BOOK EXTRACT: ‘You have to be gay to know God’
Being LGBTQI+ in South Africa today
Siya Khumalo grew up in a Durban township where one sermon could whip up a lynch mob against those considered different. Drawing on personal experience Khumalo explores being LGBTQI+ in South Africa today. He exposes the interrelatedness of religion, politics and sex as the expectations of African cultures mingle with greed and colonial religion.PROLOGUE
Confession of Faith
At about 5.20pm on 31 December 2012, a colleague picked up a steak knife from a cutlery tray. He yelled, “Angi-gay, mina!”— I’m not gay! — and came at me with it.
I froze, the takeaway package rustling in my trembling hands. The kitchen staff erupted like a banshee choir into shrieks that he not hurt me. The bar-lady burst through the two-leaf swing doors to see why our chit-chat had turned to yelling. She saw; the colour drained from her face.
A sound I thought was him moving made me jump — it was the chopsticks my elbow had knocked off the counter, bouncing like drumsticks on the floor. I jumped again when I realised that jump could have startled him into stabbing me. My knees wobbled. I had the presence of mind not to reach for the counter for support. “I’m not gay! Don’t you ever think I’m gay. Do you hear me?” he was yelling.
My eyes searched the room’s woks, its fridges and its crackling bug-zappers for something I could grab. Nothing. “Yes,” I said, swallowing the hot gravel in my throat. “You’re not gay.”He calmed down enough for the others to take the knife from him and pull him away.
We were waiters at a restaurant north of the Durban CBD. No customers had arrived because it was early in the shift. The takeaway order had come through over the mushroom-coloured telephone at the end of the bar. When the meal’s owner picked it up in person, nobody gave away that something had happened while we were wrapping it up. He was cheerfully wished a “Happy New Year!” and sent off into the rainy night.
The colleague had arrived late and inebriated (a dismissable offence) as I finished wiping chairs in the dining section. But he’d worked well drunk before. “It’s too late to call one of the others to fill in,” the manager had sighed wearily. “I’ll take this up with him after the shift. I must put an end to it.”
Seconds before, we’d been yakking in the kitchen. When I try to recall what we were joking around about, my mind goes numb. I do know those jokes weren’t malicious, about him or even gay-themed. Then wham! At knifepoint, I was reciting a creedal confession of his heterosexuality.Afterwards, the manager spoke with me as I swept some dust up onto the scoop. “We can report this to the police,” he said. “We can have him sent home. Whatever you feel is necessary. It’s your call.”
I thought of suggesting he tell the police captain who lunched at our restaurant about the incident. Beyond that, I didn’t want to open it up to strangers. I could imagine my colleague out on bail, drunk and angry again. I could hear some disdainful police officer dog-whistle say to him, You idiot, when you threaten to stab a moffie you do them a favour bigger than offering them your cock to suck on — you give them something to run here and whine about. Don’t threaten; just do. You pay the right money, case dockets get lost. But people you threaten? Not so much.
I couldn’t tell which decision would be better. “I’m okay with whatever,” I replied, feeling like a lost child who’d peed himself and didn’t want strangers to know.
He peered into my eyes. “Are you sure?”“Yeah,” I lied, smiling light-heartedly, turning to pour the sweepings into the bin next to the bar. I think I even threw in a joke for effect: “We needed some New Year’s excitement around here.”
He left me to my work and silently gestured to the bar-lady to mix him a strong drink. “Everyone knows that you’re just you,” he added. “You have your sense of humour but you never mean anything by it.”
Those well-intentioned words sent me going over every interaction I’d had with the colleague up until that night, starting from when I was a newbie and he was giving me shit. I physically lifted him up and put him some distance away from where I was so I could finish my work. Our colleagues had laughed themselves into a stupor. Though my rational mind said it wasn’t my problem, another part of me needed to know whether I’d done something to provoke him. I believed in the unspoken promise that if I “behaved” and passed for straight, the world owed it to me not to treat me the way it ordinarily treated “other gay guys”. That incident left me feeling betrayed and feeling guilty for feeling betrayed.
I had my first crush on a boy was when I was 12. His face was a geometric flower of sharp jawlines and smouldering eyes that twinkled when he smiled. He was classically handsome, a young Indian version of the Welsh actor, Luke Evans. When I saw him, I froze like a deer before the headlights of his outrageous beauty. I needed for him to know he had lit up that part of me. But how could I tell him without freaking him out? I was in a limbo of perpetual yearning.
One high holy lunch break, I was looking at pigeons on one of the school buildings when I felt a pair of hands, his, grab and lift me up. “I wanted to feel whether you’re as light as you look,” he explained, laughing. “You have lost weight!” My head certainly felt lighter.
This is an extract from You Have to be Gay to Know God by Siya Khumalo, Kwela Books, R255.