By Gcobani Qambela
In the past years we have been reading with horror reports of not only extreme homophobia but also often the violent attacks that are levelled against homosexuals in Africa. From reading about men being named and shamed in public newspapers in Uganda, to the horrific “corrective rapes” of lesbians in our very own South Africa, it is not an understatement to say that Africa does not present an accommodating space to be openly homosexual.
A week or so ago I came across a DRUM magazine cover with headline in bold “REVEALED: CASTER IS ENGAGED!” Since a friend of mine in the United States asked me to update her on what’s happening with Caster Semenya as she was seeing ignorant and homophobic updates about Caster on her social media and didn’t understand the root of these. With reservation, I bought the magazine.
The issue, with Caster on the cover, begins by noting that when approached for comments, she told them that “My private life has nothing to do with you” but the magazine would not leave it there; the writer boldly proclaims that of course “DRUM went searching for answers [elsewhere]”.
They note the rumours circulating that she is pregnant are “unlikely” as the magazine can confirm that the 22-year-old is “madly in love” with 27-year-old Violet Ledile Raseboya, another woman. One of the “no fewer than four” sources tells DRUM that “Caster is not dating a Bafana Bafana player nor is she pregnant – that would be ridiculous. She’s with Violet and they’re lesbians” the source tells DRUM [my emphasis].
I am not interested in whether the rumours about Caster are true or whether she is/not a lesbian (for quite frankly it’s none of my business), my interest here is showing the ways in which the story was covered by DRUM magazine subtly signified not only an attachment to homophobia in line with many African countries that publicly out and shame homosexuals but also an attachment to racist sexist thinking about black women and love.
From the cover and captions like “They wear matching clothes” and “They drive matching cars” one would believe that DRUM magazine is telling a love story between two black women but upon a closer read it is clear that there are larger problematic projects at place: the first being to publicly out Caster for being a lesbian (although she has never herself expressly self-identified as a lesbian), and secondly to delegitimise friendship, love and admiration between two black women as invalid because they are allegedly homosexual.
In her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics bell hooks reminds us that “Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture makes one unaware, renders one powerless and out of control”. She further elaborates that romantic love “within patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect”. [My emphasis] At the soul of this relationship therefore is domination, but hooks correctly notes that “Love can never take root in a relationship based on domination and coercion.”
Homosexual relationships, whether they are between males or females interrupt this pattern of relations in patriarchal relationships for they present a new site for contestation where individuals of the same sex can challenge the patriarchal arrangement by daring to love each other. Hooks contends that the degree to which one can measure if lesbian partnerships are good or better than heterosexual bonds is “usually determined not by both parties being of the same sex but by the extent of their commitment to breaking with notions of romance and partnership informed by a culture of domination’s sadomasochist assumption that in every relationship there is a dominant and a submissive party”.
The magazine notes “Caster and Violet share a long friendship. Back in 2009 when DRUM did a makeover cover shoot with the star after the World Championships, Violet was there to “support” her [my emphasis]. Caster at this magazine shoot introduced Violet as a “friend”. Violet further expanded that Caster was “a role model. She inspires all of us because she accepts herself. We all admire her”; and when asked on her personal Facebook page (cited by DRUM) whether she and Caster are dating or not, she responded no but that ‘ra ratana’ (‘we love each other’).
DRUM’s story about Caster and its subsequent revelations about Caster reveal a magazine determined to out Caster to the world as lesbian than to tell a story of love and celebration. According to DRUM common occurrences in most young people’s lives like Violet having lots of pictures of her and Caster on her Facebook page and speaking at her 21st birthday party are clear signs of “a couple that is not afraid to express closeness”.
While the magazine concludes that “at the time of going to print, Caster would not comment on their relationship. She ended any hope of shedding more light on the matter when she said “are you interested in my life or my athletics? We’re not doing interviews at the moment”. Reading the article it becomes clear to me that regardless of whatever comment Caster would have offered to the magazine, the main focus was to expose her out into the open for her sexuality.
This is incredibly disturbing to me, especially for a magazine that reaches into the heart of South Africans. The story merely perpetuates the othering of Caster Semenya based on her gender and continues to scandalise homosexuality. We all know Caster’s history and the stigmatisation and humiliation that she has been subjected to already in her 22 years. Two young black women who clearly love and respect each other are delegitimised simply because they are lesbians. Caster and Violet are doing the work of love, and it is irrelevant whether they are lesbian women or not.
Gcobani Qambela is an AngloGold Ashanti (2011) One Young World Ambassador.