So today Ben asked me how we do it. I swear if someone asks me that question again I will commit murder. They were all standing there waiting for my answer and then Khosi, with all the smartness of an ass threw in another one, said all who had wives or girlfriends should keep them far away from me, (like the sky – I can’t be trusted, I can be good and evil at the same time.)
This was the reason why I didn’t usually have my lunch at the Arena; to spare myself from having to hear these guys go on about lesbians as if we were to blame for world hunger and global warming. It was a pity, because the view was amazing from the rooftop where the Arena was, one could see the better part of Pretoria East from up there, it was one of the nicer things about working as a waitress.
They started sharing stories of some lesbian they knew (they all knew one) who slept with a friend’s woman (never theirs) and how the friend almost lost it. Andrew the genius of the group then came up with a fantastic idea, could they see my fake penis?! Was it hidden somewhere in my under garments ready to be whipped out and used on an unsuspecting female? I must have one, otherwise how was it possible that a woman and a woman could have sex and like it sans phallus. He then reached for me and I slapped his hand off, which caused the lot to burst out in raucous laughter. Oh and were my breasts real?! Did I have chest hair, perhaps I had two parts they said, you could never know with these people, anything is possible – someone went. The most amazing thing was that all these were young people, most putting themselves through varsity by working as waiters, I didn’t expect this kind of homophobia and bigotry from them.
I was fuming. I could not believe the ignorance and stupidity on show. You know what I did? I took it upon myself to educate those idiots, that’s what I did, after all, what other cure is there for ignorance. So I asked them to ask me whatever questions their little ignorant minds could think of. You would not believe the stuff that came out of these men’s mouths; terribly depressing! If I wasn’t the kind of person that I am, I swear I would have been forced to quit or something, which would have no doubt pleased them. They went on about Adam and Eve and not Steve; wasn’t I scared of hell? What would the ancestors think?!
First I asked them to choose one, either religion or African Traditions as the two were mutually exclusive. That shut some of them up, then I went on to tell them about research that shows that LGBTI people were actually accepted and welcomed in most African traditions before the coming of religion through colonialism, I then asked them to refrain from quoting the bible to me as I had nothing to do with it being an Agnostic Theist.
I pointed out some articles and literature I had read debunking the idea that homosexuality was un-African by researching LGBT occurrences in pre-colonial African communities and how they were accommodated; I backed it up with proof and asked them to share some research which contradicted me if they had any. One of the books I found very useful was: Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities (2001). The discussions empowered me, I had information and they had bigoted dogmatic ranting, the ones who were not entirely stupid learnt something; Khosi even borrowed my book and actually read it! Their questions became smarter and deeper and our discussions more interesting over time, they sought me out every lunch time and begged me to have lunch with them at the Arena so we could explore the subject further. Mostly they just wanted to hear stories of my conquests, of which I regaled them to no end.
I still had to contend with the one question they all seemed to be totally enthralled by; how did we do it?! I gave them graphic details, explained the human anatomy to them and charged them with the task of exploring their bodies more.
I didn’t always have the courage to be so openly and visibly gay, before coming out, standing up for myself was not always easy, I remember this one time about two years before my job at the restaurant, I worked in a hair salon. It was more like movie meets reality in that space. This woman who used to come in occasionally kept giving me the look; you know the one right? I knew she was into me, thought she was quite cool too. Then the whispers began; Eva – my manager pulled me aside one Saturday afternoon and asked me to watch out for THE lesbian! I wanted to laugh in her face, if only she knew!
I thought of taking the easy way out of course; laugh loudest and call her names behind her back to prove how homophobic I was to the rest but thought I couldn’t live with myself if I did; the shame and self-hate would be too much to bear so I decided to stand up for her. Whenever someone made a homophobic comment, I defended her, mostly with a pounding heart and sweaty palms but what choice did I have?
They said maybe I was like her, I retaliated with; would that be so bad? They knew me you see, I wasn’t some faceless creature they could hate and imagine to be all sorts of hideous things. Some went home thinking and re-thinking, telling me that perhaps gay people were people too on their next visit for a wash and style, I was proud of myself. I had maybe made the world a tinsy bit better, maybe.
Discrimination in the workplace can be challenging, especially when coming from those superior and in positions of influence and power. If one is lucky, the environment allows for feisty comebacks, unfortunately this isn’t always the case and it might not necessarily be the best route to take.
If however the environment permits and one is able to stand up for themselves and the LGBT community, it is possible to come out feeling empowered and good about oneself, having done the community at large a service, however small.
By Jennifer Ayebazibwe
First published in SALB as part of groundbreaking stories from GALA writing project
Voices against discrimination in the workplace: sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (South African Labour Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 2, April/May 2015, pp. 15 to 20)