reflecting on shame, madness and being queer
by mpho ndaba
At the age of 22, towards the completion of my bachelor’s degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, I decided that going forward, I would live my life unafraid. A large part of my childhood was spent in layers of ache and pain, fighting against my own queerness. It was defined by the murmurs of fellow students who rendered my queer identity something to be ashamed of. This also applied to teachers who only saw my worth measured up to my academic value and performance.
The consistent finger pointing, as though I was some sick person whose ailment needed urgent containment, had become my reality. At the end, the expression of this harm was no longer left at the device of the outside world. I went on to become a Sergeant whose duty it was to pace up and down, fixating on the task at hand- keeping myself in check. I had come to believe that this new reality I uniformly marched in was the truth and that I was, as my inner self, unworthy of walking this earth.
Years later, with shame having driven me mad to a point where I could no longer feel, I came to terms with who I was as a queer Black man – who I had always been. I then began having a conscious conversation with myself about these shame-ridden periods of my life.
Central to my grappling with all this was an attempt to understand my participation in the acts aimed at my own undoing. “How do I live with those instances where my going to the altar every Sunday was to once again remind God about a prayer item, a deep desire for my attraction towards men to be taken away?”, I had asked myself.
I feel sympathy for the little boy who fell into a trap set for him by others, denouncing himself in the harshest of ways. At the same time, I now understand the part of running with stories that were never mine to carry, not only reflected the conditions under which I had lived, but also that it was done as an attempt to survive. By this I mean that I joined the choir because that way I could stand before everyone and say “well, I too am wondering about what you have been asking about.” It was out of an exercise of this nature that my life was spared.
I remember how when I first arrived in Johannesburg in 2014, with my newfound friendships largely informed by a collective love for church, guided by Christian values, I would go on to lie to my then friend, Sbu. Instead of being truthful about the fact that I was bisexual and queer and had always known this as my reality, I told him that I was struggling with romantic and sexual feelings for men. This was also a function of shame. As I had knelled before God in prayer during the years I spent in high school, Sbu, in response, took it upon himself to join me. And even with years gone by without us speaking, he would continue praying for my deliverance.
I fully account for my own role in feeling suffocated by shame. However, I wonder about what I am meant to do with these memories, for they exist as a living archive – as evidenced in this dance of words you are now in conversation with.
I thought perhaps, as an alternative, forgetting can be a viable option. But even if I were to take it up, the act of forgetting, I wonder about where the memories will go?
Will they, like my queerness back then, disappear and never see the light of day? And what will this disappearance of them mean for the value of empathy towards myself? Considering that it was the shame that others had projected onto me that enabled the choices I made at the time?
Part of deciding to forget, I think, is also a function of shame. As opposed to holding myself with care, ‘forgetting’ would be the re-embodiment of the shame that had never belonged to me in the first place. I am writing all of this because human existence is complex – our histories and stories are multilayered; these are what makes us who we are.
In my case, there were so many complexities to my journey as a queer bisexual Black man in South Africa. One of these was expressed in the assumption that perhaps I was covering up being gay by dating women. Yet, these moments, as they are threaded together, weaving my path, were filled with in-between moments of joy, life-giving joy at that. These were the glimmers of hope that I was able to catch my breath in.
I am grateful for Thandeka, how she extended her friendship to me, despite the dominant narratives around my being as a queer teenager. She, like Black women I would go on to meet later in life, formed part of the people who cultivated various forms of safety for queer Black men, holding the space(s) and being soft-landing places for us- homes.
There was also television, where subversive and disruptive queer writing offered language to self-affirm and define. It was out of programmes like Society, After 9, Generations, Rhythm City, and Uzalo – airing on free to air televisions stations such as the SABC and eTV – that I began understanding that there was nothing wrong with me.
And although there were plenty of shortcomings with the writing and capturing of queer lives – largely around the fixation with the sex lives of queer people, while at the same time there is little expansive exploration of the interiority of our lives – something that continues to be the case and is notable in how South Africa has a very limited archive when it comes to the uncontainable experiences of being Black bisexual men, these at the time for me were better than nothing.
I think technology, internet connectivity, and mobile phones were critical in how I was affirmed in my queerness. It was via dating apps and social media sites that I was able to have boyfriends, strangers who lived in places I had never been to. In these instances, I found that although the connections were real, for them to exist in the first place, madness was a necessary ingredient.
In this issue:
Flaunt Your Pride Lil Nas X: transgressive queerness and subversive masculinity in Hip-Hop (pop) culture – Article by Kamogelo Molobye
Pride Personified – an Interview by Angelo de Klerk
An Odd Journey: Pride – by Amir Bagheri
Portrait of Ladies on Fire – Arabang Raditapole
Together with Pride – Alun Robert
The princess refuses to take Cinderella to the ball – Samantha Maposa
Letters to Myself – Sarah Asmali
I am Sketchman – Thalén Rogers
Give Me Grace – Olivia Nolan
Queer African Reading List – Tahzeeb Akram and Jon Wilson
Pride Playlist – Hlabi Moetanalo