Life in South Africa as a gay black foreigner is a horrendous nightmare. Well, many days I wish it were just a nightmare. But it is the reality for me. This reality is one full of intolerance, discrimination, and prejudice. I am a refugee and a gay activist – this is my story.
I fled my home after my mother tried to inject me with a syringe full of gasoline when she discovered that I was gay. After leaving my mother’s house, I began living with my father and I attended Bandundu University. I became friends with other gay students at the university and began to date and experiment. During this time, my father saw a picture taken of me kissing another man. After confronting me, my father and mother forced me into a “healing process” run by a pastor. I was made to fast for days in order to expel the “devil spirit” out of my body.
When I did not change my behavior, my father spread the news of my homosexuality to the community. Local boys began to beat me. I was particularly weary of a notorious group that hunted homosexuals. My friends and family shunned and banished me. My life was in danger and I had nowhere to go, so I came to South Africa.
I came full of hope that things would get better; that I would be able to live my life without fear of being persecuted for who I am. And in some ways I do feel safer here than I did in Congo. But after being here for a year, I can honestly say that this hope did not come true.
Life is tough here. Firstly, there is a lot of homophobia in the Congolese community in South Africa. When I first arrived, I lived with my cousin. When he found out from my family in Congo that I was gay, he kicked me out on the street. My mother ensured that no other family member in South Africa took me in after that. Since then I have moved around a lot, living with different Congolese people, but the story is always the same: once they detect that I am gay, they kick me out.
I also lived in some shelters and there I experienced xenophobia from South Africans. Even some members from the South African LGBTI community were not helpful. Their priority is to help South African LGBTI individuals, but other LGBTI refugees, like myself, have less access to support groups and assistance. It is tiring to be reminded every day that you are ‘not a South African’, and it hurts even more when it comes from other LGBTI people.
I wish I could just get to my feet and find a job. But finding a job in South Africa is tough enough as it is; trying to find a job as an openly gay foreigner is close to impossible. I have been looking for a job since I came here and I felt that most of the managers were judging me by my ‘gay’ physical appearance. Although the South African constitution protects LGBTI people from discrimination, homophobia is deeply rooted in South African society.
The majority of South Africans, like in most other African countries, think homosexuality is a western culture emulated by some African youths who are being recruited by white sugar daddies into homosexuality.
What can be done to change the desperate situation that I and countless other LGBTI refugees in South Africa are facing? Changing the culture of homophobia is difficult, but it has to be done, step by step. More people need to start campaigning against homophobia within our communities. We need to raise awareness and take action against xenophobia and racism in parts of the South African LGBTI community. We need to create a shelter or accommodation for LGBTI refugees in South Africa to help them get on their feet.
We have to build up a job referral system for LGBTI people to tolerant or ‘gay-friendly’ businesses and managers.
It is unlikely that things will get better in the near future. Yesterday I got kicked out by yet another Congolese host, on my 24th birthday. But hope is what dies last.
Junior Mayema is a volunteer with People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP)