Opinionista Christina Nomdo 3 September 2015

Sexualities mired in culture: The confusion and pain

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela ushered in the rights framework that made it possible for the Constitutional Court to guide us to respect the right to privacy and sexual rights of gay and lesbian people. But the youth don't have Madiba's clarity on these issues – of rights to dignity, equality, privacy ... nor the confidence in their personhood.

I felt the pain of Eastern Cape youth workers last week, of sexualities constructed in understandings of culture and lived reality. The absence of a father, the loneliness of a single mother, the abuse of a sugar daddy, the unfamiliarity of a romantic lover. I realised that we need to nuance our understandings of South African sexualities and gender constructions by not being afraid to share in this pain.

Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect was privileged to share understandings of adolescent sexual rights with about 30 youth workers representing sites across the province this week. We started off as cautious strangers doing the polite dance of feeling each other out. I’m sure they thought “What are these citified people going to add to our understandings of the youth in our communities? We are these youth!”. But the politeness ended abruptly when the city dwellers started talking about sexual orientation.

The group of youth workers became most animated when discussing this topic. “Anything except heterosexuality is unAfrican,” some opined. As evidence they postulated that “there are no noun words”. Others quickly jumped up saying that “there are no noun words because we prefer to shame people who claim these gender identities by naming them in a derogatory manner”. An opinion strengthened by their hearing of Lwando Scott’s work on this issue. The detractors of heteronormativity challenged that people with queer gender identities “had been hiding under the bed until given permission to come out by the advent of freedom and rights”.

The rights framework was heralded in by a great man – Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The framework that made it possible for the Constitutional Court to guide us to respect the right to privacy and sexual rights of gay and lesbian people and then adolescent sexual autonomy rights in the Teddy Bear Clinic case.

But the youth don’t have Madiba’s clarity on these issues – of rights to dignity, equality, privacy … nor the confidence in their personhood. The personhood of the young women who dream of being loved, cherished, treated as partners not possessions or subservients. The personhood of young men is confounded by the seemingly overwhelming identity of perpetrator. A confused and painful lived reality.

This is articulated in a poem by my colleague Shane Lentoor while we were in Eastern Cape:

“I woke up this morning and the sun is shining in my street, I woke up this morning and my single parent neighbour has raised a wall in my street, but that won’t block the sun from shining in my world, I went to seek work at the happy centre for little humans of all kinds but was rejected because I am my kind, I woke up this morning and police stopped me in the street because I’m other than ‘she’, I woke up this morning and the little girl I pass in the bus is no longer smiling at me when I take my morning run, but the sun is shining in my world, I woke up this morning and saw images of my kind all over the television, I woke up this morning and realised I’m a prisoner in my gender. Who am I? It’s a funny day but a sunny day in my world …”

From the basis of this reality these youth workers will need to work with the new generation of youth of the rainbow nation of gender identities and expressions of sexuality. We further confuse matters with messages of abstinence and monogamy to youth. However, we neither practice nor expect this as adults. Is it only me suffering from cognitive dissonance? I have great hope … From the manner in which they wrestle with themselves, each other, their contexts, their understandings of their culture. I know they are brave enough to create new understandings.

Even in this they have a great mentor. He said: “I write what I like.” Confident in his personhood and celebrating the skin he was born in – Bantu Stephen Biko. It is in his home town of King Williams Town (returning from a visit at the centre) where we encourage youth workers to think about how they will be the mentors to youth in their communities. How they will appreciate the confusion, empathise with the pain and forge a pathway to hope. DM


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