Right now I am sitting in a café in San Francisco and contemplating life listening to Asaf Avidan and Passenger Official. Generally speaking I normally love psycho-analysis and probing questions, but when I’m travelling this past-time takes on new forms of intensity – it feels like I cannot escape the onslaught of questions about things like the meaning of life, the definitions of culture, the sources of creativity, and finding one’s vocation. Personally I find inherent joy in reflecting on my life and experiences and trying to understand who I am and why. Today the questions were of the punchy variety, questions like:
- “What do you want to be?” (happy);
- “Who do you want to be?” (myself),
- “What do you want to do?” (fix education).
- “Where do you want to live?(…)
But the last one stumped me for a while. The first three were really easy to answer if only because I’ve reflected on them at length before. But the location one took a while. Maybe it’s because I’m trying to decide between a bunch of post-PhD (2015) options at the moment, ranging from a single post-doc in the U.S. to research visits at multiple universities in America (Boston, NYC, San Francisco, Michigan), a fellowship in Paris or staying on in Cape Town. I know my work will always focus on Africa and ultimately I couldn’t live long-term outside of South Africa (or at the very least a developing country) but the question was still quite puzzling for me. Then I remembered a quote that instantly became my answer:
“Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.”
This quote has been a guiding motif in my life ever since I embraced the fact that I am gay. It helped me make one of the most difficult, defining, and important decisions in my life: leaving the church, which I did around this time last year. Thank God I did – I would’ve died if I stayed in it. As most people already know, growing up gay in a hegemonically straight world can be difficult, no matter where you are born. To do so in a country where colonial patriarchy is systemic and ignorance fuels the fire of homophobia is even worse. But the real trifecta is if you get all three: (1) straight hegemony, (2) colonial patriarchy and (3) religiously-induced homophobia. Then you are fucked (proverbially speaking). Of course none of this holds a flame to those who have all of these and also the compounding factors of poverty, an intolerant culture or familial rejection. Theirs are the stories that make us shake our heads in horror and shame, wondering how in 21st century South Africa a girl can be “correctively raped” by straight men, strangled to death and left with a toilet-brush in her vagina for the horrific crime of being lesbian.
My experiences of micro-aggressions are negligible by comparison. Yet for me they are real. It’s not fun having the church strip away what little dignity the world has left you. In any event, it was this time last year that I got the mental composure to ask myself why the hell I was willingly subjecting myself to the ongoing disdain of the religious establishment. The fact that church leaders have “good intentions” doesn’t change the fact that they made me feel like a second rate citizen who was depraved and sick for something over which I have no control. As CS Lewis has said “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.” Sometimes outright hate is preferable to pious pity.
So now I don’t stick around if I’m tolerated. Why would anyone do that? This has been an important factor in deciding to live in Cape Town rather than Stellenbosch, even though I’m still studying at Stellenbosch. The dominant culture in Stellenbosch is conservative, White, Afrikaans culture that is subversively and insidiously homophobic (and White). I work with amazing people who I love and feel completely accepted by, but we live in cities, not offices. I think everyone should – as far as it depends on them – try and find the place where they are celebrated, not just tolerated. I never felt that in the church. Ever. So I left and I’m so so happy I did. I’d encourage anyone else who is in the same position I was to do the same. Yes, you will have existential angst and many of the cards come toppling down with the move, but they really aren’t cards you want to build your life on – conditional acceptance, cloaked-disdain, false certainty. Sometimes you have to go with the truth, even though there is less certainty
Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.