22 Sep On visibility and the illusion of the Safe Space
You know a story is going to be lit if it begins somewhere in the majestic hills that go on forever, where the houses look like they were carefully placed by that auntie who only sprinkles three grains of sugar into her bucket of scone-shaped sadness; somewhere in rural KZN – where I grew up. In this reflective context I can say that it was a beautiful place. We had rivers, cows, sugar cane, and other ‘villagey’ paraphernalia. We had the school with a two-tone paint job, and a large concentration of teachers, nurses, and policemen which meant that some of the blacks in my village were alright and so were their houses.
The alright houses were almost as big a childhood mystery as Thembi Seete’s infamous verse. Most of us only went there to deliver a tupperware or a tombstone unveiling invitation. And when we did, we would marvel at the grass. It wasn’t the wild kind we used to tie goats with, but the kind that uncle Sban-ban had to trim with a loud machine that always assaulted our curious faces with bits of grass or an entire rock if you were having a bad day.
Apart from their intrusive madam-esque beauty, alright houses made one feel a little excluded and perhaps inferior, depending on one’s potential to dirty the stoep with their feet. Some of us were part of the ratchet tree-climbing breed of children who were destined to leave prominent toe-prints on those stoeps. And sometimes, while waiting for the house-imprisoned model-C child to open the door, I would stare at my own ashy reflection on the unnaturally shiny surface as if my face would also leave an undesirable trace. Friends would later gather around my foot to witness the red polish stain on my sole as I flaunted it as the prime evidence of my delusional involvement in alrightness. I’d boast about the elaborately tiered ceiling board that hovered above my bowed head, as well as the exclusive-to-DSTV cartoon of which I only needed a glimpse to fabricate the rest of the episode for my eager friends.
I qualify this as my first explicit experience of space in a movement altering sense, where my body was in a loud argument with the structure I occupied. I had to remove my shoes, bow my head, speak in an insincere vocabulary that denoted respect for the people who owned these houses that made me feel less. I mean, we were still being conditioned to worship whiteness, so when whiteness presented itself in someone’s house, we gladly bowed down. And whiteness at that time was as good as running hot water and an indoor flushing toilet and when you were within such a space, you could feel your body assume a position of servitude based on the fact that you were a no-geyser-having, water-fetching, pit-latrine-shitting ass bitch, basically.
This feeling of spatial exclusion became all the more reified when I grew older and certain contrasts my body made within spaces put me in positions of danger. In many other instances, it was not only my very “blackness” that was in conflict with spaces, it was my femininity and my queerness. This made me feel unsafe at school, in the bus on the way to school and, more painful to admit, in the home in which I lived, with people I love dearly.
I now live in the notorious house with fallen rules and a blood-laced stoep: Johannesburg.
Like many, I decided that I would rather risk physical violence being visible in a dangerous city than to endure the violence that scars you in places you cannot see, within the very walls that were built on love, where you couldn’t exist freely.
It has been over a year, and it still feels like I am an unwelcome guest smearing undesirable traces of myself all over someone else’s house. The same sense of rejection that made me sacrifice the conditional safety of home in order to pursue my true existence in a city that promised me freedom, is the same rejection that confronts me each day in this city, forcing me to evaluate the feasibility of visibility when it can sometimes cost me my whole life.
But what is my life if I am not visible? Contrary to what homosexual rhetoric suggests, my queerness and my radical femininity are not just retractable features of a grander being who can comfortably exist in a cis-heteronormative society. These are not secrets that only expose themselves in who I “choose” to love, in the privacy of my own space, no. My feminine queerness is all of my identity, it lives in every part of my body and it will manifest through my gestures, my behaviour, my walk, my thoughts, the way I dress and all the things that make me visible as who I truly am. These are not tricks. Even my chandelier earrings do not serve a decorative purpose. They make me me. So if ever I had to suspend my visibility, I would be socially dead, but alive I am still not safe. An attack is pencilled into the fate of every day, as long as I have the audacity to exist. Attacks range from a disapproving glance from a stranger, refusal of entry from a taxi driver on the way to work, to a whole street screaming and shouting in your direction as they did to Vusi and I last Saturday on Eloff street.
These attacks, physical or otherwise, are all violent and they are all equally traumatic, and above all they compromise the quality of one’s overall life therefore it is not enough for hateful transphobic comments to be replaced by passive compliments upon entering “safer spaces” when you still have to walk out and exist in an unsafe world. This is why we need to challenge the illusion of the “Safe Space”, what it means to those who endure violence in every other space in the world, and what it means to those who are not able to access these spaces due to the economic circumstances that exclude them.
It is time to evaluate who these “safe spaces” are safest for. Are they equally safe for femme identities? Do they accommodate the “typical gays” and the “too much gays” as well as they accommodate the privileged hyper-masculine types who have succeeded in barring fats and femmes (and blacks) from virtual “safe spaces” like Grindr? Are they actually safe for anybody if a person can enter and gun down 50 people?
It is time to demand more from the world. We need to demand the world itself. Not just a crack in the corner of a giant stoep that some have the privilege of gliding through freely without being questioned or gunned down for looking suspicious. We need more than The Factory. More than Industry, Liquid Blue or “Gay Dane”.
We can no longer have any more social deaths that nobody is held accountable for.
We deserve a world where we can exist.
Photos taken at the opening of Industry. All photos by Fela Gucci.