Queer Cry of Freedom

Mark Gevisser and Edwin Cameron, eds.,
Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa,
New York: Routledge, 1995.

Reading Defiant Desire: Gay and Lesbian Lives in South Africa brought back memories of very different (and privileged and safe) subversion and desire from my own teen-age years.

I remember going one day with my mother to the Dominion supermarket in my native suburban Winnipeg. I was about 14 or 15 years old. My hormones were racing and I knew that I was homosexual, that I wanted to kiss men, be close to them. But I had no idea of how to satisfy my desire. I didn't know any homosexuals and was terrified by any association with them. I didn't know what it meant to be "out" or what it would mean to me in just a few years. All I knew was that I wanted my own sex. I had extensively experimented with my best friend. I loved every minute of it, loved him passionately, felt hurt and confused by his ambiguity, discomfort and rejection of my affections as each love-making session finished. (He now - sputter - lives with his wife and child somewhere in Dallas). It wasn't enough for me, even then. I sensed that there were others like me, but where? As my mother compared prices down the aisle, I moved swiftly over to a magazine stand. I was keenly aware that suburban Winnipeg in the early 1970s did not hold many answers to my questions, but nonetheless took to regular, furtive reconnaissance through the supermarket's tame selection of home-maker and fashion magazines. I hoped to catch a glimpse of a naked man. A few years earlier, I had learnt to keep an eye on women's magazines after my sister brought home a feature article on a male Italian fashion model who bared his buttocks. I proceeded like a Soviet agent in a US embassy office: thorough, swift and intense. Oh, those secret thrills! I raced wide-eyed through the magazines, aware of an intense hard-on, fearing my mother's return.

As I glanced over one local magazine on this particular day, the word "homosexual" screamed back. I nonchalantly dove on the publication, turned the pages and found an article about Winnipeg's "homosexual problem". Wow! I was having a homosexual problem myself! In shocked tones, Prairie citizens were informed about the dozens of men who haunted the grounds of the provincial legislative building day and (especially) night. I stood dumbfounded. At last! And in the centre of the city? I didn't know it at the time, but my "find" (an early indication of my future academic research skills) would not only (directly) lead to sex and affection, but also (indirectly) to self-identity and community. All this (!) from a glance in a Dominion supermarket, muzak lulling my unsuspecting mother, the smell of hot dogs and oven-fresh baked goods wafting through the air.

Despite early traumas, anxiety and confusion, I today realize that I was fortunate. I am, after all, a white Canadian male who later went to graduate school and escaped to larger gay and lesbian communities in Toronto, Montreal and elsewhere. Not every fag, dyke or bisexual has access to these opportunities. However, I was often reminded of my early fears and excitement over my "secret" as I read the excellent collection of essays in Defiant Desire. One essay, "My childhood as an adult molester",1 defied anything I could have imagined in my old closeted days in Winnipeg. The South African environment is obviously infinitely more hostile than even suburban Winnipeg in the early 1970s, but it also provides surprising positive and negative measures of and analogies with North American queer life. Surprised and delighted, I discovered a queer ("moffie" - fag, "manvrou" - dyke, literally: "man-woman") community that is ready to dare and push for its own advancement and interests in South Africa's budding democratic culture. The South African scene is a striking contrast compared to Canada, where gays and lesbians turn out by the hundreds of thousands to celebrate Toronto's Pride Day, but all too often fall back into a polite and complacent tolerance of intolerance that puts far too little heat on the newly emboldened homophobes in our public life.

Gevisser and Cameron's edited collection covers a range of South African queer experience: historical overview, legal issues, drag balls, outlaw lesbians, saunas, township gay and lesbian life, butch/femme role-playing, top/bottom role-playing, military fairies, black gay activism, Winnie Mandela's homophobia, AIDS activism, gay literature, personal testimony and tribute, and lesbian organizing. The scope is broad and fascinating, a celebration of South Africa's rich queer diversity that literally left me laughing and crying, cringing and cheering. It is a stunning testimony to the South African gay, lesbian and bisexual will to live as they want to live, love as they want to love, contribute as they can to their brothers and sisters. The contributors and many others mentioned in the text engaged in their self-discovery despite a racist, fascist state that waged war on them while it tried to exterminate most of the population. Their defiance of a state gone mad exhibits a will to live/love/passion that has much to teach queers in the ecstasy-soaked raves of the West.

Since the mid-eighties, queer studies in North America has seen a panoply of discourses that view the body as a political site subject to censor and moralization. For lesbians, the struggle bravely strives to appropriate their own cultural, social, emotional and political space. No doubt but that this battle has a long way to go. However, the very fact that a chronically-ignored group in society is beginning to publicly define its issues is a new and significant development in the sexual wastelands of North America. A paradoxical measure of "success" is the very attention accorded the lesbophobic, ill-considered, and apparently well-paid ranting of Camille Paglia, Newt Gingrich's objective buddy. Gay male "discourse" on the body (if it can be called this at all) is quite different. Despite superficial improvement and uneasy ambiguity over the fact that they are, after all, "men" in a patriarchy, gay men in North America face daunting challenges within themselves (not only in the US Congress or Canadian House of Commons). Gay male attention to the body asserts a "masculinity with a difference" that has spawned an array of closet machos disputing who does the best drag, who has the biggest "tits" (pectorals), who does more drugs, who parties most, who consumes most, who fucks most.2 In this light, gay men haven't carved out much space for themselves as a unique group away from the glimmer of the dance hall disco ball. Gay-male writers such as Randy Conner, Arthur Evans and Mark Thompson3 have charted out a new "gay spirituality", but are still marginal to a highly commercialized mainstream gay-male culture that, burnt-out and numbed-out by AIDS/HIV, is somnabulantly plunging into drug-induced hedonism. Gay men need a spiritual response to the emotional burn-out fostered by the AIDS holocaust, homophobia, drug and alcohol abuse, rootlessness and domestic violence. They need nourishment to begin to come to grips with the emotions and energy necessary to sustain their identities and political battles against a determined and well-organized set of foes. Just as importantly, it would help them flourish as individuals who (yes, it's true Dorothy) eventually turn 30.

Although its tone is in many ways political and socio-cultural, Defiant Desire hits home at this spiritual-emotional level. A sexual minority that has survived in an unbelievably hostile setting, brazenly claims its rightful place within a triumphant liberation movement, stands up to left-wing homophobia and boldly moves into national politics through marches, organization and the constitution of the new South Africa. Remember, the new political masters in South Africa did not grant "moffie" rights from the goodness of their hearts. Heterosexuals in South Africa (as elsewhere, with a few welcome and admirable exceptions), are profoundly disinterested in gay and lesbian issues. Lesbians know that this is true due to their daily experience of a patriarchy that cuts them out because of their gender. In the old South Africa, the patriarchal dynamic was cruelly intensified and enforced across racial and sexual identities. The oppression had some perverse effects on the gay and lesbian community, such as the conservative white gay rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Hearteningly, what is emerging from the ruins of apartheid appears to be a gay and lesbian movement that lacks North American-style wealth and organization, but is politically astute and daring.

How might we understand this queer boomerang effect?

Theories of the social construction of homosexual identity provide at least part of the answer. In Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970, John D'Emilio pointed out that the social traumas of the Second World War stimulated homosexual communities insofar as relocation of civilians of both sexes to the burgeoning centres of defense industry typically involved a shift from rural and small-town residences to impersonal metropolitan areas. Young adults who in peacetime might have moved directly from their parents' home into one with their spouse experienced instead years of living away from kin and away from settings where easygoing intimacy with the opposite sex led to permanent ties. Families endured prolonged separations, divorce and desertion occurred more frequently, and the trend toward greater sexual permissiveness accelerated.4

The traumas inflicted by the apartheid regime, especially a process of accelerated dislocation epitomized by the Group Areas Act, seem to have had analogous impact on South African homosexuals. The analogy with North America should not be too strictly drawn. Rather it should be noted that the oppression of African, coloured and white gays and lesbians under apartheid appears to have shaped a contemporary queer community. In this context, homosexual community did not result from trauma, but rather found its social and cultural space when homophobic (and other) traditions were weakened by social trauma. The presence of homosexual minorities is only overtly manifest in given conditions. In this sense, the appearance of queer consciousness bears some resemblance to the development of working class consciousness in the nineteenth century: the latter emerged in adverse conditions to affirm what can be characterized as its essential humanity, an affirmation of its communitarian and individual impulses. Although the North American war economy in the 1940s was not directly similar to the enforced racial segregation in South Africa after 1948, the disruption of traditional family and community and enforced movements of peoples facilitated extra-sexual homosexual experience, generating a group solidarity that became more or less overt in the absence of heterosexist censure and authority. Segregated white lesbians formed sports associations. Segregated black male mine workers formed sexual communities. Segregated white gay men forged identities that (all too seldom, but sometimes) transcended dominant sexual and racial envelopes. Coloured drag queens lived and loved and outraged.

The highlights of this voyage through South African queer life are intellectual, sexual and personal. We learn of the contradictions of South Africa - where African liberation ideology mixes with Western sexual-personal activism. Before liberation, white gay males struggled for gay rights, but feared any association with the rising ANC. Black gay males looked to their white counterparts for support, only to find polite smiles, sexual innuendo and indifference. Township men and women were outraged by Winnie Mandela's "Homo sex is not black culture" stance and ANC homophobia in the 1980s. Later, postapartheid South Africa's constitutionally-entrenched guarantees for gays and lesbians set an example and challenge the West.

Theoretically, Defiant Desire is highly instructive insofar as it addresses the question of fixed identities in a context in which race and gender inequity has been patent. Fixing identities on persons and groups was central to apartheid. An attempt to transcend rigidly defined gender identities is also central to the contemporary Western queer rights movement. At issue is the toppling of patriarchal structures through which race, class and gender distort heterogeneous societies into pockets of fixed identity. This leaves us with a queer identity that can be posed in postmodern terms: white in one context, queer in another, working class in yet another, lesbian in still another, mother in another, and (why not?) citizen in still another. South African gay and lesbian experience not only warns against developing queer consciousness and movements in a vacuum (as white gay South African males did after the Forest Town raid in the sixties)5, but also cautions against throwing up new hierarchies (it does so through discussing crosses of race, gender and class, as in the examples of white gay South African draft dodgers and white lesbians who aided poor Township gays).6

Apartheid predictably turned on drag queens, who were persecuted under a (amazingly humourless) state law against "masquerading". Unsurprisingly, the law did not daunt these faux-valkyries of the "ideology-fuck". The essay "A Drag at Madame Costello's" reveals a marginal, semi-legal, hedonistic, media-hungry and subversive sub-culture that flourished in the South African fifties. Drag is always an in-yer-face and life-affirming model of gay life, striking when set against the dour hot-house queer party joy of the nineties West. The juxtaposition of drag elegance, of poised "otherness" with the "super-human" (but not quite human) bodies and dance endurance accentuated by ecstasy, "K", coke and poppers (just another form of gay camp?) shows just how humourless and disconnected we have become. The muscle queens of the nineties would do well to check out their fifties sisters from South Africa (turn down the volume and turn on a little more dream orientation, please). Other parallels are evident in South Africa's indigenous top-bottom role playing. "Skesanas" are "femme-bottoms" who become "switches" with other men. Today's bottom can indeed be tomorrow's top.

These queers' tales of suffering and subversion are deeply moving. Instead of far-right Christian ideological hooligans, contemporary South African gays and lesbians contend with infantile-leftist Winnie Mandela arrogating the role of national motherhood to her own person. Her "homo sex is not black culture" campaign also recalls the mind-set of North American fundamentalists: homosexuality is always seen as an external threat, foreign to our culture (can't we invoke Rousseau and force them to read John Boswell? Please?). Is the power of homosexual love so strong that it threatens all cultures? Doubt it. The South African twist adds the horror of apartheid, which made a link between anti-racist and anti-heterosexist stances imperative. All that I ask for as a reader is more of the same, complete with articles on hot lesbian sex, a comprehensive glossary for foreign-language readers and a history of pre-twentieth century European and African homosexuality.


1. See Zackie Achmat's brilliant My Childhood as an Adult Molester: A Salt River Moffie, pp. 325-341.

2. For a discussion of gay masculinity and gay body obsessiveness, see Mark Simpson's Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity, New York: Routledge, 1994 (especially: Big Tits, Narcissus Goes Shopping, Marky Mark and the Hunky Bunch, and Dragging It Up and Down).

3. See Randy P. Conner, Blossom of Bone: Reclaiming the Connections between Homoeroticism and the Sacred. San Francisco: Harper, 1993; Arthur Evans, The God of Ecstasy: Sex Roles and the Madness of Dionysus. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988; and, Mark Thompson (ed.), Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

4. John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 23.

5. See Gevisser's A different fight for freedom: A history of South African lesbian and gay organisation from the 1950s to l990s, especially pp. 30-31.

6. See Ivan Toms' Ivan Toms is a Fairy?: The South African Defence Force, the End Conscription Campaign, and me (pp. 258-263) and the deeply moving contribution by Anne Mayne, In memory of Rocky: An obituary (pp. 348-353).

Michael Dartnell is a lecturer at Concordia University. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Action Directe: Ultra Left Terrorism in France 1979-1987 (London: Frank Cass, 1995).