Despite living in a world that generally views him with suspicion, mistrust and judgement, Themba* has learned to accept himself.

Themba (23) was born in Johannesburg. However, while still an infant and barely a few months old he moved to Kwa-Zulu Natal to live with extended family.

“My mom had me when she was in Grade 8, so she was a teenager. It was a big thing and a taboo to be pregnant at that age. My dad was in Grade 11 at the time. When I was born I moved to my dad’s side of the family, while my Dad stayed at school and matriculated. Even though my mom went back to school, she didn’t matriculate.”

Themba’s move to another province was the start of many relocations in his life. He describes his life in KZN as being raised by the whole family while living there.

“I was living with the entire family in a rural area. The home was like a homestead because the whole family lives there, nothing like a family house you would expect to find in a place like Cape Town because it’s set up very differently. For example, it’s not a matter of having someone specific taking care of you. It’s more like you are a kid who is part of the home with other kids and are taken care of by everyone. I was there until I could learn to speak and form basic sentences. I learnt to speak isiZulu. In the rural areas, you don’t go to kindergarten, you stay home until Grade R. I don’t really have any recollections of that time.”

Themba recalls more vividly the time he spent living with an aunt when, at the age of 5, he moved from KZN to Bloemfontein.

“I stayed with one of my father’s female siblings. She was working and she was financially stable. She took me to Bloemfontein at the age of four or five. I didn’t know her well at the time, but she’s one person who had my best interests at heart, though my family says she was overprotective of me. At the time, she had opened a creche in Bloemfontein and that was my first introduction to being with kids in an educational space. Attending creche was different from just waking up and playing in the rural area. In the rural area, there is no structure, there’s no one giving you a routine.”

“I didn’t know that was another lifestyle different to that of rural areas. I was like, ‘Oh I have to bathe and eat at a certain time because we need to be at school at a certain time.’ There was a consistent routine that I had to follow. It was just my aunt and I living in the house. It was a proper house. I bonded with my aunt while living with her. She was basically the mother that I never had. She was the person I called my mom.”

Themba did not have contact with his biological mother growing up.

“My mom was not married to my father. In African cultures, it’s the mothers’ family that keeps the child unless damages are paid. That’s what typically happens. I’m not really well informed about the decision to have me live with my father’s family. I don’t know if that decision was conscious on her side because she had me at a very young age. She was just a kid at that time.”

“Even though I don’t think there were any restrictions from family to come and see me while I was growing up, I think there was a sort of shame that my mom may have carried. Also, at that stage, she was not financially stable enough to make travel arrangements to come and see me because she was not working. That’s the meaning I make of the situation.”

In Bloemfontein, Themba began attending primary school but it wasn’t long before, at the age of 9, he had to pack his bags and move once more. That’s when his aunt died.

“I am not sure what the illness was. One day I went to school, when I came back there were a whole lot of people at the house and she was not there. I was at an age where I could realise what was happening. I was told by my grandmother that she’s gone and that she’s not coming back. I don’t think I cried although I was hurt in the sense that I would never see my aunt again. I was anxious about what would happen next. I was thinking, ‘Where will I go?’. When my aunt’s funeral was over, that’s when my grandmother from my mother’s side came into my life. She had stopped working so I moved to the Eastern Cape to live with her.”

“In the Eastern Cape, I lived with my grandmother, her husband and three of my mother’s siblings who had just started high school so I was basically the last born. It was a really rural area. By this stage of my life, I was getting used to moving and being with different families. I got used to not being attached to a place or to people because I never knew when next I would need to move.”

His time in the Eastern Cape was a painful chapter in Themba’s life since it was then that family and friends pointed out how different he was.

“That’s when I started becoming aware of myself. I was 11 years old at the time. At that age, one is a fully realised human being and I became conscious of how I was speaking and how I expressed myself. My mannerisms were different to everyone else. To describe it very broadly, I spoke like a girl, I walked like a girl and everything I did was attached to femininity and everyone around me started pointing that out. They would say things like, ‘Why are you strutting? Why do you talk like that?’ I was in a place where the way I behaved was way different to everyone else. It was foreign to them. In Bloemfontein, my mannerisms were accepted, compared to when I was in the Eastern Cape. I was pointed at in a manner that was meant to hurt me.”

“The language I spoke didn’t make it easier either because it marginalised me, creating a barrier in connecting with others. I realised that in the Eastern Cape, seSotho was way different to the language spoken and I could see that Zulu had more common ground with isiXhosa and as I was still learning the latter, I would mix the two languages to fit in.”

“Despite the difficulties, I made some friends. I talked a lot, I had plenty of stories to tell. My friendships were mainly with girls. Unfortunately, people at school began calling me ‘gay’ before I even knew what that was or what it meant.”

The term gay was hurled at Themba like an accusation.

“Because of the way it was said to me I knew I had to disassociate myself with it. There are songs that were sung and directed at me. For example, during break time because I used to excel in sports which were considered ‘girly sports’ like skipping rope and netball, the other kids my age would sing songs like, ‘we don’t see him with guys we see him with girls.’ When it’s translated into English, it loses its potency but it actually hurt me at the time.”

“Even people who weren’t bullies would pick on me because it was like the norm to treat people like me like that. At home, my uncles were constantly asking me things like, ‘are you ever going to find a girl if you behave like a girl?’. The majority of comments were centred around me being feminine. Teachers were also not doing anything about the bullies since it was a joke to them.”

The ridicule began taking its toll on Themba.

”I began self-loathing, it was making me hate myself. I used to come back from school and try to rehearse how to express myself differently. I wanted to eliminate all those things about me that made me be seen as gay. For example, I told myself that I needed to be conscious of not using my hands when I speak, or that I shouldn’t project my voice, rather keeping it low key. Of course, it didn’t work! No matter how much I tried. Homophobes have a way of seeing right through you.”

Themba believes that his grandmother’s tough reputation protected him from severe homophobic attacks.

“I think my grandmother was someone who was not to be messed with. In a way, I was protected by my grandmother’s reputation.”

“In Grade seven, all my peers were now starting to date and experimenting in the way boys and girls do. But I couldn’t act on my attraction to other boys. I would just keep it to myself. It was then that I realised that I would never have what they had in terms of experimenting with dating because I couldn’t truly be who I was.”

When Themba started high school which was located in a town, life became somewhat more bearable.

“High school was different, the kids there were more like the ones in Bloemfontein. There were discussions about pop culture and other youth trends. But I was still being judged by many. However, now the space was more open and I could report to teachers if someone was calling me gay. This time that kind of name-calling was taken seriously. That helped me.”

Themba moved provinces again in Grade 10. That’s when he moved in with an aunt.

“I did my Grade 10 in Cape Town. A teacher at my high school in the Eastern Cape offered to pay for my schooling at a boarding school for the next three years. But when my aunt heard that, she said that she didn’t trust that offer.”

“My aunt offered to have me come and stay with her and her family in Cape Town. That’s how I ended up in Milnerton in Cape Town. A lot of people were staying with my aunt. My aunt’s husband was a pastor and there would be people coming to stay in the house regularly for his gift of prophecy and healing. Permanently in the house, it was me, my aunt, her husband, my aunt’s two children and an uncle.”

At this stage, Themba figured out a way to survive and avoid being bullied.

“When I got to my class at my new school in Cape Town there were two guys just like me. We came up with a coping mechanism and that was to befriend the older guys and girls in class. They were the ones who were respected in class. We would let the big boys copy our homework and in return, they would give us protection. It was an unspoken arrangement. They knew it was helping them because their marks were improving.”

“The funny thing was that when it was prize-giving, we were always in the top three positions. I found sanctuary with the 2 guys I met at that school. I could finally say, ‘yes, I’m gay’. I was glad I had moved to Cape Town.”

Themba matriculated and secured a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town. He achieved five distinctions in his final high school year. In the same year, he also received the news that his father had passed on but Themba explains that he couldn’t really react to the news as ‘I don’t have a single memory of him.’

Throughout his life, including his primary and high school years, Themba had no contact with his parents, and he admits that not having a relationship with them was not something he longed for since he had never had a relationship with them, to begin with.

“I only realised when I was at university that the majority of my peers came from nuclear families. In the township, it was only the rich kids who had nuclear families. For example, the first time I went to varsity I went alone with my suitcase. Everyone was there with their mom and dad. I was like; ‘What’s going on? Did I miss the memo?’.

When I started making friends, I realised almost all of them came from nuclear families. In my case, I’ve had to fend for myself for so long, I don’t know what it’s like for someone to be responsible for me. What I do know is for me to have my own back.”

“I joined UCT and did Geology for a year, but I realised that my heart wasn’t in it. At the time I just thought that I didn’t belong in the course. I had a bursary for it but I let it go. The following year, I took up a Bachelor of Social Science and my studies were financially supported by NSFAS. I continued my studies, completing my honours degree. In my last year, I did information systems as an elective and I realised I really enjoyed this.”

Over the years, Themba has learnt to live each day in an alert mode.

“I was in my second year of studying at UCT, I was on my way home and just gotten off the taxi. It was a Sunday around 3 PM and it was a very sunny day. I was wearing something similar to a jumpsuit. On a normal day, I wouldn’t have worn that in the township, but I just needed to get home quickly.”

“I got off the taxi and began walking. To reach home would take me about 15 minutes. I could see this group of guys approaching me. As someone who has had experience with straight men harassing me, I started feeling anxious. I was anticipating something. My mind was shifting to panic mode. I had just had a good day with people at UCT, but I also knew that when I transitioned from the UCT space to the township, the tables are flipped. It’s no longer compliments from people that I will be receiving but instead, people would be looking at me in disgust. I could not believe I had made the mistake to visit the township dressed in my jumpsuit.”

“The guys gathered into a circle as if to capture me. So I walked around them but then they make a line to obstruct me. I knew that running was not an option. So I just froze. One of them started grabbing my outfit and asking; ‘what are you wearing boy?’ It was very condescending and threatening. At that moment I knew it was fight or flight and I knew I was not going to be able to run.”

“There were four or five of them and they made the circle smaller and were making abusive comments. At that moment a car tried to pass by because by now we were standing in the middle of the road. We needed to disperse to allow the car to pass and that was my moment to run away.”

“That was the last time I wore anything so-called “provocative” in the township. A lot of my friends share stories with me about homophobic attacks that they have survived. There are a lot of bad stories. Now I try to eliminate danger in my life, for example, I try not going out after 8 PM.”

There are other ways Themba tries to protect himself in a world that singles him out as different.

“I have what I call ‘safe clothes’. For example, I don’t wear outfits that I would wear at safe spaces like UCT, where I know I’m not going to be harmed as opposed to being in a space like Khayelitsha where anything could happen and people would just stand by and watch. Safe clothes would be like wearing clothes that a straight man would wear. I have to consciously choose what I wear and where to minimise risk.”

“I am not like an ordinary person opening up the wardrobe and choosing an outfit. Like now, I live in Du Noon township. I leave home at 6.30 AM and return home close to 8 PM. I try not to bring attention to myself. Navigating the world as someone who is explicitly queer means I’m always tiptoeing. I cannot pass as a straight man.”

“I view the world as a dangerous place for people like me. I feel like the world is finding ways to kill me, us. I am constantly trying to survive and trying to be safe by disguising myself. The system is not working to protect people like me.”

When asked what are the lessons he has learnt in life, Themba said:

“I once read a quote from Desmond Tutu saying; ‘If sexual orientation were indeed a matter of personal choice, the homosexual persons must be the craziest people around to choose a way of life that exposes them to so much hostility, discrimination, loss and suffering.’”

“I am a true believer that God does not make mistakes but human beings do. I can’t conceive the pleasure that people have by tormenting other people’s lives and that someone can feel at peace abusing and belittling others. How can happiness be achieved, by forcing others to live lives of fear and secrecy.”

“I choose to live a life of love and kindness even towards the people that hate me. That’s what I work on giving out every day. It’s a work in progress. I have learned that you don’t have to be a fan of someone and their choices you just need to love them.”


*Themba is a pseudonym.

Themba is a Life Choices alumnus.

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