Thembisa

Age 19, Rural KwaZulu-Natal

Everything in me is tough.

At first glance, it is difficult to tell that Thembisa, whose friends call him Thembe, is biologically female. He has broad shoulders, a shaved head, and dresses in baggy men’s polo shirts and shorts. He frequently crosses his right arm across his chest, his hand gripping his left shoulder, neatly concealing his breasts. He lives with his family in a rural Zulu village north of Durban, where he spends his time playing soccer, watching television, socializing with his friends, and helping his family around the house. Next year, he plans to attend university in Durban, where he will study marketing.

Thembe strongly identifies both as a lesbian and as a man, and does not see this as a contradiction. He accepts and acknowledges that he is biologically female, and occasionally refers to himself as a woman, but when asked directly if he is a boy or a girl, he consistently responds by saying, “I’m a boy” or “I’m a man.” When asked what it means to be a man, he says:

It’s like … I’m big! It’s a tough question. [long pause] Everything in me is tough. I’m stronger than her. I can fight, because I am a man! If they try to take my girl, I will fight for her!

Thembe says that this has been his identity for his entire life, that as soon as he was old enough to make his own decisions, he wore boys’ clothing and only played with boys:

At the age of 9, I started saying, ‘No, I can’t wear [skirts]’ because I was playing with the boys, you see? Every time, I was wearing shorts.

In Thembe’s childhood photo album, there is only one picture of him in a dress, and he does not appear to be old enough to walk. In all of the other pictures, his hair is cut short and he is wearing boy’s clothing, even in his primary school uniform. At the age of eight, he insisted on being allowed to wear trousers and a shirt to school, which the school was reluctant to permit:

I told them that I don’t like it, that skirt. It was very hard [for] them. It made them angry. But I told them, ‘No way, I don’t like it.’ And I started wearing the boys’ uniform.

He says that the school was reluctant to permit him to wear the uniform he desired because they were afraid that all the other girls would follow suit. In fact, he said that some girls did ask to wear the boys’ uniform, but the principal told them that only Thembe was allowed.

When Thembe was in late primary school, a girl came to class and talked about a television show in which gay identity was mentioned. It was the first time Thembe heard the word ‘gay,’ although he had had been interested in girls prior to that:

I thought about it … thought and thought and thought, and said ‘That’s where I belong.’

It seems that soccer has played a significant role in Thembe’s socialization as a lesbian. An avid player since the age of 9, Thembe says that he found most of his lesbian friends, as well as many of his romantic endeavors, through his all-female (at least biologically) team. He refers to many of the other players on his team as “boys,” but it remains unclear whether those people are self-identified as male. He lived with his coach while attending high school about an hour away from his home, who he also refers to as a lesbian man. “Coach told me everything about gays and lesbians. Took me to clubs, and to other gays and lesbians.”

When I traveled to Thembe’s soccer practice, he was quite excited to point out each lesbian on the team. His best friend on the team is another extremely masculine-appearing lesbian, named Jess . It remains unclear whether or not this person identified as male. I watched the practice from the sidelines with Thembe’s brother Sizwe, and his male friend, Thulani . Thulani was shocked at Jess’s masculinity, and said “I can’t believe that one [pointing at Jess] is a lady!” Sizwe laughed at his astonishment and responded, “She’s just like Thembe, Thulani. She’s a man.”

Since he began identifying as a lesbian, Thembe has told only his close friends, but says, “everyone knows.” He says that everyone has been accepting of him, but smiles and says that they get irritated when their girlfriends have crushes on him – “They think that if you are a lesbian, the girls always say yes to you. But it’s not like that.”

They call me Thembe, umfowethu.

Despite the fact that the current King of the Zulus has stated that he thinks being gay is a “un-Zulu,” and Thembe lives in a fairly traditional Zulu area, he says that he has never encountered any significant problems, and thinks Zulu culture is accepting of gays and lesbians. He says, “It’s okay, because when I grew up, I grew up in front of them. They see the way I am.” In fact, he says that most of his friends in the village recognize his masculinity in the words they use to speak with him, “They call me Thembe, umfowethu .” He says that he knows of “one or two” other gay/lesbian people in the village, but has never dated anyone from his town. He says that he feels comfortable holding hands or kissing his girlfriend in the main road, and that it is “not a problem.” He certainly does not live in fear, and openly catcalls at women with his male friends.

The only prejudice that Thembe has encountered has come from Christians. “They believe in the Bible,” he says, “They say it’s a bad thing. It says men shouldn’t sleep with men.” His mother is a Christian minister, which he says has made her less accepting of him than the rest of his family, who is not as religious:

They believe in the Bible, and they take this as a rubbish thing, but she knows that I am a les . But she doesn’t want to understand. She told me that I must stop doing [this]. But I told her I can’t.

Other than his mother’s discomfort with Thembe’s lesbian identity, his family appears to be completely accepting of him. His brothers joke about how they have to be careful when they have their girlfriends around him (because he is “such a player”), and the sister with whom he shares a room always leaves whenever his girlfriend visits so that they can have privacy.

I am a man to her. Always.

Currently, Thembe has a girlfriend who lives in a neighboring town. They have been together for three years, although he has been with several other women during that time. “No man can stand with one leg!” he says, and explains that he only loves his girlfriend, whereas he was involved with the others for “sex only.” He says that his girlfriend, who does not approve of his non-monogamy, refers to him as her boyfriend:

She knows that I am her boyfriend. I am a man to her. Always. Even if she told her friends, she says, ‘Thembe is my boyfriend. My man.’

All of the women Thembe has been involved with have been feminine. Shocked when I asked if he would ever be involved with a lesbian man, he said, “Who will be the man? No, I like the beautiful ones. When you are kissing [lesbian men], they have tough lips. I want soft ones.”

Clearly, Thembe identifies strongly as a man. He does both typically masculine and feminine chores around the house, although he says that the more typically feminine (ie. Cooking, cleaning) chores are “hard for me.” He says that when there is an option, he always uses the male toilet. He has never heard the word “transgender,” nor has he heard of Gender Reassignment surgery or the option of hormone therapy. Even if he had, it is not clear whether he would want to pursue those options. He does, however, say, “I want to [have] a flat chest.” When I asked if he wishes that he were born into a male body, he responded, “I think I am born like a man. When I was young, I was like that. I didn’t change.”

[note_box]Thembisa has been interviewed by Harper B. Keenan. The interview is part of the following publication:

Harper B. Keenan
Eugene Lang College: The New School for Liberal Arts
School for International Training
South Africa: Reconciliation and Development
Fall 2006

Advised by: Dr. Cheryl Stobie, UKZN, Pietermaritzburg[/note_box]