At first you do not know what, if any, name to give this ‘thing’ inside you – you are still too young to know that others have already named it and in any case, it is not important to call it anything, as only you know about it.
Then later, as you grow older, you start to think of it as ‘being different’, for lack of a better term, as you grow up in a Calvinistic Afrikaner home in the sixties and seventies and nobody dare speak about it. You read a lot, you are a single, lonely child, but in no book you find any character with whom you can identify. Later you do realize that you as girl rather fall in love with the heroin in the story and you start to read wider: psychology books in which you find that which you experience as natural, described as a ‘mental illness’. For the first time you experience shock and fear and as a result, you withdraw deeper into yourself.
You hear how adults refer to the guy with the ‘limp wrists’ and laugh scornfully. You hear how the boy who takes needlework as a subject, is being denounced as a ‘pansy’ and you suppress your desire to do woodwork and do target-shooting and march with a uniform with the boys in the cadet corps, deeper and deeper. You write poems to the raven haired girl with the almond eyes and olive skin whose pigtails you can glimpse two desks in front of you in class, but you dare not give it to her. When she later starts dating a boy, your heart breaks into little pieces, but you cannot share your hurt with anybody else.
By this time you are conditioned that you are ‘different’, not ‘normal’ and you hide this knowledge in your deepest sub-consciousness. Later, at university, you discover a new word, “lesbian” and wonder if this thing inside you make you one of “them.” You clandestinely search in the card catalogue of the library for books under the topic. You sneak between the shelves and when you are sure nobody sees you, you remove the books quickly and go and read them in a study carrel in a corner. All the books deal with research reports by the Human Sciences Research Council on subject like ‘A sociological exploration of the lifestyle of a number of lesbians by means of autobiographical narrations’. Anxiously you page to the case studies and at last read that there are other women who have feelings for women, contrary to the generally-accepted man-woman relationships. For the first time you experience a slight feeling of relief: you are not alone, but still you instinctively know you may not discuss this with anybody. As always, you laugh when others in company joke about ‘pansies’ and ‘queers’, but you feel the knife of betrayal turn in your heart. You keep weaving on your tangled web of deception, as fear is the driver.
At university you suddenly find one day that you start looking for the quiet girl with the black hair, who is in the same hostel as yourself, when you have classes together and you cannot take your eyes off her. Your knees turn to jelly when you pass her in a passage and she smiles at you. The one, day, wonder of wonders, you start chatting and never stop.
It becomes an urge to look for each other and later you ask to share a room. You become lovers and for the first time you can hold a woman in your arms and know she feels for you what you feel for her and it is good and beautiful.
You experience how a mere kiss affects your whole body. But still you both know that what you have between you should not become known and she starts dating male students. At night you wait bitter and broken for her to return. When she returns one evening with a ‘hickey’ in her neck, you are shattered and you reason for the rest of the night about her desire to be accepted as ‘normal’, a desire you experience as rejection. You die inwardly each holiday when you have to go home alone and she visits her ‘boyfriend.’ Her mother starts to feel threatened by your presence in her life and forbids you their home. The single holiday you spent there, then also comes to an end.
After university your paths take different directions, but later you land up in the same city and the relationship is rekindled. You rent two flats in the same building and at night you sneak to her, only to sneak back to yours in the morning, while you feel more and more guilty. You are dying to tell somebody about your relationship, to brag about her, but you dare not. After a few years she accepts a post in another city without even telling you that she applied for the job and went for an interview, and she disappears from your life with the explanation that she experiences your relationship as sin and cannot continue living in sin. Once again you are shattered, but have nobody on whose shoulder you can cry.
Later you also find a job in another city. For six years you wrestle with God and yourself, alone and without friends. You have few family members and know you cannot share your secret with your mother, it will break her heart. You try to find solace in alcohol, food, writing and fantasizing and eventually you start thinking about suicide more and more. Only the knowledge that it will kill your aged mother, keeps you from it, even if you plan it in detail.
Luckily you discover a friend with whom you were close at school, in the same city. Her husband often is out of town. She is a frustrated housewife with three small children and invites you over when her husband is away. You chat and laugh through these nights and you dare share your secret with another person. She accepts it and you without judgement and for the first time you can cry yourself out and find comfort without rejection. It is probably here that you start the road to unweaving the tangled web.You still read a lot and now find Afrikaans novels in which the theme is the love between two women. You make peace with God but not man, and the unease with your own self is growing. It feels like you are weaving yourself tighter into the tangled web.
WITH THE CHURCH
As a child you hate going to church. You hate the wretched hat and later the pantyhose you have to wear. The ministers preach hell and damnation upon sinners and even though the theme never is about homosexuality, some verses that contain the word, are being read as part of the sermon. Then you soul cringes and you want to run away, away from these people that sit in church on Sundays with a pious face and during the week do what they like. You become aware that church-goers grade sin, from the small sins like adultery, fraud, gossip and even murder, to the utmost sin: homosexuality. You feel out of place and terribly guilty and try to find answers from God: Why me? You do not ask that He changes you, because instinctively you know you cannot change, it is part of your being and soul.
After school it is a relief to can escape from the judging eyes and fingers of the Dutch-Reformed Church and you find your escape in the Bible. You still wrestle with God, seek answers in the literature and find that some churches claim to ‘heal’ gays. You read what these ‘healed’ people witness and again feel guilty. Later you find that these ‘healed’ people return to their old lifestyles and it only confirms what you always knew.
You read explanations of the Bible and different versions of the base text and also how people quote verses from the Bible out of context to prove a point. And you know what role education and pre-conceived prejudices play in the interpretation of Bible verses. Luckily you are mature enough to know that we see ‘through a mirror darkly.’ God eventually grants you peace and acceptance of who and what you are. You read an explanation of Matthew 19:11-12 where Jesus states that some people are born this way, are made by God like this, and you experience that you are one of those whom God has given the insight to understand these verses – because you are in the situation. It almost feels good and right, the guilt is diminishing, but there is still a huge part of you entangled that you have not untangled yet.
You meet your soul mate and you become life partners. She is also a believer and together you decide to try and give the church another chance. You start attending sermons, informal this time without a hat and in pants, because you do not own a dress any more – one taboo to which society has conceded.
The congregation keeps their distance, will greet and even start a conversation sometimes. You attend the function for new members and the older members of the congregation promise to come and visit. Nobody ever visits. You try and join a cell group, but the invisible wall stays between you and the others. You now know how the people with leprosy felt in Biblical times. Your money however is very welcome and the monthly collection envelope is being deposited in your post box regularly. You stop going to church and serve God in your own way.
You almost ask: ‘Friends? Which friends?’ You do not know any other people who are not “normal.”. You are aware of some prominent people in the city who are gay, but they move in different circles. You cannot start a real friendship with straight people, because you feel out of place and uncomfortable in their company.
You are tremendously thankful for the one friend who knows you are different, but her married life and raising children, is not in your field of reference. Later, when you are in a permanent relationship, your partner brings some of her married friends into your life.
Because you are only ‘friends’ to the world and only share a house for financial reasons, they try and pair her with their single male friends. When it later becomes clear that it is not working, their friendship starts to cool off. You are inwardly thankful, as you could not stand pretending any more. In the end friendship consist of having coffee with a divorced woman or widow, but you and your partner keep pretending that you are only friends. Your soul screams in protest, because your relationship is taboo, but this is what your partner wants and you go along with it, kicking and spitting in your loneliness.
You start corresponding with a gay Afrikaans woman who cannot understand why you keep living in the closet. She teases that the GP in the Gauteng number plate, where she lives, stands for ‘Gay Province” and you envy her her open relationships and gay friends. You realize the human being’s biggest desire is acceptance, but your life stays without friends.
WITH COLLEAGUES AND SOCIETY
First, as single person, you keep quiet and only listen at tea times, and if conversations drift to a homophobic theme, you want to turn around and walk away, but you dare not, because it will throw the closet door wide open and you are not emotionally strong enough to face this. You learn that the organization you work for, with its liberal, intelligent, professional people, is not gay-friendly and you keep hiding in your closet corner, the web a safe home.
The image of promiscuous gay men and ‘Gay Pride’ being portrayed in the media, adds to the stereotype your colleagues have of gay people and you want to shout: ‘We are not all like this!’, but you dare not. The arrival of HIV/AIDS and its labelling as a ‘gay illness’, strengthens this image. Later, when you do get involved with somebody, colleagues accept her as a friend. After years together you suspect that you are being labelled as “gay”, but nobody dares question you openly and you keep quiet like you have become accustomed to do.
In the neighbourhood where you live, the neighbours are friendly, but keep their distance, some of them openly display animosity. You just shrug it off and go your separate way, as long as they do not interfere with your life.
When the law on Civil Unions become official, you are quietly grateful that at least the law is on the ‘invisible people’s’ side. You still wonder if it ever will happen: “What a difference society we could have if morals were exclusively about our consideration and tolerance of others, instead of the manner by which we have an orgasm.” (Colin Spencer). But Apartheid is still rife in South Africa, gays even have to go to separate churches. All choice you have as a “not-normal” person, is to accept who you are and get out of the closet and accept the consequences, or not to accept it and keep on wrestling in the kind of life society expects of you.
WITH YOUR PARENTS
You dearly want your mother to accept you as you are, but you hear of so many gays whose parents reject them. You read Barbara Johnson’s books about her experience with her gay son and find out that some parents are devastated when they hear that a child is gay. This keeps you from ever telling your mother. After her death you regret that you did not, but also know that her frame of reference was that of the church and society in which she grew up – namely that it is a lifestyle of sin chosen by a gay person. And your parents and family are the support system in your life, therefore your fear of losing their love and support keep you pretending that you are like them: acceptable and “normal.” You stick to your closeted web.
WITH THE CLOSET AND THE WEB
It is lonely and dark in the closet, the smell of naphthalene sometimes gets unbearable, but it is safe and you stay invisible. The closet and its web becomes home. Until you can bear it no more…