The adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, into the Oscar-winning Moonlight highlights the nuance, complexity and pain that often lingers around issues of identity, sexuality and race. The themes highlighted in Moonlight resonate so deeply because of the delicate way in which the story is told. A complex story that is made human by grace and respect for the lived experience. The movie, and the themes it raises, is especially haunting as homosexuality is still a crime in 72 countries with a marked increase in the occurrence of hate crimes and murders.
Since 2006, South Africa has recognised and created a mechanism for same-sex unions and has created other protective legislative mechanisms to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation. But the challenge that remains is how we will confront the stigma, pain and violence that is meted out against the LGBTI community. The answers are not easy and will require a great deal of introspection around how we confront discrimination and how we challenge the normative culture that further exacerbates an already difficult situation.
Men and women are still ostracised, abused, tormented and even killed simply as a result of their sexual orientation or identity. Sexual orientation and identity are fluid while the hatred, bigotry, ignorance, discrimination and ambivalence towards those who are simply living their truth is single-minded and relentless. Often entire family structures will unravel and family members will be pushed out as if they have wronged the family simply because they are attempting to live their truth.
However, despite the protection afforded by the Constitution and other legislation, there is an urgent need to address the underlying social and cultural fault lines that leave people feeling as if they have done something profoundly wrong or obscene. The underlying issues that allow South Africans to still witness high levels of hate and violence against the LGBTI community, despite having protective legislative measures in place, is a telling symptom of a society fractured.
Tragically, the names of those whose lives were snuffed out while they were trying to live their truth are often forgotten. Eudy Simelane, Noluvo Swelindawo, Gift Disebo Makau, Patricia “Pat” Mashigo, Phumeza Nkolonzi, Michael Titus, Girly Nkosi, Carl Mischke, Noxolo Nogwaza, Patricia Mashigo, Dawid Olyne, and the many others were taken too soon, often violently, to “gather in the graveyard”.
It is not simply a question of whether someone is bisexual, gay, lesbian or transgender but rather how their lived experience is further complicated by race and class. The interplay of the normative culture and masculinity intrudes into issues of sexual orientation and identity frequently. The traditional notion of masculinity may consume what it might mean to be a gay man – a theme touched on delicately and carefully in Moonlight – as the oppressive normative culture will often make queer black men feel as if they are less. It will make them believe that they need to behave a particular way – that they need to be more masculine or “straight-acting” or “not effeminate” – not only are their bodies made to feel less but they begin to truly doubt their very existence.
Moonlight tells the story of a young black man from a broken home. A young man trying to trust what he knows to be his own truth, in circumstances layered with complexity where he must contend with his own truth as well as the challenges that come with gangs, drugs, poverty and the idea of what it means to be a man. This is the reality that Chiron must contend with as he struggles with being able to trust what he knows to be true while the world around him treats him with disdain, disgust and hatred. This is not simply the story of Chiron or Eudy or Noluvo or Dawid or Carl but it is a universal story of struggle. A struggle of identity and sexual orientation in a world that is comfortable with not caring. A world that is comfortable to accept half-baked solutions to complex societal issues.
Sexual orientation is not a choice and for as long as we reduce it to this we will continue to peddle a system that allows hate and violence to flow freely. It is not simply about being comfortable with who you are but rather about not allowing the other voices to crowd in and to make you feel that you need to be something else. It’s about being able to trust that the articulation of your truth – and your lived experience – will not result in harm or violence being meted out against you.
Sadly, sexual orientation and identity has been “othered” from the conversations we are free to engage in, confined to whispers or not being spoken at all. Perhaps, the complexity of these issues can only be dealt with in movies like Moonlight, which is able to do so carefully, respectfully and with integrity, but it would be truly sad if that was the only place that we could deal with complexity. If South Africans are ever going to embrace the constitutional framework that we initiated then we are going to have to confront those fractures and fault lines so that we can enable young boys and girls to truly live their truth. DM