Yesterday Facebook went crazy over a Sowetan headline that read, “Gays Can Join ANC Women’s League” because what the paper really meant was that transgendered women can join the ANCWL.
If we’re talking technicalities, the headline was wrong; if we’re speaking colloquialisms, maybe a few years ago the word “gay” would have been a fitting catch-all for all sorts of gender non-conforming types of people. Should the headline have provoked the outrage it did? I don’t know.
I believe that once upon a time, faced by a mob of homophobic thugs with baseball bats, some gay guys defended themselves by saying, “We are not the women impersonators/fraudsters you’re looking for! No! We are just men who love men in private. We are harmless. We do not confuse little children about gender identity. We are men. We can do man things. We can fight in wars and play sports. The people you’re looking for (who we are now distancing ourselves from) are technically called…”
Thus were born the letters LGBTIQ+ in man’s attempt to identify and box every deviance from heteroexpectancy. Separated by the hills we chose to die on (because we were dying) the masculine/straight-acting gay guys ran one way, denying any connection whatsoever with the feminine/flamboyant/obviously gay guys running the other way. And to avoid the embarrassment of not acknowledging the balance of the lot, we hastily stuck the label “transgendered” on anyone who felt that his biological sex was different from his gender identity. But we still pretended that there don’t exist gay (and straight!) men who embrace their feminine side but do not, for whatever reason, experience many of the internal struggles typical to transgendered persons.
We tried to capture Job’s whirlwind in a teacup.
What if we protect and distinguish these labels because we are afraid? Out of one side of our mouths we preach that sexual orientation, sex and gender exist on continuums; out of the other side we lash out at the implications, terrified when a label used to identify one landmark on that spectrum is used instead of a more accurate technical term. Isn’t it all part of the same humanscape?
We lash out not in the interest of preserving scientific accuracy but because whatever we have set ourselves up as is under threat and the perception management is not working. When someone calls you something other than what you would call yourself, he is telling you what he understands you to be. And people will see you as what they see you no matter how hard you’d want them to see you another way. Here is the reality: whoever created that headline has been not been exposed to the technical knowledge we have agreed upon about LGBTIs (for that knowledge did not fall from the sky but was artificially manufactured in laboratories and lecture halls) but that person has been exposed to enough feminine gay women, and myths about them, that to him, rightly or not, “gay” is synonymous with “transgender woman.”
Are we not just afraid, maybe? Shoring up a masculine identity that has been a “get out of jail free” card, so to speak, through most of our lives? The more masculine you are, the less suspicious everyone else is about you? Of course the headline was wrong. But if you are unsure about your particular constellation of gender, sex and sexual orientation, it comes as a relief, I imagine, that some social scientist is saying, “No; gay men are not women at all.” So your doubt is just paranoia, and the person who dares say that there is something very woman about (some) gay men, is just ignorant. Isn’t that a relief? You never have to face the issue because it is that other person that is ignorant, not you who is anxious.
A gay friend of mine seemed to agree with some of these observations. “It is necessary that we overreact to some of these errors,” he said. Surprised, I asked why. “Well, after the hell we have endured from them (heteronormative society?), we must, must draw lines in the sand.” He used Zizipho Pae as an example of necessary overreaction and outrage. “They made their beds. They have to lie in them.” We cannot afford to let such remarks slide. In an ideal society you could find out how someone truly feels about you without feeling threatened; in our society, the more we allow prejudiced opinions free reign, the more likely they are to lead to violence.
He went on to explain that while it is tacitly understood that a gay man may be feminine relative to his partner, we do not, ever, tolerate the question, “So which one of you is the man and which the woman?” We do not just reject the question because it conflates gender identity with sexual orientation, or because it denies our identity as men, or because of any disinterested or technical reason like that. Rather, at the, er, bottom of our rage (for the issue is not academic but truly visceral) is The Fear Of Being Called A Woman (TFOBCAW).
Because there is nothing worse that you can call a man in our society.
Let that sink in.
Woman. Weakness. Receptivity. Vulnerability. Powerlessness. Dependence. Being blamed for the ills of society. Seen as trying to be pretty or using one’s looks. Asserting individual rights but not having the balls to back it up. That is what comes to mind to many, whatever we say to fill the white noise through August.
I dare gay guys to tell me they’re so secure in their masculinity that I am talking nonsense, that they simply respect the essential, God-given differences between men and women. Because I have no doubt that many will give me this reasoned response instead of admitting that part of the reason so many of us got upset was TFOBCAW.
Gentlemen, gay and straight, I do not think we have a right to defend our masculinity for any reason, however lofty, if doing so affords us an opportunity to turn aside from the reality that in our society, many suffer from TFOBCAW. That is misogyny, and it is a far worse problem than being mistaken for women.
Let me explain it another way. A straight celebrity is rumoured to be gay. How would we want him to react? If he strongly affirms and defends his heterosexuality, is he in fact saying there is something wrong with being perceived to be gay? Sure, he could be setting the record straight (pun intended) for the sake of setting the record straight. But let us not be naïve: many straight men feel they have a lot to lose from being seen as something other than completely straight. People of certain races feel there would be something to lose if they were thought to be members of another race. And so on. Is the humanity of “the other” not dignifying enough? Must we preserve the distinction in the details as well? Apparently so.
By all means, ladies and gentlemen, stay up to date with the latest glossary of terms by which people are calling themselves and one another. But we should use labels as a guide and not as the Gospel truth. Don’t believe everything you read.
My friend would not relent though. “When you move,” he said, “You must pack things in boxes and label those boxes to avoid confusion.”
I replied, “I’m not moving anywhere. We’re here, we’re queer (whatever that means) and we’re not going anywhere. My boxes are unpacked. Everything of me is in the open, not in a box. This is my world, too. I have every right to make myself at home in it.”
Regardless of whether a journalist somewhere thinks “gay” is the same thing as “transgendered woman.” The thugs with the baseball bats are now the defeated minority, I would hope.
Or am I just idealistic?
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.