Defend Truth


Media representation of queerness is key to the integration of queer identities into society


Paulette Khumalo is an associate at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa Inc. She holds an LLB and an LLM (labour and human rights law in the workplace) from Wits University.

The shame I once felt for being a daughter of the queer community blossomed into a fierce desire to protect the community that raised me, and a community that only had to become one because they were constantly being told that they didn’t belong.

You shouldn’t be in here, you don’t belong here!”

These words, and the terror they inflicted on me, have been etched in my memory since I was a little girl. I was in a shopping mall with my mother when I needed to use the loo. Of course my mother would come along with her daughter to the loo, it’s what she had always done. Until this day, when a cleaner in a bathroom at a mall yelled these words at my mother.

My mother has always been the most beautiful human I have ever seen. As far as I can remember, I have been enthralled with how perfect she is.

As I grew up, I was surrounded by people of varying degrees of queerness. It had never occurred to me to question the way they dressed, the way they looked, or why I had an “Uncle Wendy” or an “Aunty Jeff”. It was just who they were. The first time I realised my “family” was different to others was when I started to attend school.

I was always excited to have the most exciting and eccentric family. People would always stare at my parents when they came to school. I was certain that they were just mystified by how gorgeous they were.

When I began to attend sleepovers with friends, as little girls do, I never questioned why my friends didn’t have parents that looked like mine. They just were what they were. I had never been taught to question whether other peoples’ ways of existing were normal.

“Why does your mom dress like a man?” I don’t remember the first time I learned that my mom was homosexual, but I remember the first time I was asked why she wasn’t normal.

The older I grew, and the more exposed I was to a society outside of my queer safety bubble, I was so confused by the aggressively heteronormative way the world worked outside of the community that I had been raised in, where people could be anything they wanted to be – even heterosexual.

School and friendship groups began to introduce heteronormativity to me, and I’m ashamed to admit that I learnt to be embarrassed of my queer family. In fact, I was terrified of the fact that they would be sent to hell – a surprisingly common discussion among 12-year-olds.

I am sad to say, being young and simply wanting to fit in made me ashamed of my gorgeous, butch-looking, eccentric, homosexual mom. I wished I could have had normal parents, and family who dressed normally. I just wanted the questioning, the hell warnings and the staring, giggling and pointing to stop.

I have grown and become my own person in the world now and the rose-coloured shades have been off for quite some time. The shame I once felt for being a daughter of the queer community blossomed into a fierce desire to protect the community that raised me, and a community that only had to become one because they were constantly being told that they didn’t belong.

I have never forgotten how terrified I was when a glass bottle was thrown at a woman next to me during my favourite event of the year, when I was seven years old – the Johannesburg Pride March – and how the glass sliced the side of her neck.

I will never forget how I ran through the crowd crying, looking for my parents – only to realise that almost every face in that crowd was familiar and felt like family. So many Pride-goers that day were willing to hold my hand, carry me, and comfort me from that trauma.

In retrospect, I recognise now that the unsurprised response from the crowd depicted how they must have experienced this violence and ridicule for so long that they expected an incident like this.

I was reminded of this recently when travelling with my mom, as she was shoved to a male security guard for a body search at the airport despite clearly demanding that she would prefer to be searched by a female guard. It hadn’t occurred to her that all she had to say was “I’m not a man”. Why should she have to? Who decided that women couldn’t look or dress like her?

I have questioned many people about their views that queer people are societal outliers. I blame this on the way in which the queer community and those who raised me never called themselves normal or pointed out heterosexual persons as “not normal” or different.

I have been known to constantly ask people: “But why do you use heterosexual and normal interchangeably? Because I only realised people were heterosexual when I was six, but I have never felt the need to ask you why you have heterosexual parents, even though that is MY normal.”

The most important and accessible tool for change in society is education. Our biggest education base is not school or books; it is media. There are very few people who do not watch TV or subscribe to some sort of social media. The information about and representation of queer persons in society is heavily influenced by how they are portrayed in the media.

For many people, their only experience of queer people are those on TV.

For some reason, the prevailing cast-type for queer people on television series is the quintessential, flamboyant gay man, loud, out and usually the unreservedly supportive best friend of the main character of the show.

“I wish I had a gay bestie.” I’ve heard these words from so many people over the years. When people say this, I know that they mean that they want a friend whose presence adds “colour” to their life, but is also non-threatening because there is no competition for the role of the attractive and heterosexual main character.

Many of the recent movies and TV series released post-2020 appear to include a sprinkling of queerness, but I’ve been deeply dissatisfied with the way it has turned into an exercise of ensuring that somewhere in the storyline, one non-central character mentions their queerness.

I recently came across a new television series titled Uncoupled and decided to give it a try. I was immediately intrigued by the fact that the main characters in the show are a gay couple, Michael and Colin (played by Neil Patrick Harris and Tuc Watkins), who are not your typical flamboyant, queer-presenting gay couple.

In fact, the show portrays several homosexual couples living ordinary lives, wearing (plain) suits to their (plain) jobs and going home to their (plain) quiet lives. I also noticed (much to my own satisfaction) that there wasn’t a single non-pastel colour in their homes.

Why does this matter? Representation is only effective when you acknowledge the underrepresented.

If the only version of homosexuality or queerness that people are shown daily is a single, stereotypical type, there is no real attempt to recognise those queer people who don’t wear their identity out loud.

The attempt at representation by media in its current form falls flat, and the idea that there is only one, very obvious, type of queer person is unhelpful to the queer people who have still not seen themselves represented in the various ideal worlds we see on TV every day.

Uncoupled is so important because it is real. It is important because the homosexual characters are the main characters in the story, and their story is worth following. It is important because the homosexual characters don’t need to be extra witty and “out of the ordinary” to be included in the story. It depicts the real lives of ordinary queer people who don’t wear their sexuality with rainbows on their sleeves.

The underrepresented demographic of queer people whose identities are not preluded by clear symbolic announcements of their sexualities exists, and all types of queer people deserve to be seen as human, deserving of respect and affirmed, just as much as anyone else. DM


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  • Tim Jones says:

    “The media” are driven by economics. Any knowledge of the history of the representation of queen ppl in cinema, for instance, knows the perpetuation of stereotypes historically, and the reasons for this. While the writer’s heart-felt emotions are clear, the piece itself is far from sufficiently rigorous in thought or historical grounding. In fact, the writer’s tone seems rather similar to that of many in the heteronormative world: queers are “good” as long as they appear to conform to “our” conceptions of the “normal,” referred to in the piece, unexaminedly, as “ordinary.”

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