Opinion | Who’s your R. Kelly? And did you survive him?

The story of R. Kelly marrying Aaliyah first came into my consciousness as a child, while eavesdropping on a conversation as R. Kelly songs played in the house. My uncle was drawing comparisons between the age-old “tradition” of ukuthwala and R. Kelly’s marriage to (the apparently) 18-year-old Aaliyah.

I clearly recall him saying, “if they love each other, then why not?” Coincidentally, Aaliyah’s famous 1994 track, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number, written and produced by the 27-year-old R. Kelly, was playing.

We now know that it was much more than just a song. Growing up, I separated the man from the art because even at 8-years-old I knew that a much older man marrying a teenager was wrong (I learned a few months later through a magazine article that Aaliyah was in fact 15 when R. Kelly married her).

Now, as the impact of the documentary Surviving R. Kelly grows, I reflect on my own experiences with sexual predators – directly and indirectly. And I wonder, how often do we speak up as gay boys and men when we are violated?

I remember once being cornered by a much older man as a teenager, after one of our teen house parties, and having to relent and kiss him. At that point, my survival instinct said, ‘if you don’t kiss him, he might beat you up’ – and I would have to explain how I even ended up in a tight corner with this man. He had imposed himself on a group of teenagers and then followed my inebriated self to the toilet and waited for me to come out to pounce. I also remember as a student a man following me up to my room on campus and claiming he was there to fix something. (He was an employee of the university, so he had been able to access the building without question.)

He overstayed his welcome and, just as the other man from my teens, he too found a way to ‘steal a kiss’ after pushing me onto my bed. He suggested I was acting coyly, and said he knew for sure I had done ‘more’ on that very same bed, because “you lot like things”. I didn’t know this man and didn’t see him again until months later but he brought so much shame and fear into my life.

I never told any of my friends. These men and I shared this ‘dirty secret’ for years. I watched my back when walking around them; ensuring that I was never alone anywhere they might be. What I did not count on was these incidents shaming me for being attracted to men and having sexual desires.

As I’ve read the many accounts of young women who were (allegedly) lured into R. Kelly’s houses under false pretences and then pushed into sexual relations that were predatory and exploitative – I think of the many other gay men, whose stories aren’t heard and aren’t told; because we shame men who are victims of sexual abuse. A friend once told me of how he was molested by a family friend and the incident was brushed under the carpet. My childhood best friend, a transgirl, was raped by a man who she was on a night out with and then further victimised when she went to report the incident. Another friend speaks of being touched inappropriately by an older cousin when he was younger.

I have no doubt that there are many more similar stories, and that we don’t speak of them because of the shame attached to being male bodied and being sexually violated or threatened with sexual violence. I think of why I could never speak to my friends about what happened to me; that I too was ashamed and wondered what I had done to attract these men’s attention. I asked myself why I froze and relented when cornered, why I didn’t fight back.

We are in a time when we speak more and more about the need to bring predators to book, to name and shame and to hold people accountable, but we are not seeing more queer men speaking about their own experiences of sexual violence. We are not yet at the point where we are able to say, ‘men are trash’, and make men who have been violated comfortable to add their own experiences of sexual violence and offer solidarity.

We speak of toxic masculinity and how that not only manifests in cisgender heterosexual men but also in cisgender homosexual men, and yet we are still not hearing queer men speak of their own experiences. Of being cornered and forced to make a survivalist decision, or keeping quiet to avoid causing drama at the dinner table. After all, who would believe that a man could rape another man? But men do rape other men; men rape queer men as a means to correct, taunt or exercise power over them.

I write this article, not because I have finally woken up and need to speak about the many times men have crossed the line with me, but to call for reflection. Perpetrators of sexual violence – school teachers and coaches, random strangers, employers, government officials, doctors, lecturers, uncles, brothers, cousins, the family friend, the neighbour, the policeman – everyone who is complicit and implicit in the sexual violation of both women and men should be called out. And those who are victims should find support, safety in speaking out and reporting, and the knowledge that we won’t be judged or shamed.

I chose to be silent and move on, but I know others may not have the ‘luck’ I had; a kiss might not be all they face and their screams may be stifled as they live among people who refuse to believe that that nice church-going husband preyed on a young boy. As we call for R. Kelly to be brought to book, let’s look at the R. Kellys in our own queer lives and make the same demand.

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