How do black township women construct their same-sex sexuality? This is the main question in the PhD thesis written by Phoebe Kisubi Mbasalaki. Her dissertation deals with the lived experiences of black township women in same-sex relationships in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Set against the back-drop of a country with, on the one hand, one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and high levels of unemployment and homophobia on the other, Mbasalaki presents how township women enact being both African and homosexual whilst occupying a predominantly heterosexual space.
Three main narratives are presented. The first narrative, the infra-political narrative, presents how these women resist whilst creating spaces of belonging at an individual, communal and national level. While the second narrative - the gender identification narrative – foregrounds the performance of South African lesbianism, specifically as it is expressed through masculinities—South African female masculinities.
Mbasalaki works with the local labelling of bhuti – and clinically shows how bhuti draw on similar resources as male-bodied subjects to enact their masculinities, accruing to the overall township and national masculine capital. One of her research findings is a complex masculine gender system, in which masculinity is not the sole preserve of biological males and links this to the genealogical continuities of female masculinities—such as mukadzirume (man-woman)—that have historically contributed to this overall masculine capital.
Pleasure and danger
The third narrative of pleasure and danger draws out how black township women in same-sex relationships navigate the tension between desire, lust, and love, and the possibility of contracting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV.
From a sexuality rubric, the key paradox that lies at the heart of the current lived experiences of black township women in same-sex relationships is South Africa’s Constitution and the fact that these legal freedoms remain largely inaccessible, especially to these women can be pinned down to historical colonial narratives that have compulsorily marked all Africans as heterosexual and have alienated same-sex relationships from African-ness.
What came across clearly from this study is the inherently tense nature of Ubuntu—an inclusive philosophy, yet one that at times excludes those who are deemed not to be heterosexual. In a context in which there are inconsistencies between the constitution and legal environment on the one hand, and lived experiences on the other, belonging becomes a crucial praxis to work with, and one in which ubuntu largely works.
The idea of ubuntu as a potential key intervention that could address heterosexism, homophobia, and the exclusion of black people in same-sex relationships has gone largely unexplored. Recalling that ubuntu played a role in the truth and reconciliation process (despite some pitfalls in the process), it is a conciliatory tool that has proven its worth. Tapping into the already inclusive dimensions of ubuntu with regard to black queer people, this can be both capitalised and expanded upon to work with, and include, traditional leaders and church leaders, both of whom play a crucial role in their communities.
Grandmothers for gays
Indeed, there are small groups making a difference, such as gogos for gays (meaning ‘grandmothers for gays’) in Cape Town, whose efforts could be emulated elsewhere in tandem with working with allies such as traditional leaders, church leaders, family, friends, and grass-root civil societies in townships. Of course, this requires financial resources, the acquisition of which could be a central (unifying) focus for organisations addressing LGBTQI+ issues in township communities.
Police and justice system failing
The police and justice systems have wretchedly failed black people in same-sex relationships. This has historically been the case. However, there is some level of improvement with regard to the establishment of the rapid response group for hate crimes and murders, although these interventions and resources allocated to them remain meagre. Resources need to be directed towards the police and justice system, as training on issues of sexuality and open dialogues with the police and legal personnel represent preeminent ways in which to address prevailing narratives of heterosexism and homophobia. This could be incorporated into existing programs of awareness raising, training, and dialogue related to gender and women.
HIV ‘zero-risk’ myth
One area where multiple exclusions were conspicuously revealed was in reference to the HIV ‘zero-risk’ myth—as expressed through the marginalisation of lesbian women’s access to sexual health services, including (but not limited to) HIV and AIDS. These vulnerabilities, as this study shows, are real and very present in the daily lives of black township women in same-sex relationships and require urgent, targeted attention and intervention.