There is a lot to be said for small-town South Africa. At least, there is a lot to be said for coastal small-town South Africa: I’ve always believed no one would miss the Free State if it were flooded to make way for a picturesque little inland sea or covered – this is my humanitarian side coming through – from horizon to horizon in solar panels to ease the world’s energy crisis.
Similarly, I have enough friends from Benoni who claim to be from Joburg to know that Gauteng small towns won’t be winning any awards any time soon either.
But small coastal towns are fantastic. From the sleepy hamlets of the Transkei and the tropical greenery of KZN to the reassuringly ’boutique-y’ villages of the Western Cape and the unassuming dorps of the Eastern, our coastline is magical. In some parts magnificent and dramatic, in others gentle and forgiving, but everywhere beautiful.
My mother lives in just such a village. It is the kind of place that I would call salt-of-the-earth if I were feeling diplomatic. I have been served a cosmo in a beer mug there, and the only pizzeria in town eschews this newfangled mozzarella nonsense and uses cheddar on its pizzas. But it restores my soul to go home. After all, the Buddha was a rural fella.
So it was only natural that a couple of weeks into a new relationship I invited my boyfriend along on one of my weekend trips home. I phoned my mother to tell her and she suddenly sounded panicked. In a quintessentially South African moment that made me laugh out loud she blurted out “but what will the maid think?”
This is the same mother who told me on the night of my matric dance how proud she was of me for taking a guy, and how handsome we both looked. She dropped me off at Pride parades when I was still too young to drive and nursed me through all those ugly teenage breakups . But this was all while we still lived in Joburg; it turns out that being hip and liberal is partly situational. “Get a grip, mom” I said, and turned into Steve’s* driveway to pick him up.
The weekend got off to an unremarkable start. I ate too much, drank too much and could barely motivate myself to wander onto the beach (There is a strong disincentive to move when you find yourself on a veranda armed with gin and tonic and confronting uninterrupted views of sea, sand dunes and nature reserve). We had dinner. We went to bed. I refused to have sex because of the proximity of my bedroom to my mother’s, and we woke up to the tranquil sounds of waves crashing and birds singing.
It was so cheesily idyllic it seemed almost Scandinavian. In the feature film about my life there would definitely be an ABBA track to this scene. And perhaps the director would even throw in some animated butterflies.
Why is it that gay people are not entitled to rural life?
I went downstairs to make some coffee and ten minutes later a friend who lives a couple of houses down from my mother’s place arrived. “Do you know”, she said, accepting a cup of coffee, “that you are the Spawn of Satan?”
It is testament to my naive and very un-Satanic nature that my initial reaction wasn’t anger so much as slow-blinking incomprehension.
“Nombulelo said to me this morning that you are the Spawn of Satan. Because there’s a boy in your bed,” she explained.
Now do bear in mind that Nombulelo is not even my mother’s domestic; she is my friend’s. Which means that there must have been clandestine cell phone conversations between the two housekeepers immediately after the discovery of the sleepy Steven. I erupted into a fit of curses and indignation.
My neighbour looked a little alarmed by my rant and became downright terrified when my mother heard the news and joined in (If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, try scorning her laatlammetjie son). I was on an emotional rollercoaster that fell from rage into the precipice of deep sadness that people who knew and loved me could be so brainwashed by institutional religion, and settled finally on fear.
By that evening I was tormenting myself with mental images of angry locals with pitchforks torching our house to the ground while chanting uyabaleka uSatane!** Needless to say, Steven didn’t get any that night either, and I barely slept. Every snapping stick outside sent me bolt upright and wide-eyed in bed.
I was surprised by how much Nombulelo’s comment had upset me. I don’t suppose anyone likes to be referred to as an evil demon, but it was hardly my first brush with Christian fundamentalism. My previous partner’s father has the delightful belief that gay people need to be exorcised. But it especially upset me because I had convinced myself that I was part of that little seaside community.
I had worked in the village for six months the previous year. People greet me by name in the shops and everyone knows my mom. I used to give Nombulelo a lift home after work every day. It was all very neighbourly. But it transpires that inclusion was conditional on my apparent heterosexuality.
Why is it that gay people are not entitled to rural life? I love living in the city, but I’d also like the option of a quiet seaside existence one day. Why does being liberal depend on a high population density? And does acceptance of gay people only come with the full spectrum of acceptance of drugs, prostitution, urban decay and crime? What kind of pick-and-mix is that?
I see now why small towns often have reactionary, camp, self-ghettoising gay communities. It is defensiveness. Our sexual orientation, which to me is no more interesting as a characteristic than having blue eyes or being Chinese, becomes a defining characteristic in small towns. It is met with denial and abhorrence by some and with curious fascination by the well-meaning.
Wouldn’t it be great if the barman casually enquired after my boyfriend while handing me my cosmo in a beer mug? But until that happens, perhaps I should listen to my mom and realise that in small towns, feeling welcome means deferring to what the maid thinks.
* Not his real name
** IsiXhosa for “run away Satan”