The transformation of transgender women into goddesses for an annual Hindu festival takes place in an atmosphere of reverent, somber concentration. Laugh lines vanish, replaced by an impassive mask. Skin becomes stone. As they prepared to perform in the Mayana Kollai festival in a fishing village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, some of the dancers slipped into trances so deep it appeared they might have fainted.
It is trite to state that we live in a deeply divided society, one in which post-modernist attitudes rub up (if that is the right phrase to use in this context) against patriarchal pastoralist views, a society in which progressive social mores uneasily co-exist – often in the same person – with a hyper conservative and judgmental morality. We are a society in transition, one in which the colonial (missionary imposed) conservative morality which has seeped into and has become deeply embedded in traditional culture, is also consistently being challenged and being contested by more progressive, Western-inspired, views on social issues (often under the influence of a commodified version of popular culture).
The patriarchal power of traditionalists often clash with demands by women or feminists of all genders for gender equality. The homophobia promoted by religious groups and those citizens (of all races) still steeped in the values of colonial missionary morality must be accommodated within the progressive framework of a Constitution that demands respect for difference and diversity. Traditional patriarchal notions about the need to show respect for elders (especially if they are male elders), compete directly with the demands placed on us by a vibrant democracy in which contestation, debate, harsh criticism and even ridicule are taken for granted.
One way in which to try and understand and manage these differences is to listen to others, to try and imagine oneself walking in the shoes of those who are different (or, more accurately, who hold different views) from oneself and to try and see the world through the eyes of those who, at first glance, one might seem to have little in common with. Despite the fact that I believe the furore about Brett Murray’s painting is a distraction, diverting our attention from the real problems facing South Africa and preventing us from finding and implementing solutions for these problems, the feelings on both sides of this debate seem to be so intense that I thought it might be helpful for a white person like myself literally to try and place myself in the shoes of the aggrieved party (knowing that this is not possible). In National Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Equality v Minister of Justice the Constitutional Court stated this view rather eloquently:
The desire for equality is not a hope for the elimination of all differences. “The experience of subordination – of personal subordination, above all – lies behind the vision of equality.” To understand “the other” one must try, as far as is humanly possible, to place oneself in the position of “the other”. “It is easy to say that everyone who is just like ‘us’ is entitled to equality. Everyone finds it more difficult to say that those who are ‘different’ from us in some way should have the same equality rights that we enjoy. Yet so soon as we say any . . . group is less deserving and unworthy of equal protection and benefit of the law all minorities and all of . . . society are demeaned. It is so deceptively simple and so devastatingly injurious to say that those who are handicapped or of a different race, or religion, or colour or sexual orientation are less worthy.
I therefore fiddled with the Brett Murray painting, superimposing my own face on it to see how I would react to seeing such a painting with a version of my face on it.
However, after looking at the altered painting, I am none the wiser. Why am I not feeling humiliated and why do I not feel that my dignity has been infringed? Would the feeling be different if I share the altered work of art with others? After some thought (not wanting to appear to be a publicity seeker) I decided that I would share the altered painting to see if this decision would alter my views. After all, my sisters read this blog (hallo susters!) as well as many of my students (stop surfing the internet and go and study!), so perhaps I would feel humiliated and shamed if I knew they would see the painting. But still I felt nothing but mild amusement.
Maybe, I thought, the reasons for an absence of a feeling of humiliation is that this altered painting is so obvious not real. But then again, as the original painting is a work of art and is obviously not real either, that should not make the difference. As the Goodman Gallery stated in their replying affidavit, “the genitals in the painting is a work of fiction” – something evident to all viewers of the painting.
Maybe, I thought, the difference in response is related to the fact that I am white and the person depicted is perceived to be black. There is, after all, a long history, associated with the shameful colonial intellectual tradition, of depicting black male sexuality as somehow dangerous and voracious, something that needs to be feared or tamed by white colonists. But I happen to be gay and thus part of a minority who has long been sexually stereotyped and subjugated as a result of being sexualised. As Justice Laurie Ackermann noted in the case of National Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Equality v Minister of Home Affairs, quoting the following passage, there is a link between stigma and discrimination and the depiction of gay men as exclusively sexual beings:
“There are two predominant narratives that circulate within American society that help to explain the difficulty that lesbians and gays face in adopting children and establishing families. First, there is the story of lesbians and gays that centres on their sexuality. Whether because of disgust, confusion, or ignorance about homosexuality, lesbian and gay sexuality dominates the discourse of not only same-sex adoption, but all lesbian and gay issues. The classification of lesbians and gays as ‘exclusively sexual beings’ stands in stark contrast to the perception of heterosexual parents as ‘people who, along with many other activities in their lives, occasionally engage in sex.’ Through this narrative, lesbians and gays are reduced to one-dimensional creatures, defined by their sex and sexuality.”
Although the stigma and prejudice do not operate in exactly the same way, there are nevertheless strong parallels between the depiction and use of the sexuality of black men to subjugate them and the depiction and use of sexual stereotypes to subjugate gay men and lesbians. Yet, I am not feeling in the least bit humiliated by this work of art. Why not?
Is it because, having applied the insights that Steve Biko brought to bear on the racial oppression on my own sexuality and on the oppression embedded in and perpetuated by the heteronormative world, I have long since stopped feeling ashamed to be gay? Is it that, for reasons unknown to me, I have not internalised the bigotry, hatred and homophobia (often linked to the heteronormative enforcement and perpetuation of a stereotypical gay sexuality) and feel sorry for heterosexuals who stereotype me as exclusively a sexual being. Instead of feeling humiliated by their prejudice and hatred, I feel a certain amount of compassion – after all, it must be difficult to go through the world poisoned by such anger and hatred?
Or maybe I am not feeling shamed and humiliated by this painting because – unlike the President – I do not feel that it sends a signal that I am a womaniser and a philanderer. But this cannot be true either. Back in the day I used to have many sexual partners, so a work of art depicting me as a sexual being might well be aimed at mocking or ridiculing my sexual behaviour. And maybe here we get closer to the heart of the matter. The fact is that I hold socially progressive views and I do not believe there is anything wrong with having many sexual partners (as long as one uses a condom). There is therefore no dissonance between my former philandering self and my deeply held views on sexual morality. Maybe I do not experience any discomfort because how I have lived my life is quite well aligned with how I believe I ought to have lived it.
Maybe this integration of my day-to-day life with my moral views is a kind of luxury that can at least partly be attributed to my white skin and the privilege that necessarily attaches to it. After all, I am an upper middle class person, I have travelled the world, have read widely, have visited the best art museums, have paid for a psychologist who could listen to all my sad stories and fears and hopes and dreams. Most South Africans do not have that luxury.
But at the heart of this integration between how I act and how I believe I ought to act must be my progressive social views about sex, about art, about the ridiculous religious beliefs that whether one is a good or bad person depends almost entirely on whether you have been chaste or whether you have had sex with many people.
I suspect that because we are a society in flux, one that is rapidly changing and irrevocably being transformed by the music and art and TV shows of popular culture (most of it Western popular culture), yet one in which many people wish to hold on to some form of tradition as a way to signal their symbolic rejection of colonialism – even if this is often little more than a symbolic holding on not reflected in how people act – anger and humiliation ensues when these two impulses collide and confront people with the fact that who they are and who they wish they were are not always the same.
Of course, as a socially progressive person, I would argue that the only way to address these feelings of anger and shame and humiliation is to ditch the yearning for a world that has been forever lost (and may never have existed in any case); to stop holding on (even symbolically) to the colonially imposed morality of 18th century missionaries and to embrace a more vibrant, open, irreverent and matter of fact attitude towards sex, art and male power – both in what we believe is good and how we behave in accordance with those beliefs.
But as I write this, I am aware that it is easy for me to talk and that the trauma, pain and confusion that accompanies any momentous cultural, religious and moral transformation of society cannot so easily be addressed. But trying to understand it – no matter how imperfectly (as I have tried to do here) – must surely be the starting point for the conversation. Banning works of art to try and stop the conversation from happening cannot be the answer.BACK TO TOP