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Why are (black) men silent on the war on queer bodies?

By Gcobani Qambela and Thoko Sipungu

Toni Morrison says “evil has a blockbuster audience, goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech, goodness bites its tongue”. It is not difficult to remember these words when looking at the peculiar silence from heterosexual black men when it comes to issues of LGBTI and queer individuals. Writing for the Guardian Mikki Kendall writes that she started #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen out of a frustration in noting multiple ways in which the voices of women of colour were silenced “in favor of a brand of solidarity that centres on the safety and comfort of white women”. This is a problem that is decades old, where white feminists dismiss the importance of race in favour of a focus solely on gender. Kendall notes that such rhetoric “not only erases the experiences of women of colour, but also alienates many from a movement that claims to want equality for all”.

A few hours after the hashtag #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen emerged following #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen looked at the ways in which black men, like white feminism, contribute unchecked to the oppression of black “women of colour” and the erasure of their experiences of oppression. However the purpose of this was not to say black power is literally for black men, but rather to show the ways in which black males who have power do not always prove to be allies to the struggles of black women.

Our intention in this article is to extend this conversation to the South African context, and focus in particular on the violent violation of queer bodies in South Africa. We aim to unpack the silence of black men in particular and why there has been so little outcry and solidarity from them on what many have termed “a war” on queer bodies. Just like #BlackPowerIsForBlackMen showed us the ways in which black male privilege (largely in the US) does not necessarily equate to the advancement of the struggles of black “women of colour”. We will show how black men in South Africa have been apathetic of violence against queer bodies. We argue that black men, who often assume the position of violent oppressor for queer bodies in South Africa, should be at the forefront of the struggle against heteronormativity and its by-product, homophobia.

The 2008 South Africa COI Report: Discrimination and Persecution of LGBTI Individuals in South Africa, notes that “societal attitudes against the LGBTI community are [still] extremely poor” with 80% of South Africans believing that sex between two men or two women is “always wrong” and that homosexuality is “un-African”. From this, it is clear that homophobia occurs across all racial groups and genders. However, in the South African context, it is virtually impossible to talk about violent homophobia without factoring in race and class. The members of the LGBTI community in South Africa among whom the most violent homophobia is reported are black lesbian women and men living in peri-urban and rural areas.

In “Exploring Homophobic Victimisation in Gauteng, South Africa: Issues, Impacts and Responses” J A Nel and M Judge show that violence is not experienced equally in South Africa but rather that it is impacted by “class, race and gender lines in the general population of South Africa and [that] women from lower socio-economic levels are more susceptible to gender-based crimes, such as rape, domestic violence and child abuse”.

A 24-year-old, Thapelo Makutle, was brutally killed for being a gay and transgender man. We read from reports that “part of his testicles and penis were cut out and stuffed into his mouth”. Similarly a 26-year-old lesbian woman, Duduzile Zozo, was killed because of her sexuality and found dead with a toilet brush stuffed into her vagina. Patricia Mashigo, a 36-year-old lesbian woman, was found in the open in Daveyton township. It is reported she was stoned to death because of her sexuality. These are some of the stories that make the national headlines in South Africa about the “war” on the bodies of queer bodies. Besides the brutality of these crimes, what is further worrying is the silence and apathy in particular from black South African men, who undoubtedly enjoy patriarchal black male privilege in the spaces in which these brutal rapes, murders and assault occur.

The deafening silence of (largely heterosexual) black men in the ongoing violence against the LGBTI community serves to violently entrench homophobia and heterosexism in a manner that pathologises homosexuality. Yolo Akili Robinson stated that “#BlackPowerIsForBlackMen [because] I can’t think of ONE national march that black men organised [because] a black woman was raped or killed”. While in South Africa there have been a few national marches with black men in the organising committees, these have largely been framed in heterosexual terms, and black (heterosexual) South African men have not organised at national level to step up for queer bodies.

Authors like Mark Epprecht have worked hard to dispute incorrectness of notions such as “homosexuality is un-African” by showing that not only did same-sex sexual practices exist in pre-colonial Africa, but that they were also accepted. They show that it was with colonialism that homophobia was imported to Africa. This is the process of what Dennis Francis and Thabo Msibi term “psychological colonisation”. In post-colonial South Africa, it still appears that many people have internalised the colonisers’ standardised ideas about sexuality (even though these were less relevant to pre-colonial native populations).

Beyond this psychological colonisation, which keeps many men from embracing and accepting non-heterosexual sexualities, what is worrying is the harmful masculinity encouraged by heteronormative homophobia. Even heterosexual black men who do not believe in homophobia fail to speak out because of strong heteronormative norms, which suggest they will be “queered” by voicing out their disbelief in homophobia. This type of thinking is based on harmful ideas about what “manhood” is — a manhood that is not only heterosexual, but based on domination of non-heterosexual sexualities. Francis and Msibi in their article “Teaching About Heterosexism: Challenging Homophobia in South Africa” show that for instance the inaction in black township schools against homophobic bullying of queer students is often driven by fears of speaking out and consequently being labelled “queer” because of standing in solidarity with queers.

Francis and Msibi show how we cannot overcome heterosexism in South Africa without linking it to other different forms of oppression. They argue that while racism and heterosexism are not the same, they are still “cut from the same fabric of oppression and both, like all oppressions, are destructive”. By recognising the destructive and oppressive nature of heterosexism it accordingly becomes imperative to shift “away from essentialising identities, to an approach that views all oppression as important”.

As black men, because of our history of being on the receiving end of racism for centuries, we should know better than most people what it feels like to be condemned on the strength of who we are. On this point alone, we should be the forefront allies in the struggle against the oppression of queer and LGBTI bodies. We cannot let the evil currently experienced by queer bodies in South Africa to enjoy, as expressed by Morrison in the epigraph, the blockbuster audience, while we leave goodness lurking backstage. We must stop biting our tongues and speak out. We need to understand that our struggle against white supremacy and white capitalistic racism is not separate to the struggles of queer and LGBTI identifying people. We must recognise the ways in which we use our privilege to oppress others — in order to change and offer support that is aimed at ending all forms of oppression.

This article was originally published on the Bokamoso Leadership Forum blog.

Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso Leadership Forum contributor.

Thoko Sipungu has a bachelor of arts and an LLB from Rhodes University, South Africa. He is currently a candidate attorney in Bloemfontein. He is an aspiring property lawyer with a deep passion to understand the subtleties of African sexuality. His particular interest lies in the “conflict” between Christianity and homosexuality.

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