Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From Encyclopedia To Pornography

by LaTosha Parker

Coming from North Carolina, I've become accustomed to questioning the actions and intentions of some people if I feel I'm being marginalized because of my race (or gender). With that said, I take that attitude from the states and magnify it by 100 here. Racism (and sexism) is in my face EVERYDAY! Its just the way things are here in South Africa, rural and urban.

On a recent Sunday morning, I spent time at a used book stand. Cheap used books are my thing, so I took my time looking through them. After about 20 minutes, I ended up with three novels. One is about an ancient Christian relic stolen during WWII and the modern day recovery of the item. Another involves a murder-mystery during the Medieval Period in the town of Cambridge, England. And the third is an Anne Rice vampire novel (enough said). All three are decent sized. Between 300 to 400 pages (give or take), so nothing I plan to read in its entirety on a 30 minute taxi ride.

As I was paying for the books, one of the owners commented on how much I'm going to enjoy the stolen Christian relic novel. He really liked it and found it to be a good read. The man was very polite, white, and kind of hippy-ish. After saying such positive things about one of the books, he said, "If you like these, then you'll probably enjoy a couple other books I have." So, now I'm intrigued and I follow him over to another table.

He hands me two "thin" paperback books with black female characters on the front. The women are tall, shapely in the butt, small thin waists, long braids, and wear tight clothing. The owner proceeds to tell me that he knows the two black South Africa female authors who wrote the books. They even personally signed his copies. "I figured you might be interested in these books, because...well...you know...," he said. I cut him off with a polite smile so he didn't have to try to finish the sentence.

Since he was so polite, and in all honesty meant well, I decided to indulge him and read the book summaries on the back. Both books revolved around the "Angry Black Women" themes of baby-daddy-drama, sex issues, and balancing work with it all. Both leading women in the books were single with children. One book used "slutty" to describe the intentions of the main character.

In the spirit of forgiveness and tolerance, I guess I should commend the white owner of the used book store for at least making an effort to bridge a gap by even suggesting a book for me...

...Or maybe I should be absolutely and unconditionally insulted by the fact that his attempt to bridge a gap involved belittling my intelligence and suggesting I'd prefer dime books about sex and baby-daddy-drama (maybe because the author is black) over a good long read about murder taking place in a kingdom during the Middle Ages of England, or armed forces trying to steal back a symbolically powerful Christian artifact during WWII?

The owner knows nothing about me or my background. I'm a history teacher. I studied Modern European, American, Classical, and Black American history for four years at university and taught United States History, World History, and World Religions for two. By default, that makes me a nerd, which I know and own. I like long boring books and movies that most of my friends would never read or sit through with me. That's part of the isolation that comes along with being a nerd.


I wonder what the white owner saw when he looked at me spending that time at his book stand that one Sunday morning. Obviously something that lead him to believe I prefer books about raunchy sex, unhealthy relationships, and single-motherhood...

You know how I felt? Its as if I walked in there to buy an encyclopedia, but the owner felt I might like his latest pornographic novel since I had something in common with the characters and authors. You know...being black an all...

Friday, September 4, 2009

I did not feel comfortable announcing that I was gay

by Anonymous

I am speaking today from the perspective of a volunteer who is gay. When I started Peace Corps I was at a time in my life where I was just beginning to come out to the people in my life. Before arriving in South Africa I felt it would be the right time and place for me to finally be completely open about my sexuality. I thought that, at the very least, I would be ok with being out within my group of volunteers.

Within my group of PCVs I did not feel comfortable announcing that I was gay. For many reasons, perhaps mostly to due with my comfort level with being open amongst strangers, I felt it was not the safest place to do that.

I was also surprised that I was, quite obviously in my opinion, the only gay man in my group. Although there are a few lesbian women in my group they have also chosen to remain in the closet. This also encouraged me to stay in the closet.

As time went on, it became comfortable for me to 'out' myself to specific volunteers. This proved to be a great support. I still however believe that I don’t need to out myself to anyone, that there is a lot to who I am as a person and being gay just happens to be one part of who I am.

At my first site, I encountered a lot of homophobic comments. I was not open and the comments were not directed at me, but were still very hurtful and made me very afraid to be open. I have also encountered some homophobic language within PCVs. This is few and far between and never directed at me but has continued to be very hurtful.

At my current site, I live in an extremely rural and conservative village. I am 100% in the closet and question my safety if I were to come out. If not my safety my reputation and respect would, I feel, be diminished. I do not blame any one person in my village for this, and regret that I must be so presumptuous, but ignorance about homosexuality in this country and especially in rural areas is extreme. I do not posses the language ability to educate about homosexuality in a foreign language, either.

I do not hear any homophobic comments in my current village. I do however get asked weekly if I have a girlfriend, if I am married (something I can't do in my home state), if my Gogos can come to America to cater my wedding, if I want a Zulu wife etc. This has been an issue my whole life, but seems to be more and more frustrating in this setting.

Having said all of this, I have had the chance to be openly gay in this country. I have been to the Johannesburg Gay Pride festival, gay bars in Joburg, Pretoria and Durban, and am excited to see the gay scene in Cape Town –the San Francisco of the African continent. I was also in a relationship with a South African for about six months. I have met many gay South Africans, of all races and social classes, but the more rural one gets the less people seem to identify or acknowledge being gay.

I have found that fellow PCVs have been my biggest support system for this aspect of my life. They provide me with the outlet to just be who I am. I have accepted that I can't be open in my village and this is ok; I am here to work as a volunteer and the social aspect of my life can wait.

As I said, I have only been openly gay for a few years and most of that has been amongst a select few friends here in South Africa. This is the first time I have spoken about being a Peace Corps Volunteer who is gay to a large group of people. Thank you for this opportunity.

If you'd like to write something for the Diversity Blog, please contact Jade (jade.lamb@gmail.com). We are interested in hearing all of your stories.