Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town
By Andrew Tucker. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, January 2009. Hardcover: ISBN 978-1405183031, $89.95; paper: ISBN 978-1405183024, $39.95. 256 pages.
Review by Nathan G. Tipton, University of Memphis
Perhaps no other issue, save that of abortion, is more contentious and provokes more passionate and vociferous opinions than that of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, and queer (GLBTQ) rights. For example, recent governmental actions to legalize gay marriage in states such as Massachusetts, Iowa, and New Hampshire (or, conversely, the nullification of this legislation in California) have prompted nationwide consternation over what rights could or should be accorded non-heteronormative individuals. Lurking behind this socio-cultural hand-wringing is, of course, an ideological competition to determine exactly how visible queers should (or should not) be in heteronormative society. Put more bluntly, queer visibility is ultimately contingent on the heterosexual hegemony’s comfort level and what it feels is allowable and tolerable.
Andrew Tucker’s ambitious but problematic book Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town acknowledges this omnipresent contingency while also exploring it through the decidedly non-Western lens of post-apartheid South Africa. Specifically, Tucker takes a geographical approach to his subject by linking the differing queer communities qua “gay spaces” that exist in Cape Town, South Africa to the legacy of apartheid that continues to influence race and class relations throughout the country. As Tucker explains, the ideological mechanisms deployed by the apartheid-era white South African government were utilized not only to justify racial control but also to suppress the eruption of other groups that had the potential to threaten heteronormative white rule.
In post-apartheid Cape Town, however, Tucker notes that these same methods used during apartheid (specifically, strict separation and segregation by race and class) are still tacitly enforced throughout Cape Town’s myriad gay spaces. In spite of South Africa’s concerted efforts, post-apartheid, to rewrite its constitution in order to enshrine equality for all citizens regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation, the racial and spatial history of apartheid still casts an ominous shadow, effectively compartmentalizing Cape Town’s queer communities along the same racial categories (white, colored/Afrikaner, and black African) that were formulated and rigidly regulated during the years of apartheid. This compartmentalization, Tucker argues, makes Cape Town unique among other worldwide gay meccas such as New York City, San Francisco, London, and Sydney.
Tucker marshals together an impressive array of both Western and non-Western race, queer, identity, and post-colonial theorists such as Marlon B. Ross, Charles Nero, and E.J. Popke to bolster his overarching argument that the legacy of apartheid-era racial policies has created in Cape Town a fluidity of queer desire that operates in contradistinction to the strict homosexual/heterosexual binary extant in Western models of queerness. For example, throughout Queer Visibilities Tucker repeatedly questions the epistemological efficacy of “the closet” by arguing that, because it manifests itself along this binary, the closet is a specifically Westernized construct and, therefore, does not apply to the more fluid racial and identity interactions that occur in Cape Town’s queer communities.
On the surface this argument works well, particularly in the exhaustive and fascinating exploration of Cape Town’s colored “moffies.” Moffies, Tucker explains, are cross-dressing men who were not only accepted by the larger colored society, but were also used to promote (and, hence, make visible) this same society. Tucker notes that, like the wider colored society, moffies exist in conflicting social and political positions, occupying the liminal space between black and white, while also limning the space between masculine and feminine by way of their “dragging.”
Complicating the moffies’ spatial placement even further is the curious existence of heterosexually-identified gang members known as “28s” who consciously choose to engage in sex with other men (specifically moffies) and make these men their “wives,” all the while disavowing any suggestion that they are anything but heterosexual. Moffies, in effect, serve as an anchor for these gang members’ judiciously presumptive, quasi-archetypal heterosexuality by insisting on being as authentically female as possible, thus effectively—if somewhat ironically—shoring up hetero-patriarchal social norms. Indeed, it is precisely this “non-queer queerness” that defines for Tucker the pronounced break between Western and non-Western epistemologies of the closet.
Tucker’s epistemological approach generally succeeds with regard to queer interactions occurring within the larger colored community, but it falters in his discussions of both white and black African—specifically Xhosa—queers. In fact, Tucker’s chapter on queer Xhosa men in the townships provides compelling evidence that the Westernized closet not only exists, but also holds powerful sway, over this community. He notes that, although in some black African communities there exists the possibility for qualified acceptance of queers, an equally real possibility of homophobic violence towards those “visible” queers still remains a constant threat. In the Cape Town townships, visible queer men continually run the risk of being subjected to violence precisely because their visibility conflicts with Xhosa and wider black African value systems, especially the widespread notion (voiced by many black South African leaders including Winnie Mandela) that homosexuality is “unAfrican.”
Given that homophobic violence acts as an extra-social regulatory function in heteronormative Western societies, it could easily be argued that the social pressures faced by queer Xhosa men might not only create, but also effectively force Xhosa queers back into, the closet. Tucker seems to anticipate this objection by arguing that, in response to this homophobia, these men have formed a network of social nodal homes in order to be both protected and visible. Still, this approach is problematic simply because, in spite of providing ostensible visibility, Xhosa queer social nodes seem to be nothing more than “hiding in plain sight” or, put more precisely, self-segregation. Thus, it appears almost as if Xhosa queers were merely trading one closet for another.
Queer Visibilities represents an important addition to anthropological, geographical, and queer studies of pan-African sexualities. However, it is not without its limitations, the most pronounced being Tucker’s insistence that South African queerness should be interpreted as distinct and uniquely separate from the prevailing Westernized (and, by definition, colonialist) model of queerness. Though queer sexualities in Cape Town are undoubtedly influenced and informed by apartheid-era colonial ideologies, they nevertheless operate under many of the same societal mores and strictures that legislate and mediate the visibility of all queer communities, regardless of geographical locale.