Like many South Africans, I too was apoplectic when first learning about the incident involving the deputy minister of higher education and training Mduduzi Manana. It was both disconcerting and frightening to see the minister lose control while flagrantly disregarding whatever threshold there is to withhold one from beating a woman.
My disgust turned into dismay when hearing the minister explain that the reason for his dangerous loss of composure was that the woman called him "gay". It is not clear whether the woman used the word as a slur or whether she suspects the deputy minister of being gay; so, in the absence of clarity I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she has more sense than to use the word "gay" as a slur, for gay is a word under which millions of people across the world have taken to the streets, marching with pride, since 1970.
Seemingly, the minister went ballistic not for being called a pejorative but for being called something that he isn't. According to those who know, it is the association of gay men with feminine traits that can cause some straight men to go berserk. This is an unfortunate stereotype that is at odds with reality, for like every section of society, those who love people of the same sex come in all shapes, sizes, colours and temperaments.
The effeminate label for men and the butch label for women contradict the reality that even the most virile of men who ooze masculinity may be gay and so too, women who are the epitome of feminine beauty. The Manana incident and the reason given for his outburst, together with the statement made last week by the owners of Beloftebos Wedding Venue, serves as an opportunity for us to pause and reflect, i.e. reflect on our society where people are made to feel excluded in subtle and not so subtle ways.
This exclusion is often well articulated, rationally argued and based on biblical principles. Those of us who share the Christian faith know that the reasons given for exclusion are in fact what the holy book states, so we fail to challenge such justifications. However, when interpretations of the Bible consistently go unchallenged, they become truths that permeate our society, causing people to feel like lesser beings because of who they love and others to feel intensely insulted when called gay if they are not.
We forget that biblical principles are more than the specific things that people do...
Those of us who grew up oppressed under apartheid and for whom the Bible served as the roadmap of our lives, have always battled with the paradox of the biblical assurance of each person being created in the image and likeness of God, while simultaneously being viewed as inferior under a racially segregated system that found its justification in the verses of the very same scripture.
The recent statement explaining reasons for the refusal of the owners of Beloftebos Wedding Venue to host a same-sex marriage reminded me of how selective we can be when applying the truths written in the Bible. The quintessence of our faith is about sinners experiencing God's grace, yet we consider some of us worthier than others. Even though divorce is also something the Bible states is wrong, I guess the Beloftebos Wedding Venue will not refuse to host a wedding of people who are marrying a second or third time after a divorce.
Nor will they refuse to host the wedding of people who do not honour their parents or uphold the Sabbath or who are untruthful. We forget that biblical principles are more than the specific things that people do; the Bible is above all about love, compassion and grace that we as people experience, despite our sinful nature, from a God whose example we strive to emulate and often fail at. As Christians, we were given an example of how we are to treat others and one of the most impactful scenes in the Bible is the one where Christ draws in the sand, waiting for those who are without sin to cast the first stone.
Often, we as people of faith stand in judgement of others and we have unfortunately become comfortable with condemning those who love people of the same gender. We tend to stereotype gay people and place them into boxes, seeing them as a collective instead of seeing each one as an individual with the same hopes and expectations of love and companionship that we all have. Is the fact that two people wish to commit to each other and share their lives not a reason to celebrate and embrace them? Instead, we say that because they share the same gender they are not worthy.
The sentiment in the Beloftebos statement is one I have so often heard articulated by many good people of faith. I have always challenged such views because throughout my life I have known and cared deeply for many amazing people whose sexual orientation I do not share. During the years spent at the University of Cape Town Ballet School, as a part-time and later full-time student, I was blessed to get to know people of depth and character that made an impact on my life. One such person was the man who later became my boss when he appointed me as the first teacher for a trust he had founded.
Commitment and dedication to another is not the prerogative of only people in love with the opposite sex.
Through his weekly visits to the school that we established in Gugulethu, I got to know him as a man of integrity, filled with love and compassion. It was, however, my visit to his home in Camps Bay that turned the admiration I had for him because of his talent and vision into a deep respect. Being witness to a beautiful relationship characterized by mutual respect, humour and love that existed for many years between him and his partner convinced me that commitment and dedication to another is not the prerogative of only people in love with the opposite sex.
When my boss suddenly died in August 1991, I came to terms with the loss through the absolute firm belief that God, who created each one of us in His likeness, welcomed the departed soul home with joy, for my boss was a good and faithful man. As a society, we must be aware of the words we use and that the environment we create can lead to our young people experiencing shame.
By using code words and derogatory names, by mocking and ridiculing, by calling love for the same sex wrong, we make this world a hostile place not only for adults but also for the young people who find themselves attracted to people of their own gender. So much harm is done to the psyche of people when they are forced to suppress who they are in order to be accepted or loved.
My golden rule upbringing has helped me be able to imagine how devastating it would be for me if I should be told that my interest in the opposite sex is wrong and that I should suppress it. Yet we unthinkingly do it to people who are gay. By doing so we send the message that gay people can do whatever they want to, as long as our sensibilities are not offended, when no such condition is placed on people who are straight.
I know that there are many people who are out and proud, who live life boldly and confidently, and who truly could not give tuppence about the views held by people who believe that they are morally superior, like so many people of faith. My concern is not so much for them because they are able and competent enough to counter any self-righteous smugness that they may encounter. Instead, my concern is for the youth who find themselves attracted to persons of the same sex.
Our expectation of gay people, especially when they are young, to make a choice between their love of God and their sexuality is cruel.
Those young people, like all teenagers, must navigate the daunting time of adolescence that is typically characterised by finding one's identity, preferences, beliefs, values and abilities, while at the same time desperately needing to be accepted and loved. It is a difficult time for all teens and we should not make it more difficult by creating an environment in which some teens feel ashamed about themselves and their attractions.
An eNCA report in June of this year stated that youngsters who are confused about their sexual orientation are three times more likely to attempt taking their own lives than heterosexual teens. According to pastoral therapist Dr Marietjie van Loggerenberg, teens who are gay, religious and active in the church are most likely to develop depression and therefore to be at risk of suicide because they fear being rejected by the church and by their friends.
A posting by Linda Robertson at www.justbecausehebreathes.com that I read some years ago made a lasting impact on me, as it confirmed my belief that all too often we as Christians convey the message that people who are gay must either choose their sexual orientation or God. We quote the words of Scripture and expect those who are gay to live a life of being alone, unable to experience the comfort of companionship and the intimacy of a relationship, which is something that we enjoy and claim for ourselves. Whether it is intentional or unintentional, our expectation of gay people, especially when they are young, to make a choice between their love of God and their sexuality is cruel.
Our insistence on living our lives according to the Bible ironically results in us, people of faith, often being the most unyielding and relentless in our efforts to make others believe what we believe. We heartlessly expect gay people to suppress who they are and change who they love. We do this in complete oblivion of what such suppression does to their mental health. The crassest example of this is conversion therapy that is practised by some evangelical Christians in the United States who believe that they can "pray the gay away" and change the sexual orientation of young people.
South Africa has also seen horrific and deplorable attacks on lesbian women. As Christians, we are called to love all of humanity and to speak out against the persecution of others. I am a simple woman of faith who grew up in a home where every morning and every evening the Lutheran or Moravian Daily Texts were read, including the Scripture readings. This means that as a family we read the Bible from front to back and back to front [a few times], so I know all too well what the Bible says, even though I fell asleep many a time.
Bringing about change in our society starts with how we treat one another.
More knowledgeable people than I am, such as Bible scholars, theologians and those who are able to quote every chapter and verse from the Bible that is applicable to this topic may vehemently disagree, but as far as I am concerned, being Christian is about love and acceptance of our diverse humanity; for where there is love there is forgiveness and where there is acceptance there is no rejection. Something my parents taught me is that we should err on the side of compassion and kindness, for despite my mother and father being people of deep faith, I cannot remember them ever standing in judgement of acquaintances who were in same sex relationships, which is pretty remarkable for people of their generation.
Bringing about change in our society starts with how we treat one another. When our interaction with others are void of rejection of things that we cannot change, then maybe we are able to create a society where people like Mduduzi Manana and his friend Jabu Mfusi do not feel that being called gay is being provoked beyond the limit. Through empathy and compassion, we will be able to create a space where young people feel safe enough to be themselves without the fear of being rejected.
Scripture teaches us that we are to do what is right, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. Doing what is right is not always a clear-cut issue so I teach my children the golden rule as I was taught: to treat others the way I want to be treated. Last week, while discussing this issue with my family, I realised that I am on the right track when my seventeen-year-old son told me that he would go bananas if anyone was to expect him not to like girls and that he cannot understand the problem people have with gay people because being gay is not a choice nor contagious.
Just in case you were wondering, research has shown that something like the desire to have a romantic relationship may spread from person to person, but an attraction to same sex-partners does not. Nor does being called gay make one gay, Mr Manana.