Monday, October 25, 2010

City Of Apples, Land Of Penguins

Where do I live?

I live in South Africa, a country which has one of the most advanced Constitutions on the planet, in terms of human rights and equality for people like me. It's a country full of contradictions, as a careful analysis will show. For me, as a transgender woman who doesn't care much about the gender of my prospective partners, it's my home, but also a place that occasionally makes me feel unwelcome enough to want to leave.

It's a place that on the one hand claims to protect my rights and dignity, while on the other, there are groups influencing government to the point where I'm not certain how much longer that will be the case. Some of these folks are now standing so close to the table holding our Constitution, that it seems, at any moment, they could just reach out and rip the vital pages right out of it. The POI and "porn" Bills are just two examples of this obscene attack on South African democracy, the rampant corruption and self-enrichment are just another.

Contradiction? What am I referring to? Hmm. Right.

South Africa is one of the biggest exporters of copper on the continent, in blatant and stubborn defiance of the minor detail that it has no natural sources of the metal, and no copper mines. None. Coincidentally, it is also one of the few countries where people occasionally arrive home to find that all their water pipes and metal fixtures have mysteriously disappeared. Reports that sales of PVC conduit have also increased dramatically in recent years, are often described as an urban myth.

Port Elizabeth, known as the Windy City, is on the south coast of South Africa, and is known as a center for auto-manufacture and tourism, the two not necessarily being related. (The tourism office uses a jackass penguin as it's symbol, which should give you an idea of what it's like to live here.)

The name "the Windy City" seems deserved enough when you visit for the first time - until you go to Cape Town and see birds actually flying backwards. And not stopping.

PE as it is called, is famous across the country for having nothing happen quite frequently, and for having an unhealthy fixation with apples (and penguins). There is an Apple Train, and the Apple Express community newspaper, among others.

Established as a port in 1820 to facilitate the landing of British settlers, our city is infamous these days for allowing foreign nationals to buy pristine national heritage sites and to intentionally facilitate their destruction for the sake of "redevelopment" and profit. Needless to say, in other cities in this country, such individuals are labeled "slum-lords" and dealt with appropriately by municipal authorities who actually seem to care about the character and heritage of their cities. Here, miraculously, nothing happens.

(How about those penguins?)

In the 19th century, PE was dubbed "the Friendly City" by visiting sailors who made use of the large compliment of night workers who frequented the harbor in those days. The name has stuck, although most of the city's ill-tempered conservative modern residents who cut you off on the freeway each morning, have no idea why.

Oddly enough, local council's idea of dealing with speeding and noisy motorcycles is to litter the place with speed-bumps and traffic circles, often set up during the space of a work-day with no prior warning - and leaving them unmarked for a few weeks. Who says the City Fathers don't have a sense of humor?

Also called "the Detroit of South Africa", the city has been twinned with Chicago (among other lucky places), also known as a windy city that makes autos, and has occasional gang-wars. PE now also includes two smaller specks on the map called Uitenhage, and Despatch (only a stone's throw away from Uitenhage). Together, they form the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and are run by an Executive Mayor who has just recently been booked off sick for stress.

Among it's long list of attractions, the city has a Bay World sans any dolphins (they gave them away to China - I know, the mind boggles); a modest pyramid of interesting dimensions (Port Elizabeth was NOT named after Queen Elizabeth, as some folks believe - it was named after the wife of a governor of the area, who was reportedly buried under it). Since the Soccer World Cup, there is also a flag pole as big as a skyscraper in the middle of a park people are frequently mugged or murdered in, and a stadium big enough to house 30,000 people, that costs 20 million Rand a year in upkeep and has not really been used since. There is a statue of Queen Victoria (which is occasionally the victim of graffiti artists), and no Main Street. The city is also home to an obscure rugby team called the Mighty Elephants, which doesn't live up to either of its names, and might as well substitute one part of its name with White. In its defense, the city has several beautiful blue flag beaches, and a casino. (The flags are very pretty. Did we mention the penguins?)

There is at least one friendly church in the city, who will welcome anyone to their services and community, just as Christ reputedly did - and funny enough, just like Christ, this same church seems to be an outsider among the rest of the gang who don't like the idea of socializing with "bad apples" too much. Tax collectors are not so bad after all, it seems. And funnily enough, most ministers look like penguins.

I seem to live in a city with no people in it. What I mean by this is, that there are loads of "normal" people, card-board cut-outs, who cling desperately to the inside of the little pigeon-holes society has pressed them into. Here, "nobody" is gay, "nobody" is trans, "nobody" is gothic, "nobody" is alternative, "nobody" is agnostic, "nobody" is a feminist, "nobody" is an individual. Everyone wants to just toe the line and stay off the radar. Nobody wants to be noticed or picked on for being different. Nobody wants to be themselves - being somebody else is better. Standing out in the crowd is just not on and draws way too much attention. Penguins, methinks.

Port Elizabeth has several golf clubs, large international quality sports fields and stadiums, and two gay clubs - but only has one alternative club, called "Jesters", which is attended by one or two goths, surrounded by tons of metal heads. (Copper is not heavy enough to do them justice.)

And PE has two Pink Community groups too, in case you're wondering. They've decided to work together for the benefit of the Pink Community in the area. Sometimes they do something useful for the community, like take on hate speech in the media, or provide a counseling service. Occasionally they host informative community events for a handful of people who actually turn up. Perhaps someone should remind them of how shy the community is of actually being seen in PE, or how ashamed they are of being themselves - but oddly enough, they just don't seem to get it.

So actually PE might have something going for it after all, even if it is just those darn penguins again.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Who Are We? Why Are We Here?

I sat down this morning wondering what our community is all about. I'm thinking about the Pink Community of course. Pink, because of the confusing array of acronyms we apply to describe ourselves, that almost always put some sub-groups before others, and invariably leave someone out. Pink, because of our association with the feminine, with the notion that we break the boundaries set for us by society, and because it flies in the face of some beliefs that pink represents weakness and inferiority - an idea some are growing to realize is not the case at all.

Who does our community include? Well, anyone who breaks the stereotype, any person who does not feel the description of straight and cis-gender describes them. Anyone who does not fit into the neat, ordered little pigeon-holes designated for them by a straight, patriarchal society that decrees males shall behave like this, and females shall know their place, and behave like this, and be subservient to the male. It includes anyone who does not feel comfortable with these designated roles, and refuses to accept having them forced on them, being more inclined to fight for their freedom and equality.

The Pink Community is a persecuted and marginalized community, which faces difficulties not only in the sense of gaining civil rights around the world, but also in terms of gaining equal treatment and respect as human beings in the home, school and the workplace. The Pink Community does not have room for divisions and those who create the impression that certain sub-groups within the community have a greater need for civil rights and equality than the others. It does not have room for groups and individual leadership figures who fight for their own group's rights and equality, while downplaying or even sabotaging the rights gains of other groups within the community.

Many refer to our combined movement as the Gay Community - but we are not the Gay Community, because we're not all gay. Some of us are bi, trans or intersex. And some of us are combinations of the above. Our defining characteristic is our diversity - and non-conformity. To push some of our number aside, and solely advance the cause of others because of this diversity, doesn't make sense from the point of view concerning cohesion, equality and community building.

Regardless of all this, we stand together because we have common differences from the straight "hetero-normative" society we live in. We stand together because we have common needs such as the need for legal protection from bigotry and homophobic and transphobic (let's call them xenophobic) attacks and persecution. We have common needs for social and civil and legal equality. The tiny differences which exist between us do not justify us turning our backs on the broader Pink Community to reduce our overall number and weaken the timbre of our collective voice as a political entity fighting for our human rights and equality.

Some groups and individuals do just that. They focus solely on one particular interest group, most typically their own, and then not only promote just their interests while ignoring the interests of the others - but also attack and even sabotage the efforts of the other groups to their own advantage.

This is not the behavior of an ally. This is not the behavior of a friend.

It costs nothing for a GLB group to include trans-people and intersex people in the fight to gain equality for our whole community. It costs nothing for a Trans group to include GLB people in their fight for equality of the broader community. After all, how many people who identify as gay or bi, are also trangender or intersex? How many transgender or intersex people identify as bi or gay?

I hope this simple example will clear up this little misunderstanding between these groups (you know who you are), and encourage them to stand together and act in mutual support in future, instead of acting like a bunch of spoilt brat children fighting over who gets to go first.

If they do not listen, we as one community should give them a smack on the bottom and encourage them to hold hands and take us through the door of freedom and equality together.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Holding Hands

Last night I attended the inaugural meeting of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians And Gays), a new group in Port Elizabeth. It's an initiative of one group I'm involved with, called ECGLA (Eastern Cape Gay & Lesbian Association) and the PE branch of Lifeline. This initiative is the culmination of the past year's co-operation between Lifeline PE and ECGLA on developing a community-focused counseling service for the Pink Community in Port Elizabeth - and I have to admit, it's a heart-warming experience when you start to see and feel the fruit of your labors!

Based on the American concept, PFLAG is a support group for the straight parents and friends (and colleagues) of the Pink Community, intended to provide information, counselling and education on the issues surrounding the pink people in their lives, and to break down the social stigma faced by pink folks and their relatives and friends. It's also heart-warming when people who are, for all intents and purposes, outside our community, reach out a welcoming hand and work to make things better.

So many gay, trans and intersex people face social prejudice and persecution in the open world - but when they face rejection or prejudice from their friends or family often out of concerned ignorance or misplaced fears, it hurts them even more so. Most of the time, parents and close associates of our community are distraught and shocked and are ill-equipped to deal with the news of someone close to them coming out - and especially in close-knit and conservative communities where sometimes sexuality or gender are scarcely talked about. Most of this group's focus will be aimed at supporting people in the middle of dealing with these issues.

Last night's meeting was more of an introduction and initial planning session. Riana Nel, who is a parent of a gay son, introduced herself as the leading figure of this new group. This dynamic and genuine lady is well-equipped and eager to help other parents come to terms with their children's sexual orientation or gender identity as it is a complex, difficult and deeply personal path well-known to her.

Last night the group also addressed the still noticeable cultural divide in our community, as some of the black folks present from one of ECGLA's local ethnic partner groups, Masipume, mentioned that some parents didn't want to come as they don't speak English or Afrikaans well, and felt out of place discussing what is still very much a taboo in their culture. Susan, the Director of Lifeline PE, an active partner in this new group, pointed out that counseling is currently available in multiple languages, including Xhosa, and that an effort would be made in future to provide presentations and information in local languages as well.

PFLAG is about love and family, and standing by the people you love. It's about more than just being tolerant and accepting. It's about being welcoming and showing the people you love that you support them, that even if you don't quite understand them or what makes them who they are, that you are making the effort to - that you care about what happens to them, and that you feel for them. It's about sticking to your child, standing by your parent, your brother, your sister, your friend, your colleague. It's about making the world a safer, warmer, brighter place for us all.

Future meetings of the support group will take place every 2nd and 4th Tuesday evening from 6 - 7pm. Considering the hard work and effort that has been put in, this was a very, very rewarding meeting indeed. I look forward to the next one!

For inquiries, ECGLA can be contacted here, and Lifeline PE here

Monday, October 4, 2010

Choice - A Matter Of Perspective

I was a little caught by surprise this weekend when I saw an article about conscription in the Old South Africa, in which the author claimed that "conscription was a choice", and basically placed the blame for conscripts who served their year or two, on them. The author claimed that they could well have made use of the loopholes to avoid national service if they so desired, as he did.

There are some flaws in this theory of his, however, as I can attest. I am one of those white "men" who went to the army in January 1992, the very last compulsory intake. In fact, it was our intake that very nearly rioted when we heard after arriving at our training base that those who hadn't reported for duty no longer had to - and that we who had, had to finish our year.

I was an 18 year old child, straight out of school, confused about my my sexuality, my gender and about who I was - lost in a world of political turmoil and threatening violence, living under the authority of the state, enforced by both parents and society.

Where was my choice?

I could not duck national service as some did, by spending years at a university studying. My mother was a single parent who could not afford to pay for my studies. The money she had saved up to pay for my university studies was worthless by the time the policy matured - it was barely enough to buy our first color TV in 1993. And even if I had avoided going to the army, that would have meant I could not find work - as work in those days was even more hard to find than it is today - and I would simply have been yet another burden on my mother's finances. At least in the army I got a small salary, and since I was away from home for a few months, my absence lightened the monthly budget some.

Why should I feel guilt for having gone?

I was as much a prisoner as I was supposedly a soldier. I was trained in a situation where we had no rights, not like today. I was faced with adversity, anger, hatred and prejudice daily - perhaps not for my skin color, but for my perceived sexuality, gender identity, and language. I found the experiences I had there both developmental - and damaging. They didn't manage to break me, but they managed to f*** me up for a good while. I got smart and learned how to use the system to my advantage. Emotionally, it took me years to recover. I was a rebel before the state got its hooks into me, and yes, I say this with a smile on my face. It took me years to get back to being myself again... None the less, I survived it, I turned the system to my advantage - and now, nearly 20 years later, I see my year in service as a personal triumph. I learned a hell of a lot from the experience.

It's the army folks, it ain't the boy-scouts.

As an 18 year old boy, I was away from home entirely on my own for the first time in my life. I experienced prejudice and bigotry for the first time, and fought my own battles. I learned to look after myself in that place. I learned to love a telephone, or the "ticky-box" as we called it, bearing in mind that the calls were being monitored while I was pouring my heart out to my mother 700 km away, who kept telling me it was going to be alright, when it really wasn't.

I saw some amazing things.

I saw a whole lot of people like me, effeminate males, drag queens, gay men - being sent home after the first two weeks because they weren't welcome in the ranks of the "manne" (the "men"), and I wondered why I wasn't among them.

I saw the look on the faces of some of my former school mates when they were warned about the queer in the platoon - me - ten minutes after filling out a medical questionnaire a little too honestly.

I saw a guy a little older than I, take an epileptic fit, bumping his head open on a rock because he stopped taking his meds in order to get sent home.

I saw platoons of colored volunteers being shouted and sworn at so badly, that I admired them for not quitting on the spot and walking out. I would have, if I could.

I saw the look in the eyes of my instructors who refused to present classes in English, when I translated the notes from Afrikaans into English for the rest of us "souties" in my platoon - and passed the exams in their language - and when they tried to break me because they didn't want a "moffie" (queer) in their platoon, and failed.

I saw butch Afrikaans men, who gave me dirty looks and avoided me in the showers, who despised me. I saw the same men, after three months, calling me "Soutie" (slang for "Englishman") with a smile on their face, and adding: "Jy's eintlik nie so sleg nie!" ("You're actually not that bad!"

When I look back, I am proud. Not because of being there or because of having been a soldier once, but because of the strength in me I found through it all, because people had tried to break me, and I prevailed.