Innocent, or Impenitent?

As promised, the eThekwini Municipal Council issued a statement about the request from Councillor Martin Meyer that eThekwini Municipal Council members extend wishes of goodwill towards the Durban Gay Pride March, which had been declined.

To distill it, the statement essentially says that as an ANC-run events’ City, eThekwini Municipality supports all artistic and cultural events as well as the LGBTI community – basically, a copy-and-paste of the shtick that’s said whenever someone from the government has made homophobic statements and people are scandalized.

The statement also stated that Councillor Martin Meyer breached standard protocol by trying to “sneak in” his announcement without communicating it to the Speaker beforehand.

There is the glaring absence of any acknowledgement of allegations that homophobic remarks were made. When I asked him about this, Municipal Council’s Thabo Mofokeng evenly said, “We are not aware that such comments were made. [Councillor Meyer] is free to bring in a complaint towards the Speaker’s Office” – which Meyer says was done already.

The issue is not procedural; it is the Council’s failure to take a stand on this matter in a manner that is congruent with the spirit of our Constitution. According to several sources, impromptu announcements had never been much of a problem before. Meyer says he was allowed to speak when he put up his hand to indicate that he had something unexpected to say; all was well until the ANC Councillors had heard the content of his announcement and started heckling him. Speaker Logie Naidoo was fine before that point. Pilate was merciful until it became dangerous. Even if Meyer was testing the Council members’ reactivity towards this subject, as some have speculated, Gay Pride was not supposed to be an issue at all anyway. City Hall is not supposed to bat an eyelash at a request to wish LGBTIs a good Pride March; it’s the sort of endorsement that’s supposed to come totally off the cuff and without hesitation. The correct response should have been, “Oh yes, that’s this week – of course, all the best” though in the past, that has not been the consistent response either.

Ingenuous or not, Logie’s words, “Councillor Meyer was out of order in attempting to ‘sneak-in’ an announcement on Durban Gay Pride without giving notice of his intention” sound like an attempt to blame the victim. The way Naidoo puts it, it’s as though Meyer tried to flash the Council, or to “sneak in” a request that the Council endorse an attempt to declare war on another country; so wary, so accusatory is he that something was snuck in at all – though Meyer couldn’t have spoken as far as he did unless given permission to do so by Naidoo himself – that I can’t help thinking that Naidoo is slyly saying that however they messed up, Council members were justified in overreacting at the snuck-in announcement. It’s not the content of the announcement that was being thrown out, just the way it came up. But it sounds like there was no problem with the way it came up until the contents came out – pun intended – and that’s when all hell broke loose.

Where else have I heard that kind of justification for a violation of human dignity? “Well, she was wearing a very short skirt. So she had it coming.” To accept the Speaker’s response, we would also have to learn to accept that as an excuse for rape.

And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Homophobia is intimately linked to contempt for the feminine, and it’s the woman, or, in this case, the gay man’s own fault that the abuse happens. The disturbing thing here isn’t that the Speaker would try that tactic; the disturbing thing is that we’d let him and that there’s been no outrage. Likewise, the shocking thing isn’t that our rapists would give us that kind of excuse; the shocking thing is that we would take a second to figure out whether the skirt was short enough to justify winking, rough groping or all-out rape.

The other weird thing here is the identity of the person said to have issued the one slur that’s made it into the papers: Councillor Nondumiso Cele. I’m compelled to believe Meyer’s version of events here because the words “Sorry, Sisi” not only invoke strikingly flashbacks to forgotten incidences when I was bullied as a schoolchild myself with very similar words, but also because the insult is such that if it had never been passed, Meyer probably never could have made the story up.

For me, the power of his story is its eerily familiar idiosyncrasy. It is precisely that it never occurs to emotionally sound people to say something like that that makes it so bizarre that it’s ever said at all.

There is also the language issue. Any self-respecting KZN white boy knows what “Sorry Sisi” means, but that doesn’t mean he’d know the resonances packed into it when it’s used as an insult, or how to unpack them. The simplicity of it packs a punch that is above the weight of someone who hasn’t been steeped in black communities and knows our vernacular. That’s “insider knowledge”, the kind that brings a grimace that’s more than just shock. If Meyer made that up, then he’s really in the wrong field: he should be writing screenplays or doing something that would make better use of his instinctive sense of what people would say under any given circumstances. If really fictitious, his choice of words strikes too deep a chord for me not to believe.

The familiarity of the words and the intention behind them reminds me of the bitterness I’ve sensed from black women that have made homophobic remarks to me. When called out, they’ve often retorted, “Unjengathi nje! Pho uzothini ngoba uyazifanela nathi?” – You are just like us, so what are you going to do about it if we call you that?

I don’t identify as female; I’m a guy that likes guys. But to the inhabitants of a staunchly heteropatriarchal culture, it’s all the same; there is no need to learn about the variety within the LGBTI umbrella: if as a man you’re not bringing home a makoti in a doek to genuflect with umqombothi in front of her father-in-law to the scorn of her mother-in-law (in whose eyes this umakoti will never do it as well or with as much suffering as she had to endure when she was a makoti) then you’re also woman and are worthy of all the contempt that women are heir to and pass on to one another and themselves in many unconscious ways. Is this always the case within our cultures? Hardly! But telling, tragic, that some women think that being lumped with them should be insulting. Perhaps they resent that gay men wish to simply get to date men without having to fulfill all the corresponding, and sometimes degrading roles, that are expected of umakoti; that gay men have the best of both worlds: they are men, and by remaining quiet about their attraction to other men, may retain the prerogatives of manhood, and then turn around to dip their bread from the same dish of men that women were supposed to be able to choose from as one of the few privileges exclusive to women.

I believe that “Sorry Sisi” is short for, “Sorry, Sisi (by naming you as one of us, I’m exposing you to the contempt you get to escape by being a man and white at that) but this time around, you don’t get to have your bread buttered both ways. This time around, you get to find out what it’s really like to live under the scorn of being refused equal dignity – like a real woman.” The insult is a product of the very misogyny it tries to inflict.

The issue wasn’t that Martin Meyer was asking for too much: the issue was that black women in general get too little real respect and indulge in Schadenfreuden when gay men finally face the thing they’ve escaped all along by being men.



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