I set out on a journey to explore queer love, especially among people like me – young and queer women of colour exploring living and loving in South Africa. Some themes resonated with my own experience of queering love. These are not lessons in love, but rather reminders. Reminders of how complex and individual love is. Reminders to be easy on ourselves because love is hard, because pleasure is a process of discovery, especially if you are queer, young and black. There is no rule book, no manual. These are simply clues to how some of the women I admire explore and embody queer love.
I sat down with two incredible women: Leigh-Ann Naidoo and Sisonke*. I’ve known them for 15 years. As activists and leaders in very different public spaces, they have inspired me in fundamental ways: both have experienced unique queer love journeys, identities, sexualities and complexities.
During our many hours of conversation over wine, we explored the various faces and forms of queer love. We traversed stories of raw pain, abuse, loss and vulnerability, but also of joy, passion, discovery and growth. They shared a great deal of themselves; being so brave and willing to be vulnerable.
Sisonke came walking towards me through the bookstore, fashionista extraordinaire, and enveloped me in a proper hug. We met at university and since then her formidable presence has made itself known on the radio waves and magazine pages. Over a glass of white wine, we delved into what it meant to feel “in between”. Like me, she is a woman in her late 20s, exploring the nature of queer love through the lens of the different people she has fallen in love with, not through any chosen sexual identity.
Sisonke is not comfortable with the term ‘bisexual’ or ‘lesbian’; she prefers to find people of whatever gender to queer love with. She reflected on how she has to navigate the need of friends and family to label and define her.
“What are you?” “Are you straight?” “Are you lesbian?” “Are you poly?”
It was so refreshing to hear her refusal to define herself according to these categories, even if it meant feeling like an outsider and leaving those around her slightly confused. From her, I learnt to be even more comfortable with not being ‘an expert’. She was open to learning and, when presented with another way of being or thinking, her response was “I don’t know, but I’m open to finding out.”
I also learnt more about vulnerability. She spends a lot of time inside her head, busy with her thoughts, and has actively to find her way out. And through her partner’s patience, some well-timed glasses of wine and building trust bit by bit, she was able to slowly emerge from her thoughts. Then she was able to express her fears and hopes in words aloud, for someone else to hear; for someone else to hold them with her. The fear of being vulnerable with another human being is so real. It is hard to find spirit-freeing, body-releasing pleasure if we cannot be vulnerable.
Leigh-Ann sat across from me at my kitchen table. She had had a long day of house-hunting in the racially biased, insanely expensive Cape Town property market, mixed with long-distance Skype discussions about Public[a]tion, the black student movement publication process that reflects on the decolonial movement. Over delicious toasted cheese sandwiches rustled up by my partner, Leigh-Ann began to weave her queer love story. Born in Cape Town, she was the child of well-known activists, closeted, finding herself gradually. She described growing up in a conservative, so-called ‘Cape coloured’ family and the experience of fear, shame and internalised homophobia that haunted her for much of her life.
She and her partner have been together for more than 12 years. This experience gives her a deep understanding of what queer love means in her life and her story. This was evident in the way she described time as being the channel for finding compassion for and an understanding of the fabric of the other person. This compassion becomes a source to draw on when politics and power need to be confronted. Kindness and understanding, despite the brutality of honesty and difficult open discussion. Her ability to reflect and connect her history and experiences to how she feels about herself and her relationship seemed to come from years of practice and purposeful reflection.
SCENE I: WE ARE OUR HISTORIES
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. – Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi
Our histories haunt us. The “unethical non-monogamy” of Leigh-Ann’s father shaped her understanding of love and the performance of gender. It defined how she later engaged with definitions of honesty, truth and power as they play out between people in an intimate relationship. Watching her parents’ dynamic, she witnessed her father ‘taking advantage’ and her mother being ‘the martyr’. This reinforced her belief that the absence of honesty, cheating and affairs were the norm. During her early relationships, what could have been exciting ‘first time’ experiences of experimentation, excitement and conversation were instead unethical, unliberated, closeted and riddled with guilt.
So much of our understanding of love and sex is shaped by the community and media around us – and by our early life experiences. The cartoons and movies I watched as a child, the books and magazines I read all left deep impressions on what I understand love and sex to be. Often, first experiences of love and sex are difficult and deeply painful.
Sisonke’s first experiences of sex were abusive and non-consensual and left her believing that she was not entitled to pleasure. This history shaped how she later felt about and reacted to sexual intimacy, the act of sex and the openness to pleasure. Sex is integrally tied up with intimacy and because of her history it was when she felt most vulnerable.
Recognising that many South African women have had experiences of abuse and violence fundamentally changes what sex and sexual intimacy might mean. ‘Let’s talk about sex’ prompts a conversation about sexual sensitivity, not just sexual freedom. So when someone speaks about ‘vanilla sex’ and associates it with boredom and timidity, queer love sees it in the context of a society where for many women sex equals ‘power over’. But how does queer love allow us to unwrap these equations in the bedroom, for example, when bondage is suggested but one party is scared of ‘smacking’ their lover (even if permission was explicitly given) because, in their experience, sex equals violence.
It’s a privilege to associate sex only with pleasure; a privilege of history.
SCENE II: WE EXPAND, WE SHIFT, WE ARE CONSTELLATIONS
We do not grow absolutely, chronologically.
We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly.
We grow partially. We are relative.
We are mature in one realm, childish in another.
The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present.
We are made up of layers, cells, constellations. – Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin Vol. 4 (1971)
As much as our histories shape us, they do not trap us. It was so powerful to hear both Leigh-Ann and Sisonke describe their personal transformation.
The conversation with Sisonke reminded me that as young queers we are still learning; we are still growing; we are still working out what we like and what we do not like. Sisonke’s exploration of new ways of loving by admitting and accepting that she did not know if she liked open relationships, that she did not know if she liked bondage, because she had never tried them before. She acknowledged that even if she had never tried something before, she may be open to it – with the right person, with trust and openness.
Leigh-Ann found the space to explore within queer sex-positive spaces. Finding people with knowledge and practice willing to teach her in non-judgmental and consensual ways is what gave her permission to explore. This helped her challenge her own assumptions about what sex and pleasure meant to her, debunking myths that her physical strength as a former Olympian volleyball player could only be associated with painful ‘power over’ and not pleasure. My favourite quote from our conversation was her discovery that ‘your whole body is a clit!’
The two recognise that they have changed fundamentally since they first began working out who they wanted to be in the world. They gave themselves permission to explore and discover new possibilities in themselves. This is despite a world that likes to put people into boxes; a world that asks, “What are you?”, “Who are you?” And judges you on the basis of these categories. It is brave to admit that you do not know, that you are scared, and that you want, and are willing, to find out more.
I was reminded that to queer love requires the freedom to change, even when it is difficult and you have to make yourself vulnerable to do so.
when they hear
this is how
Know. – Nayyirah Waheed
SCENE III: THE PERSONAL IS THE POLITICAL, ALWAYS
The penis patriarchy is real,
it seeps into our pleasure, infiltrates our bed.
They tell us that sex equals penetration,
And you, the boldest of gold stars, haven’t even kissed a boy,
are found wanting.
No matter how head over heels in love we are, the world still bleeds its way
onto our tongues
Bel South, Love in the Time of Patriarchy
When Leigh-Ann first fell in love, she and her partner were so head over heels that they did not want to recognise the power dynamics of class and race that existed between them. They wanted and allowed each other to believe that they were equal; “that there was no power structure in the love bubble”.
In a world where often what is middle class, white and English is deemed best, what are the ways to interrogate the systems of power and privilege in our intimate relationships? This is especially true when one partner has more of the classic traits born of privilege. When someone has the resources of language, money, position, voice, image to always get what they want and never have to make sacrifices. And because the privileged position is what is deemed best, it is possible to have a non-negotiable position, whether it is about what school to send your child to because the capitalist patriarchy says that private schools are best; or the nature of your sexual relationship, because experimenting in the bedroom with ropes, whips and toys is ‘radical’. Leigh-Ann said even activists are blinded and unaware of the power and privilege they wield in the personal realm.
Moreover, in a context where cheating and affairs are considered ‘normal’ and many women experience sexual abuse, this should change the nature of what you can ask of a partner who has been directly affected by this system. It affects how you work together to gently explore what love, sex and pleasure might be. In real life, the politics of love, sex and pleasure has to be personalised because our histories and experiences, power and privileges affect how we love and what we expect from love.
For many women the politics of loving has yet to be localised. Is there even such a thing as being equal?
If the personal is the political, queer love requires us to do our own work. It requires us to politically educate ourselves, to become more acutely aware of our power and privilege, of the unequal dynamics that exist in our intimate relationships, our friendships and our family relationships. We need to work out ways to consciously and gently negotiate them, to bring them into the light.
SCENE IV: FINDING YOUR VOICE (there is no such thing as normal)
“i love myself.”
ever.” – Nayyirah Waheed
In her reflections, Leigh-Ann said: “I needed to realise the power I gave other people and, more importantly, I needed to realise my own power. I needed to work out how I wanted to be and fight for that. Because then the other person could decide if they wanted to be in it with me. But first I had to take accountability for what I needed and make it explicit.”
So much of the queer love journey involves finding your own voice…
Sometimes you allow yourself to not know. This resonated with Sisonke, who said: “I knew I needed to work out and be able to say what I can and what I can’t do. Then again, what if you don’t know? So I needed to give myself permission to not have answers, to say ‘I don’t know but I’m willing to try.’ And that’s okay.”
Those of us who spend a lot of time in our thoughts, analysing and reanalysing ourselves and the world, need to find ways to get out of our heads. For Sisonke it was wine and feminism. Understanding feminism helped her find her voice. It made her more comfortable with being “in between”; not identifying as lesbian but recognising that she felt most free and most physically and emotionally safe with women, not men. In her intimate relationships, she realised that it was important to know what she needed from love, and from the other person, and she had to be able to articulate it. More crucially, she needed to know and express what she wanted, what she desired, what gave her pleasure, what gave her fulfilment. Wine helped loosen her mind, her tongue and her limbs.
For Leigh-Ann, over the years she drew on her community. Initially “consensual monogamy was hidden from me. I didn’t know what ethical consensual openness felt like and I didn’t have the language to deal with what I was seeing and feeling.” She consciously drew on therapy, speaking to others and reading resources to find out more about ‘ethical non-monogamy’, ethical parenting, sex positivity and bondage, and other issues that tested her, her love and her partnership. Through this, she and her partner were able to find and articulate their own voices for a more conscious and critical love.
SCENE V: YOU ARE NOT ALONE
I am holding up a banner/a book of scriptures/a book with sex
positions for lesbians/the upbringing/the coming out/the folding in/
the sins/the salvation of womxn’s bodies that have saved me
from hiding. – Koleka Putuma
We live in community. We learn in community. One of Leigh-Ann’s first life-altering experiences in finding her voice as a young woman was when she applied and was accepted to spend a weekend away in an all-women’s collective space. Through this collective, talking to each other and creating space together, she found her voice. Through conversation –- in community –- she found it easier to talk about herself, to put into words what she found hard, to express a little more of who she wanted to be. “These women held my story.”
In the first few years of her long-term intimate relationship, they became each other’s worlds and each other’s main support, but as they grew and changed she realised it was important to stop relying exclusively on each other. They needed other people so that they could be themselves more fully, so that they could explore and love different parts of themselves. It’s hard, even impossible, for one person to satisfy all aspects of you.
In community, we learn from each other. We can do it deliberately by speaking to other people, other queer/hetero couples exploring polyamory, other queer couples negotiating love and life. We can have conversations like these. And we can also do it unconsciously, watching our friends and family love (and not love) each other.
While there are many feminist strands, which is to say different kinds of feminism, there are also many core principles. The commitment to actively oppose and end patriarchy is one. The recognition that patriarchy works like other systems of oppression, like racism and capitalism, to value some people and brutalise others, is another area of agreement. Like other systems of oppression, it also requires the support of many members of the groups it oppresses. – Pumla Dineo Gqola, Reflecting Rogue – Inside the mind of a feminist
FINAL SCENE: WHAT IS QUEER LOVE?
We finished our conversations with the question: How would you define queer love?
Leigh-Ann described queer love as a prism through which to see different versions of herself and her partner. Queer love does not have one definition. It depends on the person and their histories. Queer love is love that opens us. It is not a dichotomy. It is not the 180-degree opposite of normative straight white hetero capitalism. The opposite of that is not necessarily radical, is not necessarily queer.
According to Sisonke, [queer love] asks us to be as creative, ambitious, exploratory and freedom-fighting in love as we are in life.
Love is profoundly political. Our deepest revolution will come when we understand this truth. Only love can give us the strength to go forward in the midst of heartbreak and misery. Only love can give us the power to reconcile, to redeem, the power to renew weary spirits and save lost souls. The transformative power of love is the foundation of all meaningful social change. Without love our lives are without meaning. Love is the heart of the matter. When all else has fallen away, love sustains. – bell hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love.
The article is part of a series of articles under This is Africa’s collection titled, Flame, Fever and Fantasy – A collection of African desire and pleasure.