When the sun goes down, they feel free to be fabulous
JOHANNESBURG — Dancing alone in the so-called leather bar, I meet a beautiful chestnut black man with braids. But tired and anxious about being in unfamiliar territory, I feel it’s nearly time to go.
A few more men arrive, followed by two coloured drag queens who glance at me as I stand at the top of the stairs, close to the dance floor decorated with cheap Christmas ornaments hanging from the ceiling. They disappear through a doorway. Maybe it leads outside. I want some fresh air, and pick up my posters — one for Two Straight Queers, a gay play staged at the Market Theatre, the other an I Turned To Safe Sex poster from Outreach, on Esselen Street in Hillbrow, showing a cute, naked black man in jackboots. I’d taken both from the washroom wall of the other bar, Champions, I’d just visited. No one noticed, luckily.
I am indeed outside, save for the many bars enclosing the veranda. I can make out the street and light traffic below. The two moffie queens introduce themselves to me very mannerly.
Rachel sports a lengthy, tight, emerald-green velvet dress and a red boa, while her friend Leoness has that 70s bitchy look, complete with hoop earrings, more than enough makeup and 3-inch heels.
“You want some dagga?” one of them asks, taking a slow puff.
“OK,” I say. It tastes strong but does absolutely nothing for me.
“So you’re from Canada?” her courteous friend asks me.
“It’s not easy being a drag queen,” Leoness confides as she fixes her hair and dress, cupping her fake boobs to centre them properly. “We make our living singing at birthday parties and at Trends (another bar).”
Remembering that I was whisked here by private taxi and told not to get out until I was in front of the club, I ask, “You’re not afraid of the crime, then?”
“It’s as good as any other place, although some of the Cloras I call friends don’t want to come out alone at night.”
“Well, I’m glad to have found my way to the club,” I say. “It was such a battle to get here. Even my relatives wanted to escort me. I had to lie and say that I was meeting a friend of my cousin’s here. I can’t imagine my relatives walking into this place with me.”
“On the weekend it’s packed, man. We jorl up a storm, with leathermen, pretty white things and exhibitionists,” Rachel says.
I look around. Except for the taxis and a few people milling in the street below, Hillbrow is quiet. My cousin had taken me downtown earlier, and the sidewalks were crowded with Africans selling everything from shoes to Celine Dion CDs. He laughed, “Oh, South Africans love her but can’t understand her French songs.”
Joburg is now completely African — more “down-market,” according to coloureds and other non-whites. Whites have left for affluent suburbs like Sandton, which are deeply segregated, just like American cities.
I return to the moffie queens, who look out of place here.
“Do they come, too?” I ask. “Africans, I mean?”
“Natalies, the blacks — they come if they can afford it, man.”
“It must be hard for them,” I say. “I thought they still don’t come out to the bars.”
“It’s getting better. I mean, even ou Shaka, king of the Zulus, was a blaady moffie!” claims Rachel.
“Oh, fok now! I don’t believe it,” says her feline friend.
“Years ago, as a varsity student, I was doing research for a history class, man. I think he was a mlandwana, or illegitimate child, of a mother who had him when she failed to keep her thighs together. Sure, he was a great warrior. Had a lisp, possibly a stutter. Hilda — you know. I read that he might be a ‘latent homosexual.’ And he avoided women and put to death men who made women pregnant. He wanted no heirs who might rise up and kill him.”
“Sounds fascinating,” I say.
“There was word that he even killed his own mother, driving a small assegai into her side.”
“That’s reva-volting,” her friend says, brushing her long hair aside.
“Shaka was very remorseful. And ordered that in honour of her mother’s death no crops would be planted and the entire Zulu nation was not to have sexual intercourse for one year. If that wasn’t all, any woman bearing children and her husband would be put to death.”
“It sounds as if he hated sex. Not a real moffie!” Leoness objects.
“He liked to dress smartly,” Rachel smiles. “Even wore a golden kilt and long blue feather from the tail of a lory bird in his headband.”
“I don’t know if the Zulus would want people to know this part of their history if that’s the case, that their fearless founder, king and ruler could have been a moffie,” I tell them, not wishing to spoil their reinterpretation of history. Then again, our Cecil Rhodes is known to have preferred young men.
The two look like the’ve had too much to smoke. They begin to fight over something.
“Jou ma se poes! (Your mother’s cunt!)” Leoness reels, grabbing her friend’s bag. It’s nearly as bad as hearing an insult from a hijra like “Go suck your husband’s sugar cane!”
“She wants more,” Rachel says, letting go of the small red handbag.
They soon depart, leaving me stranded and alone, thinking of my return to Canada after seeing my mother’s casket descend deep into the African earth.