Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
16 April 2007

Fred Khumalo, why not wear a dress?

In South Africa we are all too quick to call other people names when we do not agree with what they have to say. I therefore find myself in a strange position because although I agreed with the content of Fred Khumalo’s column on Sunday in which he decried the vacuity of celebrity in South Africa, I immediately wanted to label him a homophobe after reading it.

In the column he refers to Somizi Mhlongo as an example of a vacuous celebrity. In the process, he describes him as “prancing around the gym”, “traipsing in-between the rows of gym equipment”, wearing what “looks like a pair of panties”. Then Khumalo continues:

The man, if we should call him that, is visibly feeling good about himself, about the attention he is attracting. The reason I am confused about his gender is that this person sometimes rocks up at parties wearing a dress, his head replete with Tina Turner wig, his lips a bloody smear of lipstick, his cheeks iridescent with make-up, and his tiny feet ensconced in the highest high-qhoks (high-heeled shoes) you can get.

Why does this kind of column upset me so? I do not think it is merely because Fred Khumalo made fun of a gay man. Surely no person from whatever group is above teasing and ridicule. I myself have made fun, say, of the ridiculous way in which the Pope dresses up.

The problem here is that Mr. Khumalo made his (admittedly valid) point about vacuous celebrity in ways that associated tired stereotypes about gay men with vacuity and stupidity. Although Fred Khumalo may not personally harbour prejudice against gay men and lesbians, the way in which the column was constructed meant that he was associating gender non-conformity (in most peoples’ minds the same thing as being gay) with a bad personality.

The message of the column for many Sunday Times readers would have been: “If a man dresses up in panties, he is a self-satisfied, deluded and pretentious fool.”

Mr. Mhlongo may be a vacuous celebrity and if he is, he should be fair game for criticism. But Mr. Khumalo’s piece seems to suggest that Mr. Mhlongo is worthy of lampooning and criticism because he wears dresses or other “girly” clothes. It is a bit like arguing against Jacob Zuma for President and hinting that this is the case because he wears traditional dress, because he has a flat nose or because he often speaks Zulu.

It is unthinkable that Mr. Khumalo or the editor of the Sunday Times would publish a column making such stupid associations between Mr. Zuma’s ethnic or racial identity and his suitability for the Presidency. Why isn’t Mr. Khumalo’s column likewise thought beyond the pale?

By making fun of Mr. Mhlongo’s perceived gayness and by associating that “gayness” with negative characteristics, the columnist is confirming and perpetuating the existing prejudice in society against men who do not conform to the traditional gender stereotypes. Mr. Khumalo might say that he only did it for a few laughs. But such laughs would ring hollow because it would be the laughter of hatred and prejudice and not the laughter of fun.

This may seem like a trivial thing, but for gay men in South Africa who are viewed as “sissies” or “moffies”, this can be a life and death matter. Many men who are viewed thus will be able to tell better than myself about the torment, hate and even violence they are continuously subjected to.

In any case, so what if a man wants to wear a dress. Why is it in any way relevant except to score some lazy laughs? Many Priests already do wear dresses. (Oops, maybe that is not such a good example.) I would like to ask Fred Khumalo to please think twice before again making fun of people in ways that does not confront and challenge stereotypes but perpetuate them.

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