Black and Unapologetically Queer

Black and Unapologetically Queer…

Elijah was born and raised in KwaZulu-Natal. He (preferred pronoun) grew up in a broken home, raised by a mother who suffered from alcohol addiction, a father who worked as a mineworker in Gauteng. Growing up Elijah faced many challenges, at home, at school, and in his conservative community.

His father, a typical emotional unavailable man, was not abusive but he was absent in his life. He would see him once a year around Christmas time. Although, his father was never vocal about it, but Elijah knew that his father abandoned him emotionally and financially because of Elijah’s gender identity. He disapproved of Elijah’s 'feminine demeanours’ and would often ask Elijah disparaging questions like “Ubuwoke nje ube yindoda, uyeke ukuhlala nabafazi. Uzoba yindoda enjani-nje? Why are you always spending time with women instead of boys like you? Why is it that you cannot play any sport?” Before his father quit school to go work in the mines, he was a soccer player. Elijah figured, to connect with his father, he must try to live up to his expectations and be the boy that he wanted him to be. At the age of 10, he joined a soccer group of young men from Elijah’s village. He’d never played soccer before. He did what could to try and please him.

As Elijah was the only queer kid in Elijah’s village, and the people from his village did not understand him at all. He felt like an alienated species, misunderstood, and disliked by everyone. Some believed that the evil spirits had possessed him. Urged their children to stay away from him. Such segregation from other children left a lifetime of emotional scars to young Elijah. Even though joining a game of soccer seemed to be for a good cause he felt it was not worth being reminded of how much people in his area disliked him. Even though Elijah’s family was not impoverished but he always felt incredibly poor. Aside from having food on the table and shelter – he barely had needs and wants of a child met.

Elijah’s father would send money to his mom on the 4th of every month, yet he would not get even a deodorant from his mother. Elijah often improvised when it came to cosmetics, used a body soap as an antiperspirant. He tried to have a discussion with his father concerning the matter, about how other kids would make fun of his smelly armpits and stinky mouth at school. Begged his father to provide him with a monthly allowance to meet his basic needs. “Ilamantombazane ohlala nawo akufaka umqondo wezikhova. Indoda enjani enuka amakha amnandi? Iphunga libalulekile endodeni, ungalinge uzitefe ngami wemfana.” His father uttered those words angrily. Not trying to understand nor entertain Elijah’s worries.

His father was a traditional man, who believed in buying clothes from clothing factories in Johannesburg and bring them with him during holidays as they were cheaper. Elijah mother necessitated him to stop that practice “It is a waste of money; I live with these kids. You should not buy them anything. If there is a need for clothes, I will buy them clothes” said Elijah’s mother.  Elijah was only 12 years old when this happened. From that age, he never received a single clothing item from both his parents. Elijah knew what Elijah’s mother was doing was a violation of his rights. She would receive money from his father and a social grant from the government, but still not provide Elijah with all his basic needs as a child.

Elijah would wear shoes that had holes to school, a uniform that was torn and barely had clothes to wear for winter. When he turned 15, he stood up to her about this, in front of his father and older sister. He had hoped to get their support, but they did not say anything. Used to being disappointed by his family, Elijah thought pensively about his dilemma and reached a decision. He opened a case with a police officer. The policemen laughed at him the entire time as he was telling his story. The policemen that escorted him back home did not even bother to let Elijah’s mother write any statement. “The kid tells us you are not buying things for him, is that true? Because you know these people have rights now. Blame the new government. Growing up, I was perfectly content with having food on my plate. Now, these kids are spoiled. I am bringing him here as a formality. There won’t be any charges pressed against you.” said the police officer softly.

            As the result, the abuse did not end. The system that was supposed to protect and fight for Elijah’s rights had proven to be not effective. His father had a will where he included his all his children, even the ones he got outside of his marriage. One morning, Elijah woke up in the wee hours– heard his father arguing with his mother. Elijah’s mother was yelling, asking to be the sole beneficiary in case of Elijah’s death.

She felt what Elijah’s father was doing was rather thoughtless. She emphasised on being the one who was “looking after them” and that she was going to “provide for them” should the inevitable happen. Foolishly, he agreed.

In primary school, Elijah experienced severe bullying/ homophobia. Even though the teachers liked him, they lacked the mental ability to protect queer-identifying kid. When Elijah was in grade 7, he approached his father again; appealed to him to let me attend high school in a boarding school. Elijah believed he would be protected in a boarding school. He got him to decide by making it seem as if it was his class teacher’s suggestion. Even though his father never finished high school, he valued education and was terrified of teachers. This message was relayed to Elijah’s mother who seemed to be on board.

After the application got accepted for the following academic year, Elijah’s family received a letter that all prospective students were expected to pay a down payment of approximately R3000 upfront to finalise the application. Elijah’s mother called Elijah’s father to convey the news – extorted him by saying the school was asking for R5000. Elijah’s father paid this money and Elijah still never went to a boarding school. Elijah’s mother used the money for her interests that she never divulged to his family.

Elijah ended up attending a high school where teachers were enablers of bullies. One day, during Physical Science class and the teacher, was conducting a lesson on static electricity. He made an example to demonstrate about the attraction/repelling of charges…
“ Negative and positive charges attract each other.  like a man is attracted to a woman or vice versa. Now do not be fooled by izitabane, a positive charge does not attract another positive charge and a negative charge does not attract a negative charge, but they repel each other.” he said.

The learners laughed and looked at the only queer kid in class, Elijah. Who was beyond mortified. He could not even understand why the teacher had to use such a far-fetched homophobic example.

Elijah carried the belief that it is teachers like his Physical Science teacher who encouraged homophobia at schools. Predominantly, cisgendered male teachers who plant these ideas on fragile minds that there is something wrong with LGBT individuals. Realised that maybe that is the catalyst that causes queer kids to struggle to pay attention in Mathematics and Physical Science lessons as male educators mostly teach them in rural areas.

Elijah carried the shame of being queer in a society that believed in heteronormativity.  

Elijah’s father tragically died a few years later, after suffering from a lung-related disease for two years. Elijah’s mother who was the sole beneficiary... had control over the funds. Bad timing as Elijah had hoped to further his studies in one of the South Africa private tertiary institutions. Elijah had turned 18. Amid his father’s death, Elijah felt a sigh of relief. Although he wanted his father to accept him for who he was, he was relieved to know that he was gone. He no longer felt the pressure to please a man who did not want to be pleased.

Elijah had to rely on his mother to pay for Elijah’s tuition fees. A woman who exhibited narcissistic tendencies. around the same year in April – Elijah received a called from her. She told him that she had run out of money which was confusing for Elijah as she had not bought anything extravagant or renovated our house. Elijah had applied for Student Aid Scheme, and Elijah’s application was rejected for two consecutive years (2016 and 2017) due to insufficient funds.

Elijah accumulated a huge debt and struggled to register for his second year. The university would only allow him to register for his second year after settling his first-year debt. After a few weeks of begging the university officials to allow him to register, he registered for the second year by an acknowledgement of debt. Even though he was a zero-EFC student (Expected Family Contribution) the institution did not offer any financial aid. Elijah went to the financial aid offices to ask if there were any bursaries available, but the staff members were rather impatient and eventually told him, there was nothing they could do. I had managed to form connections with a guy who was an SRC member, he helped with accommodation and that is how Elijah stayed for the whole year rent-free. Even though rent was no longer an issue, Elijah was starving, could not afford to buy textbooks, countless times he wanted to give up.

He tried everything including looking for a part-time job but did not have any experience, could not even get a job as a waitress. He depended on handouts from friends to survive, R300 from Elijah’s mother a month and in some month’s Elijah’s grandmother would send R200 or R400.

In 2018, he went to various departments at the university to look for work. The first thing they would ask is if he had any work experience, he knew that to win them over he had to show that he was motivated. The only personal attribute he possessed. That and his impeccable communication skills. So, after several rejections, he went to another department told the senior staff who was present at the time, that he was willing to work as a volunteer to gain relevant experience for two months. They reached an agreement that after that he would get a contract. Elijah ended up volunteering for 6 months. After the first two months, he was told that they are no longer hiring and that he had to wait for November, as they planned to recruit students for vacation work. He was determined to get a contract, so he persevered.

 In December, Elijah’s former co-workers got paid except for him. The same staff member assured him that she was going to speak to the senior manager about Elijah’s payment, asked Elijah to come back early January to continue with vacation work and to sort the payment issue. Elijah did as exactly as he had been told. When the higher institutions opened in January, he went back to university. Each day she would tell me that she was going to speak to the senior manager, and each day Elijah grew tired of her excuses. To keep a professional relationship between us Elijah took it up himself to consult the senior manager directly. I sent her an email to query about Elijah’s payment. In her response, she told me that she was not aware that Elijah was expecting payment. Elijah tried Elijah’s level best to make her realise how untrue that was, she still refused to pay him. She then offered Elijah a temporary staff contract that he had long waited for.

Despite Elijah’s experience in the office, and that he was a final year student – he was earning less than R2000 per month. The same amount newly hired student assistants with no prior experience would earn. The senior staff member would pick on Elijah, tease him about his feminine demeanour, use derogatory terms to refer to him. This would happen even in front of the students. It was degrading, Elijah felt that it reminded him of how he lived as a child. The life that he thought he had managed to escape.

He would fake a smile and apologise to stop her. One day he spoke to her politely about it and she raised her voice and told him to walk out if he no longer wanted to work. For a minute, Elijah contemplated walking out of the office, tears streaming down on Elijah’s face. He felt worn out, and no longer could endure her bullying anymore. He tried to inform the Human Resource department about the matter as it had to do with rights abuse in a workplace environment.

The HR Consultant that Elijah spoke to; referred the matter to the director of the department he worked for, who in return delegated the matter to the senior manager. The senior manager consulted with the senior staff member who was in question and asked her to speak to Elijah. The next day Elijah was summoned to a meeting with his co-worker as a witness by the same person who was bullying him.

 “I heard about your stunt, and I wish to let you know that I know people like you, and I do not like them. If you are looking for love from me, you are not going to get it” said the senior staff member.

Elijah let go of the issue and apologised even though I was not wrong, continued working in unfavourable condition to gain experience and earn R1200p/month. As a result of bullying at school that is often encouraged by societal leaders, coming from a poverty-stricken/broken home, and inequality he faced in the workplace, Elijah struggled with mental health issues such as PTSD, depression and anxiety.

He eventually graduated from university and went back home. Taking with him not only the qualification that he had obtained through all the obstacles but the wisdom to survive all forms of hardships.

He found solace in being independent. He stopped trying to fit in. Stopped forcing things to happen but instead harnessed the power that lived inside him; the power of being his authentic self. He dreamed everything he wanted to be, all the possibilities and became triumphant. He is now one of the most successful young persons in South Africa. The inequalities that he faced in the past, that often led to suicidal attempts, dropping out of school/universities, or substance abuse did not break him.

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