Why a romantic outlier wanted to celebrate black queer love
I set out to capture it in all its beauty and strife, but I also wanted to believe love exists at all
A little under three months ago I set out to find and interview black queer couples for a YouTube series I’ve tentatively called by the same name.
Black Queer Love. It was so rare to me, that it almost felt as though I was embarking on an investigative mission to uncover black queer folk in this country, who happened to be in love with each other. It was not necessary that they cohabited, or that they were working professionals, or even that they were in monogamous relationships. I just wanted to meet them – as many as possible.
This month a year ago, I wrote on this same platform about Black Love, the docu-series by filmmakers Codie Elaine Oliver and Tommy Oliver, which seeks to answer the perpetual question: “What does it take to make a marriage work?”
I wrote then that “black love is, frankly, more attractive a prospect for me because I can love and potentially be loved unconditionally without having to explain myself or my struggles with identity”.
It took me a further nine months before I decided to put out a call on social media and ask around for referrals of couples who would be open to giving me a glimpse into their relationships.
I wanted to show what black queer love looks like – how it develops, how black queer couples manoeuvre and thrive cheek to cheek in spite of the horrors of hate crimes, of discrimination and misconceptions about queer lives. Clearly it is not for the fainthearted, and at times it appears far-fetched.
The positive stories in the mainstream media, particularly in SA, are few and usually patronising, sticking to frustrating themes. If gay men are not portrayed as superficial, they’re lustful and promiscuous and unfaithful. The images of young, healthy, and successful queer persons are seldom shown, but they don’t have to be suppressed – we can celebrate ourselves without having to wait for the opportunity to be allowed a seat at the table.
Increasingly, none of us want to be told how to behave any more – we won’t be told to suppress our love, and our queerness, and our tastes and beliefs. We want to speak our truth without having to tone anything down, without having to dilute our most earnest hopes and dreams and fears and opinions.
This show aims to give queer persons that platform. It wants to be honest, emotional, funny, cringeworthy, but also enlightening and inspiring to so many others. At the core of it all is love. By the end of the series it hopes to have helped mend some relationships, sparked others – and maybe helped those in unhealthy relationships to determine their worth.
I believed I was solely doing this for the community. I believed it was time that black queer love was shown in all its beauty, in all its strife, and even its normality.
As a novice in the film-making space I was grossly unaware of how frustrating things can get – people experience nervousness and opt out at the last minute, others are closeted and would only commit to a written feature where they could use pseudonyms, equipment disappears, and you have to accept that a schedule is just a guideline. I felt my frustration growing with each “wasted” day.
But I subsequently realised why I was so desperate that this project succeeded: I needed these couples to show me that love was still possible. I needed to believe, too, that we all have different ideas of what love is and what it looks like, and how it behaves, and how it fits into our daily lives.
It’s almost ridiculous to think that someone who would go out of their way to put together such a project, and dedicate the little funds available to travel and hiring equipment, should be dispassionate about romance. Yet, I was. Even after filming with, and in the homes of, the eight couples we met, and hearing their tough but wondrous stories of how they went about moulding their unions, I’ve struggled to shake off this foreboding around my love life.
In a selfish sense, this project was more than just about and for these couples and the queer community, but just as important for my own sanity.
Some of the patterns I noticed while filming with the queer couples:
• It’s rare to find a couple who fully agree about their first meeting, and the occurrences that led to it;
• Even though the premise of this series was to celebrate black queer love and find out how each couple “makes it work”, there isn’t a discernible blueprint on how to make it work;
• The church (and the bible) dominates most of the stories about how each queer person came out to their families. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, when one considers that the majority of South Africans are Christian (while the 2011 census didn’t feature religion, the 2001 census found that the overwhelming majority of South Africans, or 79.8%, are Christian);
• Just like in any joining of two families there will be pesky in-laws who do not approve, and therefore boycott the wedding. One of the couples talked about planning their upcoming wedding: “If we’re being honest numbers are determined by homophobia. We’re banking on homophobia, which is why our number [of guests] is tentatively set at 100. But if people are really supportive, it could go up to 200, and that’s a lot of people to accommodate.”;
• Abandonment by family has only served to strengthen some of the relationships. One of the couples told a story of how one of them was cut off by their parents while still a fulltime student, and how it took meeting each other and for their knight dedicating his hard-earned savings to get them over the line, so that they could graduate. “Perhaps it was after they saw his dedication to me and to us that they eventually welcomed him into the family. The first time he stayed over at my parents’, my mom even tried to serve him dinner on a tray.” It was an interesting tale about how families can finally come around. This was also a reminder that we can choose our families – that by choosing the right partner, we’re creating a family in them. We’re creating a home. A home where we sometimes don’t even need to teach them how to treat us, because they get it.