Of Handbags and Heterosexism: The trouble with straight woman – gay man relationships

By Thato Magano (@ThatoMagano)

Thato Magano contends that  lot of the time it seems that outside of tackling homophobia at a macro societal level, Black women are not willing to look within and see how they are also complicit in helping homophobia flourish. There isn’t a concerted effort to recognise the covertness of homophobia through their language and social interactions with gay men. They are still comfortable with seeing gay men as shopping accessories, best friends and sex talk buddies but not worthy of the same love that they deserve from Black men. 

Photo of friends Thato Magano and Panashe Chigumadzi | Photo credit: Tseliso Monaheng 

“I don’t know why we’re arguing about this because you know what I mean. All I’m saying is that if Sipho* was to leave me for another guy, I wouldn’t feel as hurt because then I would know that there was nothing that I could have EVER done to make him want me,” my friend said as I’d reached my wits end trying to explain to her the problematic nature of her position on this matter of love.

I am certain that many gay men have had this conversation, or a variation of it, countless times and conceded that yes, if their straight girlfriend’s boyfriend were to leave her for another man, it wouldn’t be as much of a big deal as when he would leave her for another woman, implying that the way (gay) men love is different from the heterosexual norm, that her heart would recognise this act on his part as something that would in no way reflect on her as a lover and therefore it would be easier to cope with. In other words – that the loving is not equal!

Previously, even I as a gay man, while uncomfortable with the argument and lacking the vocabulary to articulate just what exactly is problematic with this heteronormative thinking, would concede the argument and agree that yes, the way that their boyfriends would love me or another man is different from the way that they love them.

It was only when I had been educated on the subtleties of the problematics in the relationships between the LGBTQIA and heterosexual communities, particularly that of gay men and straight women (and vice versa but that is subject to another analysis) that I could fully grapple with understanding the intersection of privilege, gender and sexuality dynamics at play in these relationships.

Is it covert homophobia?

Constance Lavender in her opednews article Heterosexism and the African American Community succinctly defines heterosexism as “an ideological system that denies, denigrates, and stigmatizes any non-heterosexual forms of behaviour, identity, relationship, or community. Like racism, sexism, and other ideologies of oppression, heterosexism is manifested both in societal customs and institutions, such as religion and the legal system (referred to here as cultural heterosexism), and in individual attitudes and behaviours (referred to here as psychological heterosexism).”

Moreover, due to its covert nature, it leads many to believe that they are not homophobic when they insist on making ‘othering’ statements as those that my heterosexual female friends made. It is because heterosexism does not usually take the form of gay bashing or openly prejudicial statements toward LGBTQIA people, they fail to recognise that it is as equally hurtful and harmful, it is an unconscious way of endorsing and legitimising heterosexuality as the only reality.

It is important to understand that homophobia is premised on heterosexism in that it is the cumulative expression of heterosexist thought once it has digested enough in the mind of the perpetrator to reach a point of action.

We’re all in this together

Because of our attraction to the same gender, straight women often believe that we share the same pain of oppression in society, hence the assumed and expected allegiance from the LGBTQIA community on their part. However, societal sexual norms have been “constructed, entrenched and naturalised such that deviations from these norms are usually not tolerated. The legitimate sexual norms are: heterosexual, marital, monogamous, reproductive, non-commercial, coupled, and relational.”

Given the fascination with what happens behind the bedroom doors in a gay relationship, gay people have come to be solely defined in terms of their sexuality, and Black gay men (and the broader LGBTQIA community) within the Black community, have been relegated to an invisibility and silence that is doubly oppressive and violent, making the proverbial ‘closet’ a safe space to exist within the normativity of heterosexuality.

Even as straight Black women are victims of sexism and patriarchy, they do not have the experience of the oppression of being seen as an anomaly within their own communities; having their intimate experiences erased and living their lives in secret.

But ‘choma bathong’!

One of the most insidious expressions of cultural heterosexism is in the fetishisation of gay men. The expectation to immediately fall into the stereotype of the gay best friend who understands his female friend’s world and to be the fountain of sage wisdom on matters fashion and relationships is routine.

I have had a lot of first time encounters with straight women who, upon discovery of my sexuality, assume that we are automatically friends. Conversations quickly move from a first name basis to being addressed as ‘choma/tsala’ and the expectation is that I should be comfortable with this because that is what ‘us girls’ do. This familiarity stems from the inherent belief that all that gay men desire is to be woman, that they have ‘vagina-envy’.

There is also the homogenising of gay men enacted in one of these two scenarios: “I love gay guys” or “You’re the only gay guy that I know”. The first presupposing that all gay men are the same, so if you know one from any intimate space in your life, then all the rest you encounter will also display the same attributes. On the other side, the second implying that for many straight women, if a gay man is not ‘openly’ gay and flamboyant, they have a difficult time understanding how and why he could be gay – which would mean that they are not seeing their fathers, uncles, brothers and sons who embody the myriad ‘forms’ of gay outside of the stereotype.

But is he a she?

Usually, done to signify endearment, gay men are misgendered even without their being able to  recognise this violence, and it has become so internalised that they are often the ones who go on to legitimise some of the terminology. Something can be said for the re-appropriation of the terms as a way of asserting the community as most people who misgender do so following a socially ‘accepted’ way of referring to predominantly effeminate gay men but it is all an enacting of psychological heterosexism.

Recently, when media personality Bonang Matheba was involved in a twitter showdown about ‘First Black and Puppet politics’ with blogger Phil Mphela (after that Glamour cover) – Matheba dismissively referred to Mphela as “doll face” and “rakgadi”. While she was called out on accepting ‘First Black Status’ through numbered tweets on the persisting structural inequalities between races, she was not called on her homophobia and did not get any numbered tweets on the intersectional nature of oppression for marginalised communities. Her violence went on to earn her recognition and lols with memes of t-shirt donning “doll face” and “no rakgadi”, even from the twitter gay community itself.

Loving ourselves better, all the same

As a gay man who identifies as a ‘womanist – homosexual – progressive patriarch’, it means that I am always careful to check how my privilege as a man disenfranchises Black women, however, I am always saddened to see how Black women, even those whom I consider progressive, still are so susceptible to the heterosexist bias.

A lot of the time it seems outside of tackling homophobia at a macro societal level, Black women are not willing to look within and see how they are also complicit in helping homophobia flourish. There isn’t a concerted effort to recognise the covertness of homophobia through their language and social interactions with gay men. They are still comfortable with seeing us as shopping accessories, best friends and sex talk buddies but not worthy of the same love that they deserve from Black men.

They must recognise that gay men, Black gay men want to be seen as individuals who do not desire anything other than to be their full sexual selves. That they love in the same way that they do and that the men they are in relationships with could make better partners in a same-sex coupling if it wasn’t for patriarchy and also that they could be loved better by us.

They need to recognise that there are other ways of being gay outside of the stereotype, that there is commentator Eusebius McKaiser, WITS student Thabiso ( tweleb @fistvoices), musician Frank Ocean, former NBA player Jason Collins, and NFL player Michael Sam also many others.

In as much as hetero-normativity is an entrenched worldview and cannot be escaped, in the fight against patriarchy, Black women need to recognise that Black gay men do not want to be them. They need to do the work of unlearning these pervasive violent behaviours in order to truly reflect the commitment to the eradication of all forms of oppression that they invoke when they are challenging patriarchy and racism. Their oppression of us helps reinforce their oppression elsewhere.

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