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Brent Meersman

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE


Andrew Tucker
ISBN: 978-1-4051-8302-4
Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

On Clifton Third Beach, muscular male bodies of all hues, from deep ebony to blinding white, from chemically bronzed to natural beige lie side by side. This is Cape Town’s ‘gay beach’. At the height of summer, the vast majority of sun worshippers here are male, though scattered between them are always a few umbrellas with families and children, who seem quite unperturbed by the occasional kiss, body rubs and other demonstrative physical affection between the men. It’s a postcard for the country’s human rights based Constitution; black and white, straight and gay, male and female, all peacefully luxuriating in natural beauty.

Yet this represents only a privileged minority of broader society, and the homosexual men within it are a tiny subset of queer men in South Africa. Many of the Clifton clique share the same circuit; the beach, the Virgin Active gym, the sauna, clubs and bars of Green Point’s world famous ‘gay village’. They either have good incomes or at the very least access to money. They are the visible gay set; the gays you find in television soap operas; the gays that car advertisers and so-called ‘lifestyle’ marketers target; the gays who magnetize the city’s booming rainbow tourist industry.

The cover boy flaunted for gay culture is found dancing on floats in gay pride marches the Western world over. Across racial divides, nationality and even class differences, this is one shared identity, one particular expression of masculinity where gay men can be publicly comfortable, confident, aspirant if not actually competitive in our late capitalist phallocracy. It is an aesthetic choice that is a major departure from (perhaps a reaction against) the mollycoddled, artistic and epicene ‘moffie’, the limp-wristed cartoon figure as pictured in the apartheid government’s propaganda against the End Conscription Campaign, a stereotype that still to this day resides with many South Africans.

These gay men can, should they wish it, be ‘invisible’, though under little pressure to do so for they are already ultra-conformist, having aligned themselves with the aspirations of the dominant culture – the patriarchy and consumer materialism. The accusation that decriminalising sexual orientation has anything to do with the moral degeneration of the country is risible. If anything, the opposite is true. Our crime epidemic of murders, rapes, car hijackings, armed robberies, fraud and corruption, wife beatings and child abuse is hardly being carried out by some secret band of feral homosexuals.

Like Gore Vidal, who put the spin on an old quotation, whenever I hear the words ‘gay culture’, I reach for my gun. Not because it is subversive, but because ‘gay culture’ has turned out to be neoconservative.

Unlike the Castro or Greenwich Village, which were about wresting political power, the Green Point gay village is a tourist Mecca. Imported and copied, it is foremost a commercial enterprise.

In his book Queer Visibilties, Cambridge geographer Andrew Tucker points out that this new visible gay identity excludes the majority of queer men in Cape Town who are black or coloured, poor and largely disempowered. Victims of appalling ignorance and prejudice, and subjected to extreme homophobic violence, they nonetheless survive in their communities by forging other ways of expressing their sexuality and thereby gaining acceptance.

Cross-dressing is one way, especially in the coloured community; ‘nodes’ or safe havens under the control and protection of men who own their homes, have resources and are highly respected in their communities, are another form in black townships.

There have historically been alternate manifestations of identity for black men who have sex with men (MSM); sometimes forged by the men themselves, such as the Xhosa ‘Ivys’’ others in censorious terms imposed by the dominant culture, as in the isitabane or the Zulu isikesana (the ‘passive’ partner) and iqenge (the ‘active’ male).

The fastidious Ivys according to Tucker’s research arose ‘in unison with the more heteronormative ‘Pantsula’’. The Ivys dressed in tight white jeans, yellow and pink shirts, had S-curl hairstyles, partly borrowing their look from Michael Jackson.

Tucker surveyed four MSM nodes: in Crossroads, a group of recent migrants from the Eastern Cape; in Nyanga, a node that has existed since the late 1980s of ‘mature queer men’; in Khayelitsha, a group of professional men, and a separate larger node of younger men, mostly cross-dressers. He does document instances here too of class discrimination; employed black men who no longer want to date and be burdened by out of work lovers, or when men who have already established themselves in the city lose interest in dating ‘country boys’.

All this is a long way, figuratively and physically, from Clifton beach. Although Tucker tends to understate how the gay village is a safe haven for a very wide range of gay typology, the fact is there have been numerous incidents, from the scornful attitude of “no fats, no femmes”, to allegations of racism and exclusion of those thought to be “lowering the tone”.

Racism is found everywhere in the world (I’ve seen it first hand in gay bars off Wall Street, New York), but it is particularly ugly in South Africa given our history, like coming across anti-Semitism in Germany today. Racist attitudes among gay men is above all galling.

With or without a gay village, the vast majority of queer men in South Africa remain marginalised, their rights of equality more theoretical than real, and perhaps worst of all, they are ignored, prejudiced or invisible to their queer brothers who have the resources, and enjoy and celebrate their liberation through a very narrow and material solidarity. The gay elite should do much more for their Cinderella brothers, the vast majority of queer men, who still suffer victimisation primarily because of their sexual preferences.

Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town by Andrew Tucker is an illuminating and in many way groundbreaking work that points the way forward for further research.

Part 1 is a survey, tracing how ‘the three main historically and racially defined population groups [white, coloured and black] in the city of Cape Town have come to understand and represent queer sexuality in remarkably different yet also related ways’.

Tucker starts by deconstructing the notion of the closet, the liberationist and peculiarly Western preconception that ‘coming out’ is the prerequisite to live an authentic homosexual existence. In the coloured community, Tucker has observed straight men who have occasional sex with cross-dressers but consider themselves straight. Furthermore, the community knows and accepts this. Questioning the legitimacy of this heterosexual / homosexual binary is imperative to understanding a whole spectrum of alternative modes of homosexual expression and bisexual behaviour in the city.

To use a broader term and a reclaimed word, ‘queers’ have lived in almost every society that has ever existed, from China to the Americas, and long before Europe was even conceptualised. Examples of socially accepted homosexual behaviour are well documented in such remote places as New Guinea and the Amazon rainforest, existing before there was any contact with the white man. I have met men in various parts of the world outside the West who engage in homosexual practices, but find the term ‘gay’ inapplicable to them, colonising, and even insulting.

The view that homosexuality is un-African is patently false, but a stubbornly resilient belief. Besides being inherently racist itself and patronising to black homosexuals, this selective scapegoating and stigmatisation has ironically been absorbed from one prudish, narrow tradition of European interpretation of Christian morality. Napoleon for instance effectively ‘legalised’ sodomy. The British in their colonies were the ones to codify and make homosexuality illegal in India, in Egypt, and elsewhere.

However, Tucker, in what appears to be a somewhat contradictory argument, is sceptical of the search for indigenous black African homosexual culture as benefitting equality. Rather, he writes, it should be a search ‘for examples of communities coming to terms with the idea of sexualised difference’ that have ‘not come about because of outside intervention’, the way the provisions of our Constitution for instance are perceived in some quarters. To paraphrase Tucker, in this way there will be nothing to stop communities understanding same-sex desire and queer identity within their society today and finding ways of accepting them. It’s a subtle but valuable argument. The struggle for homosexual acceptance forms a continuum that has been influenced, helped or even hindered and set back by Western notions of gay liberation.

Unfortunately, Tucker points out, the recent legal victory surrounding gay marriage has resulted in a homophobic backlash, associating homosexuals with contamination and white wealth.

In Part 2 of his survey, Tucker cautiously criss-crosses between academic and activist, examining ‘Interactions’ – the social and political dimensions and ‘the costs of invisibility’.

The concluding chapter makes uncomfortable reading. Tucker points out how high risk sexual practices have not been targeted by HIV awareness activists because of their invisibility, compromising the efficacy of such campaigns.

This is not a polemical work in any sense though it could so easily have been. Tucker successfully resists closing down debate, carefully qualifying his points without qualifying them out of existence. His assessments are many, detailed and well substantiated by interview quotations. One is unable to comprehensively review the many valuable insights he brings here. Read the book.

Interview: Andrew Tucker

What makes you most angry? Social injustice that is being ignored. If we look at what is being researched and what is not – especially when it comes to researchers or journalists from countries other than South Africa who do work here – you can see an overabundance of work on gay rights and same-sex marriage which only speaks to a small, in fact tiny, subset of gay life in the country. This is not only myopic, it’s also intellectually damaging. To empirically look at only those who can access their rights is to paint a very skewed picture. It makes it seem as though ‘Western’ ideas concerning sexual liberation can easily be transplanted to places elsewhere. It seems sometimes that people don’t know what their queer brothers (and sisters) are doing just down the road. Millions was spent on allowing same-sex couples to marry, yet most cannot. Generations of queer men have died in the townships due to AIDS – and personally I find it hard now to come back to townships to visit the graves of people I knew back when I started my research. Great work among NGOs in places like Cape Town is being done to address these key issues. Health4Men and Triangle Project are two examples.

To put it bluntly, just think about what the rainbow flag – the ‘gay’ flag is meant to represent. It’s meant to be a metaphor for unity of diverse groups. The struggles to gain this unity – to protect this unity in South Africa – are struggles that must be written about. To not speak about these issues is to belittle not only what the flag represents but also the incredible challenges and successes that continue to define this country.

The book started out as a PhD. What was its initial goal?
When I first started the PhD at Cambridge back in 2004 my interest was on exploring the socio-sexual dynamics of different ‘queer’ male groups in South Africa so as to better target them for HIV prevention initiatives. Soon however it was realised that it was also necessary to explore why groups might not follow health advice. Quite soon after starting my research it became abundantly clear that a great deal of work would first need to be spent actually trying to understand the incredibly diverse ways in which these communities actually understand the idea of same-sex desire, how they label it, identify with it and relate to wider heterosexual communities.

How was I received when doing my research in the townships?
People often ask me this – and the simple answer was I was received very positively. I looked like such a lost outsider that perhaps people took some pity on me! Certain key contacts in the townships who could then vouch for me when interacting with other queer men. People like Mabhuti Mkangeli, Ronnie Ngalo and Funeka Soldaat gave a lot of time to help me make contact with a great number of queer men in the Cape Town townships. I was also acutely aware that very few people had come to tell their stories before. In effect we had a deal. They would take time to tell me about themselves on the condition that I would then tell others. Coming back to South Africa now to tell my friends what I’ve done is also important.

How has the book been received in South Africa to date?
At the book launch in Cafe Manhattan it was great to see many diverse groups there. And it was great to speak to them all at once. As the book says, there’s such richness to queer communities in South Africa and yet sometimes these individual communities are not really that aware of the richness of each other. So what I’ve found now – and as some have very kindly said – they think they can use the book as a ‘compass’ or a map to understand these differences. If the book can actually do this then I’ll know it’s been a success.

Has the book been of interest to people outside South Africa?
Researchers in Western Europe and North America are still grappling with trying to understand how to talk about and describe sexual difference in places that have followed different trajectories towards some form of sexual liberation to those found in places like the UK or the US. And also because it engages with how sexuality or sexual identities interface with issues such as ‘race’ and class.

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