Thobani Ndlovu is a 27-year-old black gay man. Originally from a small rural town called Ndwedwe, Thobani came to Durban for university at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal where he still studies Gender and Sexuality. Thobani came to talk to SIT South Africa: Social and Political Transformation, where I first met him. The way Thobani talked about the context of race and sexuality and how they overlap in South Africa made me want to know more. As noted later in the interview, Thobani’s inflection in his voice is a little more obvious to passersby that he MAY be gay, being less deep and overbearing as stereotypical male voices sound.
Have you found a community and place where you feel comfortable?
It’s taken a while in Durban to find that community, but I have. I found that I couldn’t quite fit in because I didn’t identify with any of those things [top or bottom] so it was really, really hard for me to find people who understood me because I was always being forced to be one thing or the other. I’ve found that I was comfortable with my race… but they were homophobic so I was comfortable in other areas like… when we were talking about race and stuff they get it. But when we’re talking about things like sexuality or even sexism they didn’t get it. So I sort of had to build my own community and then stay within those confines because I found that every time I decide to venture out I’d come back hurt because of something [they said].
How has being black impacted your experience being gay and how has it impacted your role in the LGBTQ community?
They [other black people] say that black people don’t behave like that. It’s not a black thing to be gay so I always found that my sexuality allowed people to deny me my race, like I’m not black enough because I’m into guys… But in terms of the LGBTQ community, my sexuality and my race have kind of come together to allow me to see like the intersectional issues. The fact that it’s not just the fact that I’m black, it’s not just the fact that I’m gay, but these things make it very complex because I’m black… Then I’ve found that dating is also [hard]. I always thought that because you’re gay you understand being discriminated against. But if you go online on a site and then you chat with someone and if you don’t have your picture there then they ask you your race and then you’re like “I’m black” and they’re like “Oh sorry I’m not looking for blacks, just whites only.” Yeah that and the gender performance as well as the “No fats, no fems, no blacks”… And we don’t really get much mixing of races… I haven’t had friends that were dating outside of their race.
How has being gay impacted your experience in racial discrimination and the black community in general?
I used to lead by my sexuality first but then I realized that when I came out of Ndwedwe that even before a person can notice my sexuality or before I can pronounce my sexuality, they see my race. I’m treated in accordance to my race. In black communities you don’t want to be seen as weak. So you’ll try to… buff up and change how you walk. But when I’m in white spaces in the white community, you don’t want to be seen as threatening, as a danger, so you try to be less macho so it’s always something that I need to catch myself [doing] because it’s not something that I do consciously. Because sexuality was a thing that was most prominent. It forced me to speak about it because that’s what I’ve always lived with. But when I got out of it, there were other issues I also deal with. So it’s made me want to be more active and speak out more against race issues and stuff.
Have you noticed a rural and urban divide in how people treat you?
There’s this assumption though that the people in the rural areas are more homophobic than people in the cities. [But] nobody has ever heckled me in Ndwedwe. Nobody has ever verbally abused me when I was walking on the street, but it’s happened here in Durban. Generally, the assumption is that people are more homophobic in rural areas, but where I come from they are… more tolerant of it. Perhaps it’s because when you come to Durban, because it’s a bigger town and it’s within the city, people are more comfortable to express themselves. So maybe that’s why there’s such a strong pushback.
By not being a “Born-Free” (black South Africans born after Apartheid ended in 1994), what is the difference between the experience you’ve had in the LGBTQ community versus the experience of “Born-Frees” in the LGBTQ community?
Younger black males are more likely to come out earlier now because it’s legal. And that was [passed] after 1994. So whereas we were bombarded with “you shouldn’t do that, boys don’t do this, don’t act that way” and stuff, they probably didn’t get that as much. Or even with like the media, it’s showing more representations. Over the years we’ve had shows showing gay relationships which have been taboo in the past, so I definitely think that there is a difference. When I was in school I was trying to find participants for my research and I would ask them “So how do you feel about that?” And they’d be like “well that’s who he is, so there really isn’t any issue.” I actually had a lot of experiences where I would have thought that my friends would stick up for me but they didn’t because they are now associated with this guy that everyone either suspects or they’re sure that he’s gay so if they stick up for me, then they also stand a chance of being bullied as well. Whereas now, the kids when I talk to them they say “No! I stick up for him if this happens or if someone says this to him.” So yeah, I definitely think that there’s a difference, but there’s still a long way to go.