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Three Case Studies

Many of the isiNgqumo-speakers we met during the fieldwork self-identified as skesana. The following three case studies also illustrate the variable lifestyles of the skesanas we interviewed. The few snippets of conversation, which are marked in italics, emerged during the fieldwork in informal conversations and interviews and they are chosen because they poignantly capture what many other skesana participants have expressed in different words.

Lebo is a twenty-one-year-old township resident who lives with his mother and two sisters in a small brick house.6 He identifies as skesana, refers to himself as a “girl" and claims that even his mother has accepted his chosen gender identity the way it is because she only ever speaks about her girls when talking to someone about her children.7 Lebo does not know his father, but he has a close relationship with his mother who works as a domestic worker in Durban. Lebo himself earns some money from a part-time waiter job in a small pizzeria and claims that more than a part-time job is not feasible for him because he is fully responsible for the household while his one sister is studying and the other is simply lazy. He repeatedly asserts that he loves running the household and describes cooking, cleaning, and making the place look nice as his passions. On the weekends, Lebo commonly meets his friends who are also mostly skesanas and with whom he likes going to clubs in town. It is in this circle of his friends that he speaks extensive isiNgqumo which, according to his own description, he loves and uses eloquently. We [he and his skesana friends] love to gossip, you know, he proclaims and describes how they would each pick a straight man when they go out, talk in isiNgqumo about him during the night, and as best case scenario lure him into bed toward the end of the night. While Lebo has dated two men over a not insignificant period of time and would have liked to think of himself as umfazi in these relationships—the hlo- nipha term for a married woman—he never had a stable long-term relationship. Although his mother knows most of his skesana friends, and claims that she thinks of him as female, he is not sure how she would react if he brought a boyfriend home. Lebo claims to be entirely happy about his body with no intentions for a gender reassignment, but he emphasizes that he is definitely the woman in the relationship with a man. When asked about hlonipha, Lebo asserts that without him showing hlonipha toward his partners, he would not be able to “score”: They [the kind of men he dates] like to be served, you know, so we do everything to please him, he says while giggling. Lebo would employ the term ubaba for his male partners, a hlonipha term for a respected man.

Sky is a thirty-one-year-old well-dressed self-proclaimed skesana whom we met in a Durban cafe. Right at the beginning of the meeting, he emphatically proclaimed that—though his body may suggest otherwise—I am a full-blown woman. He lives in Umlazi, the largest township in the Durban metropolitan area where we visited him subsequently and where he runs a very small, doubtfully lucrative business making and selling clothes. He says that “style” is very important to him, that his style is feminine and that he does not like dating someone who does not have “style.” Speaking isiNgqumo is a way of life for Sky; he boasts being one of the best isiNgqumo speakers in KwaZulu-Natal and would like to compose a dictionary of the linguistic variety someday. Sky is currently dating a forty-six-year-old teacher who, as he phrases it, is “a bit of a big daddy" meaning that he is well established and supports Sky financially and emotionally. When Sky is at his lover’s place, he says he tries to be a good woman to him, washes, cooks, and cleans, and shows him the respect he deserves as a man. Sky would like to undergo a gender reassignment but stated that since his father is still alive it is an “impossibility" at least for now. Apparently, as he explains, it is an issue of hlonipha, showing respect to his father by not changing his sex.

Blessing is a twenty-three-year-old teacher at a primary school around Durban. He recently moved to Durban after having lived most of his life in a small town on the South Coast of the KwaZulu-Natal province. He currently lives with his partner, who is quite masculine, and who is also a teacher. During one of the interview sessions, we arrived as he was receiving an instruction from his partner: Ngicela ungenzele iwashing. Ngyakthuma, ngcela ungenzele iwashingi (‘Please can you wash my clothes ... I’m asking that you please wash my clothes’).8 Without any sort of irritation, Blessing started collecting his partner’s clothes for washing. For him, this was the role he was meant to perform as a “female" partner. He was the “bottom" in the relationship, umama wekhaya (‘the woman of the house,’ as he puts it). This, he claims, requires a demonstration of inhlonipho (‘respect’) toward the man of the house. Blessing feels very constrained by his profession. He is expected to behave like a man, dress up like other men, and relate to children in his school like other men would. However, he finds this challenging as it limits possibilities for self-expression: Well if you are gay, you have to show it. You have to wear tight clothes, you have to be neat and you have to be colorful. You can’t just be untidy like all the straight men. ... For Blessing, being masculine means a lack of interest in one’s physical appearance, something he believes “straight" men care little about. He is a fluent isiNgqumo speaker, and often uses the language when ezinye izimeshi zivakashile (other gay friends visit).9 Blessing is also a spiritual man who occasionally goes to church.

We presented the three cases in this section in order to demonstrate that while there are differences in the lifestyles and identities of skesanas who live in the Durban metropolitan area, the overwhelming majority of self-identified skesanas in this area have knowledge of isiNgqumo and consider hlonipha a salient aspect in their relationships with other men and their life more broadly.

 
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