It all began, innocently enough, with a picture.
This one, in fact…
Believe it or not, this innocuous self-portrait on my Instagram elicited such an inexplicable torrent of thirst DM’s from mostly (very) young men, that it left me blushing and bemused.
If you’re a little mystified, join the club.
I didn’t get it either.
In this age of gratuitously über-sexualized social media, I’m sure you’ll agree that my buttoned-up, bespectacled headshot hardly qualifies as sexy, provocative or come-hither-ish. On a scale from 1 to “mooshki” I’d say it’s a “meh”.
And my accompanying text to the post that meditated on middle-aged experience, hindsight and the value of not succumbing to regressive ‘old person’ thinking (yawn!), was not exactly the stuff of wet dreams either!
And yet, I found myself deflecting and diffusing volley upon volley of uninvited hella-flirty overtures in the picture’s wake.
In all sincerity, as a middle-aged man (I’ll be 50 next year, fates willing) I found the thought of being eroticized quite unsettling and strangely confronting. Perhaps it’s because I have a strong paternal instinct that went into protective overdrive when I visited their profiles and realized just how young (in both age and emotional depth) a lot of these men were. Young enough, it occurred to me, for any number of them to potentially be the age of my son, had I sired one in my late 20’s or early 30’s. I’m told by Chris and my friends that I should be flattered, but the whole episode just left me scratching my head and feeling kind of icky really.
That said, there was a certain latent quality and undercurrent to the messages that piqued my curiosity and gave me pause.
I take precious few things in life at face value, so once the flush of colour left my own, I began to wonder if there was something else at play here – besides a predilection for DILFs!
It’s worthy of mention at this point that the bulk of the men sliding into my DM’s were people of colour, most notably, men of Indian origin.
A few of them kicked off their charm offensive with all the cute one-liners and novice-like awkwardness of their age i.e. trying to appeal to my vanity by mentioning how I hadn’t “aged a bit” or how “hot” I still looked (you know, for a fossilized dinosaur from the 70’s).
But almost all of them also threw in the fact that they had grown up watching me on television and had, in their own words, always “looked up” to me and “admired” my comportment and sense of style.
So it wasn’t all purely sexual.
Looking up to someone signifies respect and fondness in the eye of the beholder. Had these men perhaps confused affection with sexuality? Might they then have been trying to reach out in a more meaningful way, albeit in a roundabout fashion?
Personal experience and study have taught me that people, particularly unseasoned or immature men (having once been one myself), have a tendency to sublimate (and thereby simplify) a complex emotional need or problem into something physical or carnal, like sex – so was all that amorous intrigue actually a misdirected want or need of the psyche? What if all that flirt was just a pretence, masking some embedded subtext that these men themselves weren’t consciously aware of or able to articulate comfortably or eloquently.
I started to suspect that their ‘outreach’ (as I eventually chose to characterize it to neutralize the ick factor) was driven by a subconscious yearning or desire for something more substantive and nurturing, like advice, counsel or answers. And who better to seek these from than from someone you hold in high-esteem who also happens to be older and much more experienced?
I kept circling back to these same nagging questions as more messages poured in over the days that followed the initial deluge.
Needless to say, I couldn’t know for sure if what I was sensing was informed by a hunch or my own projection, so I needed to test my theory.
I took a deep breath (and a leap of faith) and followed the advice of my inner intuit by responding to a select group of messages from my slew of online ‘admirers’…
Tossing aside the innumerable Grindr-esque lazy-ass ones that began (and prematurely climaxed) with “Hey!” “Hi!” or “Sup?” (good luck at that job interview boys), I began my informal survey by poking around (pardon the pun) for some raw nerves to tap.
Some of the, er…shall we say, ‘one-track-minded’ chaps I responded to lacked the self-awareness to go there with me, but I did have a breakthrough with a significant enough number of the respondents to form real connections and come away with tangible answers that confirmed my gut feeling.
After some gentle persuasion, lots of non-judgy signalling and a few volunteered revelations of my own (including disclosing my own sexual orientation), these men finally felt comfortable enough to candidly share not only their stories but also those of all the people they knew or interacted with in their communities and social circles. And they offered up valuable, eye-opening insights and intel that, frankly, triggered déjà vu moments (from when I was about their age) that I genuinely struggled to reconcile with the present-day milieu – and all its supposed “wokeness”.
I’ve Seen This Movie…Oh So Many Times!
Without betraying their identities I can safely say that, of the scores of men from all over South Africa I eventually engaged in dialogue, the majority were young (millennial & zoomer) gay or bi (again, mostly men of colour, especially Indians) leading deeply-closeted double lives – many, in my opinion, at the expense of their own personal liberty and freedom, mental health, subjective wellbeing and ability to form and maintain healthy and functional romantic relationships.
And according to these gentlemen most of the other gay men in their (hook-up) peer groups had gone to similarly extreme lengths to conceal their sexual identities (and adventures) from even their closest friends, family, colleagues and community. The aforementioned last three I get, but the part about not even being ‘out’ to a single one of their straight friends made my jaw drop!
All that self-censoring, suppression, hiding and secrecy!
It just isn’t tenable.
I was struck by how many qualities and circumstances these men of different faiths and diverse socio-economic realities had in common. For example, they all seemed to recoil from, or be repulsed by, the thought of using the words “gay” or “bisexual” to describe themselves – substituting them instead with phrases like “I’m into guys” or “I like fooling around with other dudes sometimes”. Such was the extent to which they had internalized their homophobia.
But the thing that really hit home and frankly, broke my heart, was the fact that almost every single one of them seemed to have also internalized the deeply cynical notion that being accepted, loved and even valued (as gay and bi men) by their family, community or people in general – and maybe even someday being in a wholesome, loving relationship with a partner of their choice – was genuinely not even an option that was available to them. They had entirely and unequivocally taken those aspirations or dreams off the table before even trying to realize them.
I found their profound sense of fatalistic resignation and hopelessness to be so jarring and at odds with their youth and the spirit of the age.
I may be living in a liberal, cosmopolitan “bubble” (as one of the men cheekily suggested), but surely most decent, thoughtful and compassionate people would be on board with how tragic and messed-up that is in 2020?
And since we’re performing perspective checks, unless you’re the one living in an echo chamber, feedback loop or a land that time forgot, there has never been a more exciting time and permissive climate for young (and old) LGBTQ+ individuals to be living their lives more openly and authentically (even if only in some concessionary, middle ground form) than right now. Especially in a country that was the first in the world to constitutionally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Witnessing closeted gay men subject themselves to the senseless pain of tortuously trying and ultimately failing to cut out or bottle up such an important and irrepressible part of who they were was painful enough back in the day. In today’s zeitgeist it also seems absurd and perversely counter-intuitive for men of a notoriously ‘woke’ generation to still be drinking the Boomer’s Kool-Aid.
Today, as I proudly acknowledge the growing visibility and progressive assimilation of queer culture into the mainstream, as well as the massive online community of LGBTQ+ bloggers and vloggers putting out unabashedly outspoken and candid content – not to mention the ever-burgeoning pantheon of out queer celebrities and luminaries who are embraced and loved by so many – I’m so excited by and frankly, seriously envious of the younger generation growing up in this era!
Especially when I contrast their reality with my own harrowing experiences growing up – and the absolutely brutal, draconian circumstances our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters who came before my generation were forced to endure.
In my day (he says, channeling his late father), the closest we came to anything resembling the ‘representation’ of gays in the media were salacious and sordid headlines in the evening TV news about police raids of private gay parties where, shock and horror, consensual adult gay porn was seized! Or 3x5cm personal classified ads in the back pages of the Sunday newspapers advertising M2M ‘massages’ or men looking for love or relationships with other men. As a teenager, I used to sneak off to my room to pore over the ads because they represented proof that gay people existed and offered me hope and comforting reassurance that I wasn’t alone or a freak. And being a bleeding-heart sentimentalist and romantic dreamer back then my spirits positively soared and swooned at the thought that there might be others like me in the world looking for “love”.
Of course, those voices were not calling out to the likes of me. They were exclusively of white men looking to meet other white men (with the caveats “straight acting”, “no fats”, “no femmes”, “no blacks” and “no asians” unashamedly conditioned).
Black and brown LGBTQ+ individuals were simply invisibilized back then.
Even when the groundbreaking Exit magazine (founded by the Gay Association of South Africa) launched in the early 80’s, the men gazing back at me from its pages didn’t look anything like me. The face or representation of queer identity and the standard of beauty was always that of cis male hyper-masculine Whiteness.
But as a kid I remember reasoning that I’d rather be invisible in that world, than be hated and tormented in this one.
Isn’t it amazing what we’ll tolerate and even embrace just so we may feel a sense of safety and belonging?
Look, let’s be clear…
I have absolutely no illusions about just how socially-conservative many pockets of this country can still be.
Speaking from personal experience, the Indian community can be especially insular and resistant to change.
Having grown up in Durban, Kwazulu-Natal in the 70’s and 80’s (at a time when homosexuality was not only an unspeakable vice and taboo, but also punishable by law) and been raised by two deeply religious parents (Hindu father, Muslim mother & Christian in-laws thrown into the mix), I’d been exposed to all facets of Indian cultural, social and religious life – long before my field work on Eastern Mosaic afforded me further, unprecedented grass roots-level insights into Indian communities across all socio-political and class-based lines, around the country.
So I get that we’re not yet at a place where two men can walk down the street holding hands without feeling self-conscious, threatened or unsafe in these communities.
But you need only turn on the telly or go onto YouTube and other social media to note that we’ve really moved the needle with regards to old-timey attitudes towards queer people in the court of public opinion. More and more fair-minded folks are waking up to the realisation that they’ll likely go down on the wrong side of history if they don’t, at the very least, recognize the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals.
And as for young people…well, they simply don’t get why the whole gay thing is still even an issue. They’re way past all that shit! Instead they’re putting my generation and older to shame with their openness, fearlessness and daring – as they subvert norms, shatter boundaries and explore new frontiers of gender fluidity and non-binary identities.
Yet the young men who reached out to me at the top of this article seemed to be stuck in some sort of curious and bizarre time warp. Hailing from working-class communities to affluent suburbs and everything in-between, the men from Indian families in Durban, in particular, seemed to be especially inoculated against the passage of time and the march of progress when it comes to conversations around the issues of gender, sex and sexuality.
In fact, so dumbfounded and disturbed was I by their strangely arrested development and gothic and medieval reports that I actually approached people I knew in academia who’ve conducted research and published journals and articles on the subjects of gender, sexuality and race, to find out if the regressive attitudes exhibited by these men were indeed an accurate reflection of the broader Brown and Black South African queer experience in 2020 – or just an anomaly.
One of the learned people I tapped for information and clarity, Rehana Ebrahim-Vally, Associate Professor of Humanities and Anthropology at the University of Pretoria, couldn’t offer me any definitive and conclusive answers. She went on to explain that one of the reasons no-one has been able to obtain and collate precise data on experiences and attitudes regarding LGBTQ+ in certain groups and communities, especially within the Indian community, is because of a lack of transparency. It would appear that people in these enclaves and communities are infamously misleading, evasive or reluctant to come clean on the subject of nonconforming sexual or gender expression.
But she did offer me some sage advice that further reinforced the course of action I’d already decided I was going to take by that point…
“Tell your story.” she said.
“Perhaps it’ll spark a conversation.”
Publicly coming out and opening up about my reasons for not doing so sooner was the first step…
Meeting The Moment
Full disclosure : I’ve never been comfortable with being assigned or credited with the “role model” tag. I think a lot of everyday folks give public figures, leaders and other successful, inspirational-types way too much credit and power than they actually deserve. No matter how gorgeous, talented, brilliant or accomplished they may be, people are only human – and by very definition, flawed.
Just like the rest of us, the rich and famous have some shitty qualities and unattractive sides to them. I’ve infiltrated the ranks of that exclusive club deeply and long enough to know that, contrary to popular belief, the bigwigs and beautiful people that folks look up to don’t have it nearly as altogether and figured out as one might think (I’ve yet to meet a human being who does, frankly). In fact, most of the “shiny happy people” I’ve hobnobbed with on the other side of the velvet rope tend to be surprisingly insecure, bratty and super entitled in my experience. In the world of showbiz and celebrity, Narcissistic Personality Disorder isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.
But the goddamn media constantly enables, elevates and hypes them up to manufacture your consent and orchestrate your deference and admiration. In other words, they manipulate you into a cult of personality that tricks you into caring about already privileged strangers who don’t add any real value to your life.
I’ve personally always been grateful for the fact that I was never a darling of the media, because when I look at the quality and calibre of a lot of the media personalities they favour to prop up and promote to the public I think to myself, “That’s not the sort of company I wish to be in.”
However, there is something to be said about the power of visibility and representation in the public domain.
When you are part of a stigmatized group (like the queer community) or a marginalized minority (like the Indian community) and you see a manifestation of your identity or self reflected back to you in a positive or complimentary way, it can be powerfully affirming and transformative. And a source of great inspiration and pride.
In the minds and hearts of the young men who reached out to me last year, my television persona was such a representation.
In the weeks that proceeded their initial comms, the men (now more encouraged and emboldened by my genuine interest in their lives and stories) volunteered more and more anecdotes and fond memories of watching me on TV as kids. They spoke of beloved relatives – who had since passed – who used to huddle with them and the rest of the family around the TV in the living room (as a matter of ritual) to watch Eastern Mosaic every Sunday. They each described (in their own way) feeling “proud” to be Indian because of the way the show represented them i.e. without harmful “stereotypes”. To their young minds I seemed to be the living embodiment of a new, aspirational breed of modern, “cool” Indian guy who was debonair, forward thinking, cosmopolitan and worldly. And yes, many of them crushed on me, even though they hadn’t yet come of age sexually.
And when they saw the up-to-the-minute pic of me on Instagram (now through the eyes of sexually-mature men) and discerned that I was still shaggable (for an old guy), their boyhood memories and fantasies came flooding back in a moment of (what they all described in endearingly affectionate tones as) “nostalgia”.
As pleasing and satisfying as it was to learn of my lasting impact and legacy, I recognized that there was still so much more work to be done – in the Indian community, in particular. I was overcome by a powerful paternal tug or a big-brotherly urge to help them through their pain and contribute to their present-day lived experience and quality of life.
“How can I help you?” I eventually asked of each of them.
They responded, rather enthusiastically, with questions. Oh so many questions!
…about my coming-out journey, my family’s reaction, career, love, dating, sex and relationships.
It occurred to me at that moment that sharing the intimate details of my experiences growing up as a gay man of colour (in a much unkinder time) might offer them and countless others like them some sort of hope or roadmap to guide them on their journey towards self-acceptance and reconciliation. I wouldn’t presume to tell them how to live their lives, but if I offered up mine as a precedent or example, then perhaps they might find something of value to take away from my story.
After all, there aren’t many male openly gay Indian public figures (who are famous for something other than LGBTQ+ activism) in South Africa.
But I also recognized that I might want to use my platform to go a step further…
Izzat vs An Inconvenient Truth
While there are certainly many aspects to the queer lived experience that are universal, there are some that are truly idiosyncratic and unique.
Hardwired into the Indian value-system, for example, is a social or cultural code known as “izzat”, which can be translated to refer to everything from family honour, reputation and prestige to an individual’s personal dignity. Similar to the concept of “saving face” that is core to a lot of Asian cultures, the notion of izzat sounds like a pretty noble and decorous aspiration on paper, but it has a decidedly dark downside.
As an unintended consequence, it also engenders a culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” behaviour that results in people concealing, suppressing or obfuscating the truth – or worse yet, simply denying its existence.
As a result, important conversations are seldom had or ever brought up, difficult situations and pressing issues are left unaddressed and therefore, unresolved – and inconvenient truths and problems are just wished away or swept under the rug.
All contemporary societies have their “Keeping up with the Joneses” fits of inadequacy, but within Indian diaspora communities in Westernised countries a particularly virulent strain of “What will other people think/say?” type of insecurity and anxiety stubbornly persists.
And few things invite more “dishonour” and “shame” to befall the quintessential Indian family than having a gay son or daughter in its ranks!
I find that there also exists a strange disconnect and double standard within the South African Indian community where parents, grandparents and elders will virtue signal empathy for other people’s gay children and the plight of their families, but will simply not tolerate a child of their own being gay. It all makes for a fascinating masala mix of concern trolling, sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy – with generous dollops of schadenfreude thrown in for more spicy flavour!
So if I was going to hold up a mirror to attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals and issues within the Indian community, I would need to make an example of myself and my own family and bare my soul – so as to jumpstart the conversation and jettison some of the needless shame surrounding it.
I knew I would have to be as refreshingly candid and open as possible and not gloss over any unpleasant or unsavoury facts and details.
And if the Indian community in this country was going to be scandalized by my revelations, then so be it.
We’re in the midst of a global pandemic and another looming financial crash. The planet is on fire and there are fools in charge because even bigger fools put them there.
I think we could all do with a little bit of a shake-up or a dust-off right about now!
After all, haven’t you heard? It’s 2020!
Oh…and, while we’re on the subject, 1985 called…
They want their attitudes back.