Gay, black and normal

You Have to be Gay to Know God by Siya Khumalo

Kwela Books

R225 at takealot.com

288 pages

Let’s talk about religion, sex and politics – but from the perspective of a proudly gay, black Christian man.

Durban-born writer Siya Khumalo’s autobiography unravels how these three worlds collide in his much-talked-about debut novel.

Written with raw and unapologetic candour, the book unpacks how religion and politics are instrumental in suppressing homosexuality and shaping society’s perception of gay people.

The book is divided into three parts, each with chapters taking the reader on an eventful journey through Khumalo’s life.

Insightful and often eyebrow-raising, he recounts his experiences of homophobic violence, his struggle for self-acceptance, his life in the army and his fear of going against his faith. In the process it highlights how homophobia undermines constitutional democracy.

Some of the stories are nothing short of humorous, which softens the read and your concerns about how someone could have endured so much.

He writes about loss and the grief over his first adolescent love and jokes about how growing up in a funeral home led to an “awakening” and awareness of his sexuality at the age of seven.

In writing about his childhood, Khumalo does a great job illustrating how challenged black boys are in manufacturing their masculinity in a culturally traditional and religious family.

The challenge can be tenfold when you’re harbouring a secret that makes you an outcast in your home and in society.

In his teens, we see how Khumalo wrestles with internalised homophobia in an attempt to reconcile his same-sex feelings with religion. This torturous inner turmoil is carefully detailed and begs the reader to question the notion that homosexuality is merely a choice someone makes.

“Whose God is God — the God of those who never asked to love who they love, or of those who mock them without mercy?” Khumalo asks.

The politics of identity comes into play in this quandary as Khumalo journeys to the eventual acceptance of his sexuality. He refers to himself as a “forbidden self” in his coming-out story and jokingly asks if all his praying and church-going had done nothing to inoculate him.

Politicians and pastors are, arguably, two powerful centres of public influence and Khumalo talks candidly about how these two entities can be architects of homophobia. He criticises the cherry-picking Christians tend to do when it comes to quoting from the Bible and unpacks the hypocrisies in people’s interpretations of biblical scriptures.

He goes beyond the surface discussion of religion-based homophobia and makes a commendable effort of delving into the theological roots of homophobia.

He doesn’t shy away from criticising the two biggest political parties in the country: the DA for presenting itself as a gay-friendly party “while inadvertently punting the white supremacy” and the ANC for its tribalism power plays.

The book is not an attempt at normalising the life of a gay Christian man, nor is it a secular attack. It is, rather, a nudge to the reader to transcend notions of “normal”.

It makes you want to probe widely held beliefs and imposed cultural rules that are suppressive and deadly to queer people the world over, South Africa included despite our liberated Constitution.

Much like the film Inxeba (The Wound), this book is sure to ruffle many feathers, which is what is expected when a conservative society wants to sweep under the carpet things that are happening and real.

Khumalo’s writing is fresh, thought-provoking, brave, achingly unsettling and funny all at once. He catapults the much-needed conversation about confronting those social institutions that reduce aspects of the human experience into public awareness.