Many of us in the LGBTQIA+ community face discrimination and rejection from family members who do not approve of who we are. Research shows that this can lead to persistent feelings of tension, anxiety and distress.
The effects of queerphobia also result in a statistically significant correlation between internalised homophobia and suicidal thoughts, especially among young bisexuals and teenagers who have not come out.
For Sindiso*, growing up in a homophobic family has severely damaged his relationship with his mother. He says that his family won’t accept his sexuality and continue to pressure him to “change”. This is his story.
My family has always known that I am gay. I even knew that I was gay. I remember when I was young, in primary [school], I wore a dress and I have never been so happy. I even remember my family embracing it. I think they did because at that time and stage families tend to brush off any acts a child does under the assumption that they will grow out of it. When I think of the very good times that I shared with my family, I always recall that memory specifically. It felt like they accepted me without judgement – although you would never say that now.
I wasn’t the only one in primary [school] who acted the way I did. I had a group of friends and we acted differently from the other boys. You could tell that we were different; we felt comfortable being around girls and being very fem. I just knew that there was something about us that was so special. I grew to embrace my sexuality but there is a certain factor that does not want me to live my full life, and that is my family.
As many would have read, heard or experienced, coming from a very rural or conservative background can be a fuckup when you are gay or queer; you have to act a certain way and do certain things ascribed to men due to the heteronormative hegemony. I never hung around with straight boys; I was with my gay friends and straight girls.
I guess when I was growing up, my family started to notice that I was not changing from the effeminate child I was and that’s where the problem started, especially with my mother. I know for a fact she knows that I am gay. She is my mother and birthed me; I grew up in front of her. I knew that she was aware of who I was when my nephew (who happened to be gay) invited his gay friend. Then my mother pulled me to the side. She had this really disgusted face on her and pointed at my nephew’s friend and said, “Don’t you ever turn out like that, because I will not allow it.” You can imagine the shock and confusion that I had. I mean, I was around my early teen years and here is this person saying this to me. It was very hurtful.
My confusion would get even worse when we would watch TV. You’d see [my family] laughing and reacting so warmly and positively when they saw [openly gay celebrity] Somizi on TV and expressing how much they loved him. But they didn’t want me to be who I am.
A few years ago, I decided to come out to my mother. Well it never happened because she cut me off before I could even finish. We were sitting in the lounge. Then I decided, ‘you know what, let me test her and see what her reaction would be’. I thought she would be okay, because she had never seen me with a girl before. I looked at her and said “Mom, I have something to tell you and I think you will not like it…” Before I could even finish, she said “Ungandenzeli loma simba mna”, which translates to “Don’t try me with that bullshit.” It’s like she knew what I was going to say; I could see it in her eyes. She then went on to call her boyfriend. I don’t know what she said to him but I remember her giving me the phone so I could speak to him. The boyfriend told me that I should stop being the way I am because it’s really affecting my mother. I was so angry, dropped the call and confronted my mother. After that things were never the same. I recall crying and just wanting to end my life because I did not think my mother would go as far as humiliating and hating me. Even until this day, our relationship is very strained. We barely talk.
There are times when she continues to torture me by [wanting to] force me to have a child, because she wants grandchildren. There was even a time when she said that maybe she should have had a second child because I wasn’t doing anything for her. I stood there again, aghast, asking myself how someone who gave birth to you can say such hurtful things to make you feel useless. The world outside already makes it difficult for you to breathe because you are gay and now you can’t even take refuge in your own family.
I always try to avoid [my family]. I feel so liberated at times being away from them, although I really do love them. They are my family after all and she is my mother. Sometimes it feels like she would also prefer me being away from her in order for her to love me. It’s like she cannot love me while looking at me because I am constantly in her space to remind her of who I truly am, and my true self is something she resents.
If you are struggling with family rejection get help through one of these LGBTQ organisations: Triangle Project in Cape Town (021 712 6699), OUT in Pretoria (012 430 3272), the Gay & Lesbian Network in PMB (086 033 2331), or the Durban Lesbian & Gay Community & Health Centre (031 312 7402 / 42). Or call LifeLine’s 24 Hour Counseling Line on 011 422 4242 / 0861 322 322 or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567.
As Told To edited for brevity and clarity. *Sindiso is not the interviewee’s real name.