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Mark Gevisser

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Being Black and Gay in Soweto, During Apartheid and After

Granta 114This piece, published today in the Mail & Guardian, is taken from an article in the current issue of Granta magazine, no. 114, “Aliens”. Please see below for a special subscription offer for Granta.

Edgar had two wedding rings, he told me. He wore one on his left hand and the other round his neck.

The first was a solid gold signet, conjuring the respectability of a Soweto patriarch: his marriage of over 50 years; his decent clerical job; his home shared with his wife and 15 of his progeny — children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The second was a lush red silk tie, given to him by a male lover, since deceased. His family might have seen it as another item in his snappy wardrobe, but he wore it with purpose, to commemorate the man: “He worked for Liberty Life and he treated me so well. He was amazing! We would go places. It’s still there, the tie. It’s red, beautiful. I love that tie!”

Their wedding bands were the first things I noticed when I met Edgar and his friend Phil in 1998, at a Soweto tavern named Scotch’s Place. Both rings were assertive and masculine, planed rather than curved, and spoke of the substance and solidity of their wearers. Phil, like Edgar, was a married grandfather; he owned a home in a middle-class part of Soweto and drove a car; he was approaching retirement from his own clerical job at a commercial company in town.

These were the days when a wedding ring still meant you were straight, or in the closet. And so Edgar and Phil’s fingers flashed a particular code as the men sat in the semi-obscurity of Scotch’s interior, having chosen a table that put them in the direct flight path between the door to the yard and the bar. As patrons streamed in and out, Phil or Edgar would mutter something sotto voce, and a young man or two would linger for a moment, engage in conversation, and maybe sit down. By the time I left three hours later, chairs had been pulled up all around them and tables pulled together.

All these young men had impossibly waspy waists, with button-down shirts neatly tucked into the smartly pressed jeans, or tank tops riding well above the navel: amaphophodlwana, Edgar and Phil called them, using isingqumngqum, the township gay slang, derived from Zulu migrant labourers; “small boys”.

“Look at them,” Phil said, with desire and disapproval. “We were not as free as they are today. Today they are very free. Very showy. You can see them miles away. I won’t go around with a boy in a skinny top and a belly button outside, no. No, no, no, no.”

All the names in this piece are pseudonyms, and certain details have been changed to protect Phil and Edgar’s confidentiality. Some of the material used here is from interviews conducted by Zethu Mathebeni and Paul Mokgethi for Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action. For a special subscription offer to Granta for Mail & Guardian readers, the quarterly magazine of new writing, visit www.granta.com/guard.

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