My most vivid instruction on the politics of spaces was delivered by a six-year-old blond boy while I was emerging from a bathroom. He put his hand up to say, “I know what I want, now,” despite his mother’s repeated, “That’s not our waiter.”
A scan across that Cape Town restaurant would have explained his confusion. Other than the couple at the table, I was the only black patron. This incident came to mind when plans for a “persons of colour only” dinner by the University of Cape Town’s Decolonial Winter School were topical.
The politics of spaces became more personal when my immediate group of friends discovered Rose Dommu’s article titled, Dear Gay Men, Stop Telling Women They Can’t Be in Gay Bars. Dommu defended heterosexual women’s right to hold bachelorette parties in gay bars — a growing trend that’s inadvertently “straightened” gay spaces — and reduced all protest to misogyny on gay men’s part.
Queer respondents complained that straight female patrons’ common gawking at and trivialising consumption of queer lives (and their being followed in by the straight men they’d been evading in straight bars, who then “trick” those straight women into thinking they’re gay men to then turn around and bully actual gay patrons) serves heteronormativity where it, and not necessarily heterosexual persons, should be absent.
Like many gay people, I’ve lied to “fit in”, which fed my shame about who I was. A by-product of this shame would be gay male misogyny: internalised or acted out, homophobia is misogyny. Gay men who “pass for straight” do so to benefit from male privilege. In the gay experience, perceived straightness can be the difference between getting killed and wielding a social power that’s killed many women. Which would you pick?
I recall a student asking what gay men who don’t pass for straight can do to address catcalling, among other demonstrations of toxic masculinity, given gay men don’t have the “social capital” to influence straight men.
Straight men typically protect their privilege by listening only to men further up the woman-bedding hierarchy. The answer this student received (and it was the best possible in that context) was to influence situations where it’s possible and practical. My question — where’s that? In a gay bar? Gotcha!
Heterosexism is a prerequisite for male privilege; patriarchy privileges men not just for having penises, but penises that enter vaginas. The expectation that gay people will participate in social justice activism that presupposes heterosexist frames of reference is the expectation that they’ll leverage their lives to make the world safer for heterosexism, without questioning it. How’s that not an extension of gay people’s baking heterosexism’s wedding cakes (don’t get me started on wedding cakes), designing its dresses, decorating its houses, doing its make-up, choreographing its dances and directing (if not being) its entertainment (Queer eye for the Straight Guy) while that heterosexism kills them?
Until the fight against rape culture centres lesbian sufferers of punitive or “corrective” rape, in which women are punished not for saying “no” to just one man but for saying “no” to all men, won’t “ideal” rape/femicide victims be saints within the heterosexist frames of reference that then turns around and martyrs them anyway?
You don’t have to be queer to want spaces to get away from that, but you do have to be queer (or deeply queer-empathetic) to appreciate more than anyone else those spaces where you can be unselfconsciously, unapologetically yourself after years of not being allowed.
It is within the heterosexist paradigm that exercising entitlement over women’s bodies is seen as the necessary antidote to the emasculating sensitivity around the interpersonal dynamics it takes to “read” women’s bodily responses for true sexual consent. No wonder heterosexism calls gay “limp-wristed” and “sissy”. Rape culture isn’t heterosexism gone rogue; it is heterosexism.
It’s within heterosexism that men are taught to derive their personhood from women’s subjugation — and to react to the humanisation of women like a bull to a red gag. Women’s empowerment is at odds with women’s role as the sole gatekeepers to men’s emotional lives. From the moment boys are taught to atrophy their relational skills by not playing with dolls wherewith girls are socialised into personalising and empathising well, through to when they’re taught that boys don’t cry, men are expected to have zero emotional lives except through those women. But they’re expected to suddenly transform from boys to men when they say “I love you” to said women. Isn’t those men’s sense of entitlement to those women, in part, those men’s claim to their own emotional existence, whose maintenance has been permanently outsourced to the women they’re expected to someday bed or marry?
A fuller realisation of gay rights across the continental space that is Africa would serve straight people the way the 1994 settlement ended up serving apartheid’s beneficiaries more than its victims. Consider: African political leaders, rather than leverage their careers for real issues (poverty, crime, the environment), instead secure the ballot on the populist back of demonising gay people the way Hitler scapegoated the Jews for Germany’s economic woes. Ending homophobia means one less scapegoated category between now and true leadership.
The legal right to go somewhere should therefore underscore, never nullify, responsibilities towards those who are treated as second-class citizens in those spaces. DM
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