Seeing one’s reflection in the mirror can bring out confusingly intimidating reactions: intimidating because they may contradict the perceptions we hold about ourselves that are already niched into our psyche. As people, we sometimes insist on the validity of our own beauty, correctness, the firmness of our goodness, and the realness of our accepted dogmas. It is unfortunate that the mirror is honest and offers no opinion about the reflection. We tend to compose and position ourselves in ways that give us a palatable view when we gaze at our reflections. One might give themselves a pep talk to believe they are not the worst in terms of outward appearance. And this is so with our character and identity. And the same with how society views queerness in the forms of either sexuality, expression or identity.
We distort our realities and claim perfection, and in doing so we single out queerness as an abominable expression. And this is the same manner in which we adjust our posture in front of the mirror to align with the idea that we have concretised inside our heads. We tell ourselves that we do not possess a flawed character like others. Certainly a delusion of self-destruction. Somehow we all do actually succeed in mastering the art of viewing ourselves the way we want to be seen, and this includes the creation of an imaginary state of superiority in terms of acceptability. In doing so, originality is cast out of the window and social paranoia is polished and replaces it on the mantle.
What is it that homophobes fear the most that leads them to profess such snobbish sexual extremism? What drives a layman to espouse medieval ideas about queerness and seek to burn queer persons at the stake? I have asked these questions many times, but their answers have proven evasive. Nonetheless, I have tried, according to what I will say here, to come up with my own answer.
In short, it is because of delusion; the fear of coming to grips with liberation. A fear so archaic that the ones pushing for sexual extremism of any kind believe that to dare to walk out of their present prison and embrace the liberated is treason. They do know that they are imprisoned by their single-mindedness, but are in denial. In their eyes there is more sadness than there is hate. A trembling travels through their bodies, leaving them in a state of terror of the very extremism they purport to stand for.
When I was a young boy, innocent and naïve of the world’s wickedness, something inexorably ugly happened to me, which clung selfishly to my mind. It is an incident I have no appropriate word for since it happens more often. It leaves one with a memory that holds on through the test of time, bobbing up in the midst of Cyclone Idai and swaying without breaking during the windy July afternoons. What I don’t remember precisely is what year and school holiday it was; the only thing that matters to me is the substance of such a memory. A boy who was then in his teenage years, was leading some of the other boys on our street in a game of soccer, the type played with plastic bread wrappers and empty sugar packets. Since I was not one for any sport that demanded the exertion of physical activity, I naturally went over to one of my neighbours, who over the years had become a sister. In that lazy early afternoon, she had to rush somewhere and asked the teenage boy to get me to play with them. From this point, I mostly remember with clarity the traumatic experience that followed.
“No, he is not a boy, and he will not be able to play soccer with us. Anyway, girls should not play soccer.”
“Come on. Don’t be like that,” Lee, the teenage girl pleaded like a liberal who has to assume a moderate tone in such cases. Again, I don’t recall the verbal scuffle that occurred because what followed has become similar to rushing to the scary parts of a Stephen King novel. The boys, who had paused their game, advanced towards me after Eric (not his real name), the teenage boy, proposed pulling down my pants to examine whether I was a boy. In that instant, my eyes were cast down in shame and fear, my sight interspersed between dusty feet attached to sweaty, unbathed bodies and the creviced tarred road below. Eric held my sex with such disgust that one would have thought of it as sickly. The others in the maddening crowd, peeked into my half pulled down trousers with what I have termed innocent curiosity, for I doubt that they consciously understood what they were doing, for hate and intolerance is taught. But in Eric,I registered indifference and inbred hate.
“Lokho wazibumbela. He molded this himself.”
This clears up when in my childhood I prematurely transitioned from innocence to a stage of experienced personhood. The people around me had held up the mirror for me to see how abominable I was in their eyes, worse than the squalor, despair, and frustration we were already in under Robert Mugabe. This is but a grain of sand by the beach when it comes to the number of reasons the communities remind us we don’t belong: first comes the dehumanisation, then the objectification. Decent and cultured beings are reduced to objects to be examined like rare species at a natural history museum. The questions that followed after this ordeal were, “Why did it happen to me? Why did he do that?” And the most tremendous of all was, “What is wrong with me?”
The experience of losing my dignity and innocence at the age of about six or seven began to push me towards an inescapable vortex of self-consciousness and a fear of the unknown. It is this fear that has governed every facet of my life. Forgiveness is a superficial ideal, especially when there is no introspection and on the part of those who have caused pain.
As we grow up, we begin to develop interests in different aspects of our daily life. I never understood why I had to acquaint myself with boys whose only interests were in no account related to mine. I preferred reading novels and chatting with people about their fascinating lives. But my male peers, who were really just acquaintances and colleagues, preferred to recount weekend football matches and say nasty things about girls in class. This caused a rift between me and people who expressed themselves in accordance with their assigned gender. Now here was a teenager crossing the acceptable gender boundaries in expressing himself, a thing unheard of, so something had to be done about me.
“SOCIAL TREASON!” they yelled with ignorance and ranted from the ironic comforts of their steel rod single beds, seeking the absolute punishment for the crime with whichI was charged. The names and labels began, all of which were derogatory in nature, lacking the comic sense of nicknames.
Istabane, Gay, Faggot, Sis Bhuti and so they called me. The trouble with names based on assumptions is that they become the only narrative about a person. Names become an introduction to who the person is and what they are, and where they are from is narrated in one single tag and label. They are an incomplete truth. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says stories can be war, and in reiterating this view, I say the names that we give to people based on our assumptions become weapons used against the innocent. When I was in Form Two, I developed a romantic crush on a new student. This girl was beautiful, with a smooth, light caramel skin tone unblemished by the touch of any boy. Her eyes registered an innocent cheerfulness that made her look fragile, like she was worth everything. I could write a thousand pages describing her beauty. Let’s just say she was my Zimbabwean version of Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. The relationship never happened because I was too feminine and not that smart either. But the real deal-breaker was someone telling her I was gay. The tag introduced me before I had the chance to even describe and define myself. Gay or not, it’s not anyone’s place to tell the world who I am. Let’s suppose a friend is gay; to introduce them as, “my gay friend” or “He is gay, by the way” tells someone that that’s all there is to that person. It equates them to an object that has no imaginable past and future; as something that’s just there. No one is bestowed with the sacred authority to define what or who someone is.
I spent my teenage years on the peripheries of sexual identity, particularly gender I have to know myself before I decide who I am to love. I was in battle with my supposedly abominable thoughts and what people kept telling me about myself. One afternoon, I was eyeing myself in the mirror, admiring the tone my skin was adopting, when something else happened. In the mirror there was a reflection of a person I intensely feared and was ashamed to recognise as myself. I felt as though I was staring right into my soul. I remember acting out to see if I was girlish like they said. Suddenly, I stopped. I was scared, depressed, affrighted, alone, dejected, confused and distraught. All I could say was, “But I…” innumerable times. What I saw in the mirror was the version of me that I denied existed. In that stillness I saw the person I was avoiding. Maybe that was the reason I had a tough time looking at my reflection in the first place. I had been in denial of who I was. While I usually strived to be viewed as acceptable, the person in the mirror was real and pleading for love, acceptance, and kindness.
Seven years after my ordeal with the mirror, I found myself writing a novel manuscript, The Outcasts. Have you ever done something or said something without knowing you were doing it, only to discover that you were correct but had no idea? I was reading the manuscript when I randomly came across scenes that sounded autobiographical but retained the flavour of fiction. I took the depressed person I was ashamed of from the mirror and wrote him a defence. I believe that when I wrote the defence, I had no control. The self I had denied existence liberated itself and spoke through the pen. Rereading the already submitted manuscript caused me to retreat back into the shadows of fear and self-doubt, and I attempted to make changes to the story. Deep down, I had this hope, like a prayer, not to the deity of some hypocritical religious delusion but to the fate of our lives and heaven knows what else American liberals believe in, that the publisher would decline the additional changes. When she eventually did, something was elated within me. I wasn’t disappointed. It is here that I began to understand why I was reacting this way. By adding changes I was moving the story beyond fiction to a state of falsehood. With the novel, I allowed my true self to have a voice and ask for the charitable kindness it needed.
To call it self-image is to abuse language because I modelled my personality on the perceptions of those around me. But there were instances in which the truth was ineradicable from reality. Illusions have the immense gift of creating ostensible realities that look reasonable and in place but are unreal. Conscious of the misery I was in, solitude produced a sense of guilt, fear, paranoia, and self-pity that affected my state of mind.
This consciousness that ravished my mind and spirited itself into a state of tyranny and hellish torture did not have its foundations in my experience with the mirror (although this did give it strength), but it traced its origins to what people used to say about me. From a young age I understood the world had not been constructed to include and tolerate me. Isolation from everyone became my default action in public spaces. It’s not pride, but the fear of confrontation with people who find me insulting.
Lee, the sisterly neighbour, had a friend whose name was Naledi. The two went to the same school and were close. Despite Lee being eight years older than me, she wasn’t just a sister; we were friends. Our friendship was transcendental; from her I did not even once register that common boundary that many spring up to prove their age difference. Where she went, I was there. One time, I followed her to church on foot; she thought I was joking, only believing me when we were seated inside the Anglican church in Mpopoma roughly three kilometres from home. And this should be an explanation enough for why her agemates developed a hostility towards me. One afternoon I went over to her house and found Naledi already there. Of course, I saw no trouble with my being there, but maybe I was being inconsiderate. Naledi wasn’t impressed with the innocent intrusion, and she made it known.
“Why aren’t you playing with other boys? Not playing with boys is what makes you act like a girl.” It was sternly said. Her tone was threatening, harsh, hostile, and rude. Assuming that one becomes queer or la femme by association is akin to saying a person’s gender is determined by the delivering midwife. Such a paucity of reasoning, logic, and simple common sense baffles me.
Tolerance is not about accepting and changing your views to embrace what you have opposed or probably never noticed as different beliefs. It’s about respect and acknowledging the humanity in others before moving towards judgment of character. If she had simply said, “Go outside and play with kids your size”, I would have understood her annoyance with my presence, but what she did stripped me of my humanity.
Society is caught in an illusion that has entangled itself around the idea of a by-gone gilded age that is, if that time ever existed. Their hearts yearn for a world they have imagined. Great people strive for an ideal world but the foolish yearn and crave an imaginary past. The only thing they lust for is a time when life lacked variety and exceptionalism. War is waged in defence of narrow-minded beliefs and views that have become outdated and irrelevant, not to mention outrageously inappropriate. Divine services inside churches funded by paupers are transformed into rigorous rallies for murder and violence in place of preaching love, schools meant to be factories for the idealistic future become citadels of intolerance, and it is here that Toni Morrison’s “the other” is made. People whose lives are an antithesis of either worldly or heavenly goodness usurp the responsibility of our consciences to become lawmakers, judges, and executioners to those who dare to be different. A prosecutor is not needed, for “the others” have no dignity and should not be allowed to speak in the presence of holy sinners. It is undeniable that they think of themselves as Epicurean masters of good form, the Fanny Prices of the world who are the moral compass of society, pure and peaceful. In reality, people tend to be Lawrence Lefferts in character – individuals who cling tenaciously to the single-minded hypocrisy of social righteousness. A society under the capture of its own petulant egocentricity and bereft of the goodness and spirituality it professes to possess. What is goodness if it’s not extended to those who differ from us?
If only we could look into the reflections in the mirror and see people who need love and acceptance we would not have this peril with bigotry that serves only to enslave the perpetrator of intolerance. I stopped punishing myself for being feminine and began to look in the mirror only to affirm my completeness. With my arms outstretched, I embraced my liberation.
Go beyond walking a mile in someone’s shoes by imagining what it would be like to be stuck in that state for eternity, then you will understand the dignity and respect they deserve.
Rabhelani Mguni is a Zimbabwean writer and essayist. His works address identity, sexuality, gender, social status, and politics. He is currently studying Gender Studies at Great Zimbabwe University and is working on his first two novels. Some of his works have appeared in publications such as Novelty Fiction, Kalahari Review, Olongo Africa and Odd Magazine.