I struggle with labels, with being labelled. I feel confined. Boxed in. Largely because I was bullied in primary and high school, and was the butt of all fashion, accent and coconut (black outside white on the inside) jokes in College. I struggle with labels because I’ve never felt quite at home in any of them. So here’s a thing. A few years ago I started dating a woman. An event which shocked many of my friends because I had never once gave so much as a hint that I was attracted to women. Curious.
I had just broken up with my boyfriend at the time and had in fact spent the entire day with him in silence at a park with a dam. He reading a book silently and I just sat staring at the still waters, my mind blank. A civilized, Scandinavian way of saying goodbye. I had misbehaved. I was not good enough, for him. I could never reverse time. This trip was my last ditch attempt at some kind of a reunion. Maybe he was just not that into me.
I was hurt and hurting. So when a friend suggested we go to a party later that evening I said why not. I only had an empty bed waiting for me. So I went out with him and was thoroughly bored while he was having the time of his life with his friends most of whom were strangers to me. I realized that I was merely his transport to a party and he was a distraction from my heart break and terrifying loneliness. Then a woman I had seen earlier amongst the crowd walked up to me and talked to me about her undying love for Sushi. She came closer and closer to me until I asked if she was hitting on me. She said what if I am. In that moment I had to think about it. It was not the first time this had happened to me. So I smiled mysteriously. I was still so bored, so I told my friend that I was about to head home, and he said one more hour. We were at the Blue-Naartjie. So I decided to go to the bathroom. The girl, thinking I was going home, followed me into the bathroom, pinned me against the wall and kissed me.
I was shocked and intrigued. So I played along. We ended up going to her place for a night cap with others. She showed me into her bedroom because I was too tired to continue partying the night away. She put on the L Word. An American-Canadian lesbian series which I had never seen before and then came in later to continue where she had left off. Everything was so completely new and strange. I was in a dream.
I kept wanting to tell her over and over again. I am not gay. I am not even lesbian. I might be questioning. Actually I have no idea what I’m doing or what’s going on. But the words couldn’t come out of my mouth. They just stayed there swimming in the ether of my mind almost making it to the tip of my tongue but I could never quite form the words. I told myself that it was temporary. It will never happen again. So the next morning she was upset, someone had stolen her camera with pictures of her life in South Africa, she was leaving the country. So I took that as my cue to leave. There was no point in exchanging numbers.
A month later I bumped into her. Or she bumped into me while I was having coffee with friends. “You’re still here” I said feeling shy, weird and slightly ashamed. She had forgotten my name. She asked for my number this time and texted me later. I went with the flow, I thought whatever this was it was safer than having another man break my heart. We became very close and soon enough, she moved in with me and we lived together as a couple for two years. We did everything together. She introduced me to a whole new world of the LGBTQI and Artist community in Johannesburg. Many of whom were suspicious of me. Who is she? Where is she from? How did you find her? Is she gay? Are you sure? How come we have never heard of her? (Apparently all lesbians knew each other) What does she do? What are her politics? While my friends on the on the other hand looked at me with questioning eyes, who is she? Since when are you Gay? At first I just said I’m in love with her, that’s all. At which point some of them would ask, so how come you never hit on me? Am I not attractive enough for you?
I found that I had successfully managed to get stuck in the middle of two worlds. One in which all heterosexual men were despised and another in which all gay people were viewed with suspicion at best and despised, lusted after murderously by both men and women. There was something irrationally erotic about a woman who refuses a man. A woman who won’t be tamed or owned in any shape or form. There was something slightly disgusting (nauseating) about straight people. There was always this tension in the air. The deeper I entered this world, I found a certain level of freedom I had not quite expected. I could be free of all my “female” roles and apparels; a bra, high heels, earrings, make up, hair, dresses etc. There was no longer a man in shining armour waiting to rescue me. I had to rescue myself. There was no need to get married. I was finally in a relationship with someone whom I considered my equal. None of us was superior to the other. No one had to pay a dowry to no one. We could be just girlfriends to the world. Ours was a partnership and a friendship. There was nothing that was for her and not for me. There was nothing she expected me to do that she wouldn’t do. It was amazing to be free of these gendered roles and societal expectations, I was high on oxygen. I felt so free, I started to call myself a lesbian, and began to dress like one, walk like one. Until I couldn’t recognize myself anymore. There were days I felt like wearing a dress, but felt trapped in this identity – in this persona which was becoming increasingly male. Even though there were many other queer people I saw who wore dresses, skirts and such, I thought my particular brand of queerness or Lesbianism would only be authentic if I dressed a certain way. But mostly I enjoyed looking at the world from a different perspective, in some ways through men’s’ eyes because I became like one at some point. I was ashamed of my vagina, of my breasts and curvaceous body, while I claimed to love the exact same things in other women. For me being androgynous felt like a comfortable way of being.
Growing up I always wondered why it was that when, in times of trouble, especially in action movies which my father loved, women would always be excluded from discussions about solving problems or even partaking in the general action. Always whimpering and screaming in the background, they were always the ones being saved, rescued, and protected or being fixed with beatings. I always wondered why men or boys got to do all the fun adventurous stuff. How they could be so free and women so confined. Why I had to kneel down to give my father tea and men just sat on a chair. Why certain chores were for girls and others were for boys. Why I had to do needle work and boys could play soccer in the field at school.
I have often felt defiant of all of these requirements while also wanting to be someone’s princess, to wear beautiful dresses, hair and make-up. To be crowned Miss South Africa. To be held in the arms of a strong loving man. I was suspicious and fearful of men because they had no regard for me but I still yearned, pined for their love and attention. For a while loving another woman freed me from this tension but only for a little while.
Until even that became unsustainable. Until I began to see what my eyes refused to look at. The cracks in my own heart reflected in her eyes. After trying to force a commitment from our relationship, things ended dramatically. I started to meet other women like me who were broken and breaking, who wanted to love freely, who yearned like me to love a man in the same way they could love a woman. But found no men willing or free enough to love an equal. Women who wanted to decide, who and when and how but were silenced somehow by the walls they had built. Inside the walls which were built for them.
Trapped within some type of circumstance. A label. Gay. Lesbian. Bisexual. Transsexual. Queer. Intersex. Heterosexual. Man. Woman. Black. White. Asian. Feminist. Christian. Muslim. Fem. Boi. Butch. Dyke. Golden Star. Activist. Wmnx. X . XXY.XY
Yes I have issues. Don’t you?
So when just a day ago I was having a conversation with a man who told me that my thing (meaning my vagina) did not belong to me, it belonged to men and that he could have it by force if he wants to. It brought everything which I had tried to escape about the reality of being a woman to the fore. Being with another woman did not solve my problem. It exacerbated it. It did not rebuild my trust. Being a feminist does not make men less Patriarchal or less bigoted. Women like men felt just as entitled to it, if not more so.
While I understand why we all should be feminist. Excuse me while while I sit this one out. It’s enough. I know who and what I am. I know who and what I am for.
In the end to any other person looking at me. Before I am Jedi. I am a woman. A black woman. An African. Black. Woman.
That’s enough of a label to last anyone a lifetime.
And we haven’t even had breakfast yet.
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Audre Lorde