own future and that of our children.
"Sma serves as a senior social worker for the refugee and asylum seeker programme at Tshwane Leadership Foundation and has founded M Court, a township tourism enterprise in Bela Bela."
So, the next time you are ready to ridicule and spew derogatory and demeaning vitriol, remember you could be destroying the future of this country. Sma, thank you for opening up and for never giving up. You are an embodiment of what it means to be South African, possessing the ability to rise above harsh and violent conditions, to start initiatives from which even your persecutors will benefit.
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