Last updated on January 25, 2021
Siya Khumalo describes himself as someone who “enjoys writing on religion, politics and sex.” It’s a strange combination, but a lot about Khumalo is unconventional. From joining the military where he had ‘bible study sessions’ (read sex) to entering Mr Gay South Africa, shining under the spotlights of dance floors by night, and unleashing his sharp tongue as blogger and activist by day, Siya Khumalo is rather versatile. The handsome South African now offers us some insights into his controversial book, You Have to Be Gay to Know God.
Written in impeccable English, You Have to Be Gay to Know God is a humorous and profound look at what it is to grow up gay in South Africa. Khumalo’s basic theory is that one needs to be in the margins to reach authentic spirituality. Organised religion, Christianity in this case, he says is constructed on the premise that sex is a tool to maintain male dominance (over women, primarily). As such, it is hard for religious fanatics to grasp the expression of love and affection between same-sex couples. The story is about his childhood, exclusion, and the mockery he has faced. School, army life, love and sex, seeking his parents’ acceptance, as well as the necessity to argue against homophobic politics and the church, are all deftly handled.
His idea that sex, politics and religion are not mutually exclusive is rather refreshing in an era where we’re faced with so many divisive discussions about the intersection between sexuality and religion. Khumalo criticises South African politics and calls out misinterpretations of the Bible that lead to gay exclusion and persecution in society. Through You Have to Be Gay to Know God, we see a glimpse of the man, his faith, his convictions and learn of his success. Blackgayblog.com caught up with Siya Khumalo to find out more and get a little deeper under the skin.
Why do You Have to Be Gay to Know God?
No one can love justice more than someone who’s experienced its absence. You have to stand outside society’s notion of godliness to know “God” — to know why it keeps missing the mark. Politicians and preachers weaponise religion for personal gain, and Jesus (who died exposing that behaviour) is the poster-boy in their campaign to scapegoat LGBTQ people as a way to detract from their own failings. It’s populism. Resisting it means identifying with whoever is “othered” by society. The title of my book is a call to action. I use my life experiences to articulate why a radically subversive and inclusive paradigm shift is needed in the way we engage with our religious institutions and political leaders.
Why was Judge Edwin Cameron the right person to write the foreword for a book that started life as a suicide note?
Let’s not give everything away, [he laughs]. But the mental health aspect of coming to terms with one’s sexuality is a significant part of my story. I was fortunate because my immediate family was supportive. But even then, I took a lot of society’s homophobic messages to heart. Writing helped me turn despair into rage, which felt to me like progress!
Judge Cameron had recently been recognised with The Isibindi Award. The word isibindi is Zulu for courage. That’s why I thought he’d be the right person, as well as why I hoped against hope that he’d write the foreword.
Is seeking psychological counselling normal in Africa or in South Africa in particular?
South Africans don’t generally seek mental health care interventions. They’re less affordable than the solutions they ordinarily turn to such as the church or spiritual counsellors. I went at the time because, like many government employees, my mother was on medical aid and our GP recommended psychological counselling.
Did a supportive mother make the process of coming out, aged thirteen, easier?
Having a supportive mother is probably why I’m still alive, to put it bluntly. I was too young and dumb at the time to realise she was right. The healthiest thing to do was live life fully, and authentically. But I put up obstacles in my own way. Mum said to date and have fun. In one instance, she even joked that I should try not to sleep with more than four different guys in one day. I laughed at the time. But later, I realised I’d spent so much time working out whether my sexuality was wrong or right, whether it would change, that I didn’t use my teenage years to grow into as functional and healthy an adult as I could have.
How would you describe your relationship with God?
If we define God as consciousness and life itself, then no experience is possible apart from that. I’m still figuring out my relationship with God. I see each day as a chance to broaden my self-definition and God empowers each of us to expand; however, we choose.
Can you reconcile your faith with the activities of anti-gay religious institutions which, in your words, are led by “White supremacists who happen to be Black”?
Jesus was crucified by an oppressive regime and a corrupt religious establishment. If that story can be ‘weaponised’ by power-hungry institutions and establishments, then any big idea can be hijacked. No world-view is inherently safe except through a sheltered ahistorical and insular perspective. Nothing is static. A world-view that seemed to have no baggage yesterday can be problematic tomorrow. Judging it by what it’s doing here and now is important, but judging it for all it’s done and all it could still do is taking a broader and more responsible perspective.
Consider atheism. Professor Yuval Noah Harari — also gay — has been ringing the alarm on the philosophical questions that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will force us to contend with: is there such a thing as free will? How, since the premises underpinning the scientific method preclude finding its origins or defining it? His concern is that secular liberalism’s regard for individual choice is at odds with the materialistic metaphysic preferred by its adherents.
In my next project, I’m arguing that as we go deeper into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, these contradictions will show themselves as deepening economic inequality and capitalism’s encroachment on people’s privacy. This will mean the displacement of religious institutions’ tyranny with private de-regulated businesses’ tyranny, which already runs unfettered where governments and democracies are captured, corrupted or compromised.
Is it not an oxymoron to talk of White supremacists who happen to be Black’?
It is one way of talking about internalised racism. Black people exploit fellow black people because it enriches them and some white businesspeople. It is not just about South Africa; it is the whole continent. Every last square inch of it. Our political leaders preach against the evils of colonialism such as “gayism” — then they turn around and sell mineral resources to colonial powers, buy their suits in Europe and go die in overseas hospitals because they’ve bankrupted local medical services.
They use religion to amplify the effects of populism. By getting society arranged around the punishment of “sinners”, they can make themselves look like saints. This is how they turn attention from their own corruption.
You say Jesus was queer.
Yes. Jesus was queer: he spoke to prostitutes and accepted other sexualities such as eunuchs. The man believed he was God! However right or wrong he was about this; it makes him queer beyond any redemption or straightening his followers have attempted on him.
What can your book offer the atheist reader?
Steamy sex scenes, and hot takes on how power structures work. I think I’ve had more robust discussions about the book with atheists than with theists. I think this is due to a number of things: Christians live with the thought police in their lives, so they’ll be less likely to have their beliefs questioned. Atheists, however, have broken out of thought jail.
Why was it was important for you to include graphic sexual details in the book?
Colonial/Victorian norms created an artificial division between the “rational” man and his “lower” passions, but that dualism is dangerous. Wholeness isn’t the exclusion of any part of ourselves, but the proper inclusion and integration of our whole selves. The reason the world is in upheaval about consent and boundaries is that we weren’t taught how to be whole with one another. In my discovery of that potential in myself, I invite the reader to likewise reclaim his/her whole self. Practice makes perfect. Just as it would be irresponsible to put a new driver in a car and on the road without hours of practice first, it’s irresponsible of us not to create spaces where people can learn about healthy sexual expression. We’re suffering as a consequence of our failure to do this.
Yet you talk flippantly in the book about HIV, death and even witchcraft. How did you arrive at this attitude?
Those things were just part of the world I grew up in. I didn’t realise I could have spoken about them any differently. There wasn’t room in the book to really flesh out what I believe about these issues. I tried to describe how we experienced witchcraft allegations as they played out while being as objective as I could be, but at the time I didn’t have the social clout to influence the events so interpreting them feels moot. To this day, I’m really not sure what I believe about witchcraft — I’ve never developed a systemic way of understanding it. As for HIV, we grew up inundated with TV shows about what it was, how it was prevented and how it was managed. I only realised later that it was a taboo topic in society.
Author, public speaker, political analyst, Bible commentator (man of God). How do you reconcile all this with your rather racy life?
I love writing bible commentary. You can turn a page in the scriptures and go from reading about a steamy affair, a war, a murder — to reading a prayer, a poem or a love letter. Politics in the Bible is like today’s news headlines. Then there’s the history of biblical interpretation: we can’t explain South Africa’s legacy of apartheid apart from how certain denominations in South Africa used their interpretation of the Bible to justify racist state policy. I must know the Bible because, without it, I can’t understand my environment.
A lot of the crazy stuff I’ve done was because I had friends who pushed me to try things. I’m glad I did. I’ll continue exploring. As for the “man of God” label, I think so many of us impose a colonial straight jacket on that label. I’m not sure I can identify with it further than to say that God empowers each of us to expand and evolve as we choose.
Can the international LGBTQ community help our African family achieve better civil rights?
They can listen to African LBGTQ activists. Those activists know what’s happening on the ground. There’s this temptation to push for civil rights ahead of getting social support, but societies produce institutions and laws, so it’s important that the international community first engages the influence-peddlers — especially religious institutions. Many queer people around the world grow up and decide religion is something of the past for them — a nightmare from their childhood. But not every country makes it so easy to escape the reach of religion, and it’s going to be that way for a long time. I’d ask people to take time to visit a nearby denomination’s LGBTQ group and find out what challenges their colleagues face in Africa. Help shape the social institutions that shape society, and those include religious institutions. When it isn’t prefaced with that work, court litigation and civil agitation tend to raise the stakes and the risks without creating a safety net for LGBTQ people.
Finally, are you optimistic about the future for LGBTQ people of faith in Africa, and around the world?
Yes, because their fate is tied to that of the human race. Thanks to technology, we’re rapidly approaching a time when it’ll be impossible to isolate injustice to just one group of humans. So, if we suffer, the world suffers. Gender and sexual minorities are like canaries in coal mines: given the trajectory, we’re on, it’s no wonder there’s ecological and economic degradation. The sources of oppression tend to also be the sources toxicity in general, and we’ll never get full accountability if we seek partial accountability. So, now is not the time to give up, back down or lose momentum.
- You may also like: Kenyan, Christian, Queer–the Arts of Resistance in Africa (Q&A)