Defined by Sexuality

Date: January 1, 1970
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I was only four when I first saw a picture of my mom; she was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in my entire life. My grandmother raised me from when I was a child. I knew her as my only mother and the only person I could relate to. I lived with her until she met her death, but my life began with her. I learnt to be responsible; I wanted to make her proud. She always knew what to say to make me happy or encourage me. Then she died and my life was hell. I had to be my own mother and father. I was only fourteen.

I always knew that my mother was a sex worker, and at that time, I called her names; prostitute was the only word near my tongue. I hated her life but recognised her regardless. I would listen to debates on TV and radio, with the hope that maybe I would see my mother. One day, I did see her, on a newscast about some research on sex workers. I didn’t want to see her like that, being a prostitute, and it killed the faith I had in her. But I still loved her, and wished that she could be a mother to me. However, she wasn’t; she was never there.
I remember when I was about four years old, my mother came to the house where I lived with my grandmother. In my understanding, she wanted to leave with me. That started a fight between herself and granny; it seemed as though my grandmother didn’t want to allow that to happen. She won the fight after pouring boiling water on my grandmother. I was scared; I did not what to leave my grandmother like that.
But as a child, seeing all these things I never thought would come into my life – the flashy car, the white boyfriend and all the goodies they had bought for me – I left. My mother lived in a very tall building in Johannesburg – very beautiful. On the same night, she left me in the flat alone, and after some time she still had not come back. It was not long before I left the flat hoping to find her. I saw her across the street with other beautiful women, so I crossed the street to get to her. I was very young and had no knowledge about traffic lights and safety precautions when crossing the road. The cars were so loud, and I was scared. When she saw me, she crossed the road and we ran back to the flat. That memory has never left my mind; it has shaped the thoughts I have about my mother.
I went back home to granny. Life was back to normal for another 10 years, until she passed away. I went to school. It was not an easy path, as I had to provide for most of my own needs. I was born again in a Christian church, and I have lived a very conscious life ever since. I could not judge anyone, regardless of their “sins,” and that included the woman I so much needed in my life.
I was 17 when I first realised that I had intimate attraction towards people of the same sex as myself. I knew little about homosexuality and in my church, “such behavior was considered to be an abomination before the eyes of God.” I did not like the idea of coming up against my church principles, but I could not see myself with a man. I hated men, though I never had a specific reason why. Was it my father’s absence or was it the opportunity I never had of having a male figure in my life? I still don’t know.
Just after matric, I was introduced to women’s rights organisations. I didn’t know what my role would be; all I wanted was a job and the possibility of furthering my studies. Three months later, I was raped. I turned to the same organisations and they gave me more than I expected. The offered me the opportunity of being part of trainings and workshops. I spoke out about my experience of sexual violence, which was hate-crime motivated. On the surface, it was about reaching out and tying to advocate lesbian rights, but was there another reason behind that? Mommy was never there at all. Did she see the newspapers, the documentaries? I wondered. I never viewed myself as a victim, let alone a survivor. Based on the choices I made after the experience, I saw myself as more of a conqueror. Yet, I still hated my mothers’ choices. I still called her a prostitute.
I attended the Women in Leadership Programme with the Gender AIDS Forum (GAF) in
Durban. The training was about enabling consciousness amongst women. I left the training with an understanding that the “Personal is Political.” All women are victims of patriarchy. It wasn’t easy – it took almost the whole year – but ultimately I forgave my mother. I started seeing her as a victim in all that was going on in her life. But I hated men even more.
I still battle with the thought of my mother as a sex worker, though I no longer call her a prostitute. She says she has changed; I believe her and support her. I want my mother to know about her sexual health and rights; maybe she will realise just how much that has affected me or how it has shaped her life. I would love to see my mother in one of these meetings, but just don’t know how to introduce her. It is easy to advocate for any other woman’s rights but  not when the issue hits home.
I no longer hate men as such, but the mentality behind gender roles and responsibilities thatoppress women and put them in the margins. I believe that there is a system of patriarchy; I believe that women and men are not equal.
I feel that if it weren’t for my sexuality or my experiences of sexual violence, there are things I wouldn’t have achieved, but is it really a great honour to be an activist or feminist because of the painful things that happened to you? Is it possible that we can be experts in our fields of interests and passion without being labeled victims or survivors of gender based violence and other issues influenced by the patriarchal system? What I mean by this is: I am a human rights activist and define myself as a feminist who has experienced sexual violence, but I also love math and information technology. I would love to be known as someone who loves math, and has a passion for change with regard to women’s position in the world globally, instead of simply the rape victim, or the lesbian.
This story is part of the “I” Stories series produced by the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service for the Sixteen Days of Activism on Gender Violence.

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