face particularly difficult circumstances in
tne. In spite of the language barrier, I learned a lot from him.
He said he had always known he was gay, and told his mother
''vhen he was twelve. I asked him if it was difficult being gay in
Khayelitsha, and he said it was at times, that “people don’t un
derstand what gay stands for.” He told me he wanted to be an
actor and wanted to play gay roles—perhaps to help people un
derstand what gay means. He avoided talking about how people
Had harassed him, but said, “if someone tells me something, I tell
them this is my life, and no one can tell me how to be.” His first
kiss was at thirteen (he is now nineteen). About love, he said.
If you are in love with someone, you have to stand in love only.
Ho one can tell you what you have to do.” He told me that at
Home he wore women’s clothing (which I later learned is com-
tnon for gay men in South Africa), and that his radio slot on the
local radio station. Radio Zibonele, is popular because he is “gay
and open about it”. When we got on the subject of LGBTIQ
identities in America, Athini laughed and said, “Thabo Mbeki
[South Africa’s president] is going to tell Bush!” South Africa be
came the fifth country to legalize gay marriage a few weeks later.
While my assumption about Athini proved correct, a
custom among Khayelitsha women of kissing close friends on
the lips confused me. I assumed many women were lesbian when
they weren’t. Still, many of the women I met at TAG were lesbi
an, and out with style. Although women, and especially lesbians.
Khayelitsha, women are also a rising force
to be reckoned with. Flipping through,
“Equal Treatment,” TAC’s newsletter, the
vast majority of articles are by or about
women. Many of the leaders are women.
As I was told in an interview for my research
project on gender-based violence, women
are becoming empowered much faster than
men are and are dealing with their prob
lems more productively. Support networks
for women are large and powerful, and it
is clear that circumstances are improving
for women, though always with setbacks.
As I mentioned earlier, it is common
for gay or other queer-identifying men to
dress in women’s clothing. I came across
this twice while traveling in Khayelitsha.
The first time I was riding on a minibus
to another part of town. Two passengers
appeared to be men in drag, although one
displayed a huge box of tampons. When
they got off, a woman whispered some
thing about them and chuckled, and the driver said something
too, but I didn’t understand, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. The
second time, I was walking through a neighborhood where one
of my co-workers lived, and a guy in women’s clothing passed
me and said, “Hi, umlungu [whitey],” which seemed to be half
intended to seduce and half to intimidate. Both of these in
stances struck me as acts of bravery or recklessness on the part
of the men, although they could probably have said the same
about a white foreigner walking the streets of Khayelitsha.
My experience with LAMBDA and my commitment to
being a good ally thoroughly improved my experience in Khay
elitsha. Over the past three years, I have become much better at
tuned to LGBTIQ issues, thanks to many of you who are reading
this now. I wanted to make my time in South Africa a complete
cultural immersion experience, and I would have missed out if
I hadn’t thought to look at how queer-identities shape peoples
lives and relationships. In spite of the crime, violence, poverty
and unemployment, I was frequently amazed at the acceptance
people showed each other, only twelve years after the fall of one
of the most intolerant governments in recent history. Overall, I
am filled with optimism for LGBTIQ-identifying people and for
society as a whole. As former president Nelson Mandela said, it’s
a “long walk to freedom.” With the help of allies, at least in the
case of LGBTIQ-rights, the last leg of the journey will be a sprint.