Initiation schools have been known to be unprogressive spaces and enablers of a number of social ills, despite them being meant to be institutions of learning. This includes discrimination against young gay or queer folk who have to undergo the ritual in order for their communities to see them as adults.
Siyabonga* is a gender non-conforming identifying individual from the rural areas of the Eastern Cape who currently resides in Cape Town. Siyabonga shares their experience of queerphobia while they were in initiation school back in 2012.
Despite it being almost six years later, Siyabonga still recalls the verbal abuse and discrimination they endured as if it was yesterday. Siyabonga believes that for rituals like initiation to be taken seriously in society they must begin to dismantle the toxic masculinity taught there and start addressing the alarming death of initiates. Here is their story…
Growing up and being teased because of how feminine you were… People used to tease you for “being like a girl” – you know the deal. I always remember while growing up being told that when the time “is right,” I will have to [get] rid of these ways. I never saw anything wrong with myself, I did pick up that I never enjoyed playing with boys as much as I did with girls. I think I realised when I was in my teens that I actually like boys and people who like boys are not straight, but gay. The bullying intensified and I tried to block it out. I ended up staying at home most of the time after school and not going to chill with my friends.
I was about 15 or 16-years-old when a cousin of mine reiterated the same line that I used to hear growing up, that I “needed to change.” My cousin explained to me that [because I was a] few years from going to initiation school, I needed to “tone down” on my femininity. Fast forward to when I was in Grade 11, and still battling to come to terms of who I was. I went with ‘gay’, because that’s what people said. The straight boys in my area would all of a sudden stop me and start talking to me; telling me that the time for us to go to initiation school is coming, and asking if I was ready to let go of my “childhoodness.” I still think they were referring to my femininity.
The time for me to go to initiation school came. I then remember how it felt like everyone was watching me like a hawk. I think many were surprised that I was eventually going. Well, I did it because it felt like I was forced to do it. During my time there, I just remember everyone being awkward around me; my caretaker telling me that I was now there to rid myself of ‘ubufazi’ (femininity), as they all called it. I just remember being made fun at [and] other initiates asking me if I enjoy being screwed from behind. I mean it’s much more vulgar when they ask you in isiXhosa. Sometimes, they’d ask me if I was willing to change, because from now on, I couldn’t sit with my girlfriends when I leave the school but them; and they were not going to sit with a gay person who enjoys being screwed from behind… Because, what if I tried to have sex with them?
We cannot allow environments that turn our men into these dangerous queerphobes, misogynists and patriarchs
Imagine being in that space for over a month, having to endure such hate speech. I felt so violated. So abused. It also affected me in so many ways because I was not focusing on my body and my wound was taking longer to heal. But, I guess at the same time, if I wanted to get out of there I needed to suck it up and get the whole process over and done with. Growing up, elders always taught you the importance of going to initiation schools. I think that [has] changed over the years; people have now turned what used to be a sacred space into a space to enable toxic masculinity and the issues that come with it.
After leaving that space, I never felt the same again. I felt like an incomplete human being. It was hard to just now forget all the harsh words that were said to me. My friends said they noticed some change in me. I really felt different but I never knew how to explain it. It got to a point where I started hating my own neighbourhood and I couldn’t wait for my matric year to be over so I could relocate to Cape Town.
Relocating [to Cape Town] after 2013 helped me so much. It felt so therapeutic. I finally was in a space where I could learn [about] myself and who I truly was. I mean I still am learning who I am, and I still am looking for the courage to eventually tell my family who I am. I already foresee the worse reaction when you say you are gender non-conforming and you have to explain that to them. I think it will be worse than coming out as gay. But I am in a good space right now, and I think at some point I will fully reclaim myself and get over the trauma that I endured at initiation school.
Not to say those [initiation] spaces are not important, maybe in some communities they are. But in this day and age, society cannot allow for the creation of such environments that turn our men into these dangerous queerphobes, misogynists and patriarchs. We are at a time of unlearning, but it’s like there are people who want to unlearn what they want to and block everything else out. It worries me because there are more queer kids who have to go to these initiation schools, and who knows how much harder they have it?
As told to Mihlali Ntsabo. *Siyabonga is not the interviewee’s real name.