“High school. An unwelcome lust whirling inside me and I don’t wish for the life my nature asks for. I pray for the life that everybody calls “normal” and “correct”. Disgusted by my own desires, I feel confused and bewildered.”
Reading the words of André Carl van der Merwe, these thoughts resurface. I pause, read the words again. I allow my mind to trail off, to remember, and to experience again those feelings of desperation, confusion, and fear. Without a defining moment, it is difficult to find a clear beginning to talk about my sexuality. It was never a choice or a switch that was flipped, as people tend to believe. Let me start with context then. My family is Afrikaans, traditional, religious, and conservative. These are the aspects that set the cornerstones of people’s beliefs, in which a very clear idea of ‘the norm’ is created.
My first sensual encounter with a girl was shortly after my 8th birthday. At the time, and for a considerable amount of years to follow, I would simply justify all my same-sex experiences as “play-play”. I didn’t think it was unusual, but soon it was no longer playing because all I could think about were our little secrets below the sheets. Determined to be pious and develop my relationship with God at age 11, I began researching homosexuality in my biblical books. It was clear that it was taboo and I would be punished for my sinful fantasies and dreams. I scratched out every verse in my bible referencing a man loving another man but prayed to God to change me.
My life goal at the age of 12 was to not be homosexual. I deleted all my same-sex families on Sims. I stopped “playing” with my girlfriends. I wanted to be just like all the other girls and have boyfriends. So, from the age of 12 until I was 17, I was barely ever without a boyfriend or a male presence. Naturally, between curiosity and peer-pressure I experimented with the boys in my life. I was noticeably more attracted to some of them than others. There was one boy who I would always return to, and who would remain in my dreams and fantasies long after he stopped talking to me. I was very attracted to him physically and emotionally. This remained a mystery until I later figured out what kept me so intrigued. Despite these boys, the feminine fantasies in the back of my mind couldn’t be shut down, I remained curious about how it would feel to kiss a girl. Things took a turn in the middle of my grade 11 year.
Important to note is that I was in a prestigious, religious, Afrikaans high school, and I stayed in a traditional all-girls boarding house with 100 girls. My best friend at the time was also in the residence. We had been best friends for a year by the and were inseparable. We would shower together, sleep in the same bed in res and spend all our time together over weekends. It did not cross my mind that I had fallen deeply in love with my best friend until we drank a bottle of clean vodka one afternoon. Finally, I relived my fantasy.
When I woke up the next morning, I was so nervous about what she was going to say that I completely forgot about my hangover and my boyfriend. When she squeezed me tighter, muttering: “Good morning beautiful” kissing me deeply and passionately, I knew. I knew I had to end my relationship. I knew that I wanted to feel warm, loved, aroused, and happy. I also knew the war against my sexuality was going to be a brutal one.
I dated my best friend in a tightly kept secret relationship for the following year. Many people speculated, but neither of us could afford our status at school to be jeopardised by society’s biggest fear. Living in such secrecy consumed me because I began living a double life. Panic forced me to guard my secret with dear life, as I would often have nightmares about my family finding out. Things between us were challenging, but I was determined to stay with her, thinking I would never find another woman who would love me. The impact on my mental health was life-threatening.
After we broke up in the middle of my matric year, my nightmares came true. I was kicked out of the closet. The truth always comes out, and people fear what they don’t know. People are even more terrified of what they believe to be incomprehensible. Thus, because they refuse to understand, they hate. The last six months of matric proved to be the greatest challenge I’ve had to endure to date. My friends deserted me. I found people to be resistant to understand that I was still the same person they knew. My life became like one of those movies. I was no longer welcome in the matric square and so I spent many breaks reading in the bathroom, or just bunked school. I was especially unwelcome in the girls’ residence and completed the remainder of the year from home.
Just as I thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. My parents found out. Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t a blessing in disguise because I don’t know when I would have had the courage to tell them myself. At this point, I had a new girlfriend. My family was not pleased with the news, particularly my mother. I’ll also never forget how upset my sister was. “How could you do this to our family name?”, she said. Asking if I have no respect for our parents. Accusing me, as if I chose this.
During the first year of university, I had no relationship with my mother or sister. My father tried his best to keep our family of five together. But tensions were always high, and I felt unwelcome at home. I tried to explain my journey to my mother, through tears. She looked at me and said, “I am sorry that you don’t fit into my, or your sister’s ideal framework of normality.” I have never yearned for a hug as much as at that moment. Instead, I was left crying in the garden chair, hating myself for the fact that I couldn’t be “normal.” Finally, my family realised that they either had to accept my girlfriend and my sexuality or lose their eldest daughter. The latter was never an option for my father, and so in respite he treated my girlfriend like one of his own daughters.
My second relationship ended after two and a half years. It was a life-altering relationship since it largely shaped me into the young woman I am today. Between her and Metanoia (a progressive co-ed residence in Stellenbosch) I learned to carry my sexuality with pride, embracing every part of it. At the time I believed I was only interested in women, but after a while I started questioning myself again. I fell in love with someone who was gender-fluid. Could I be pansexual? I tried to convince myself that I could be bisexual and hooked up with men. However, the attraction was short-lived, since it didn’t seem to warrant the effect I desired.
Until I met this guy from my class and became completely obsessed with him. Infatuated with every part of his being. I was attracted to him; sexually, physically, emotionally, and most importantly intellectually. This classmate became my boyfriend. Over the past two years he has been very patient while I’ve been figuring out my sexuality. I had some short-lived relationships in between but despite my best attempts, I found I couldn’t be as attracted to anyone as I am to him.
I figured out something very important during this time. I am not bisexual, its definition being attracted to both men and women. I am not pansexual, which means being attracted to all genders, therefore men, women, and non-binary genders. I am sapiosexual, which means being sexually aroused by a person’s intellect. It became clear to me why I could find some men attractive, and not others. I don’t prefer women over men, but I do know that I identify intellect more easily in women than in men. I find that I fall in love with a person’s intellect ahead of noticing their gender.
I’m sharing my continuous journey with my sexuality in the hope of helping someone who is filled with fear of what may seem alien to them, to realise that queer people are human too. Further, that somewhere it would prevent a mother or sister from judging their family member’s sexuality. It is not a choice, and however difficult it is for that person to be accepted, always remember that it is more difficult for that person to accept themselves.
Illustration by Jean-Marié Malan