I have lived in Johannesburg for 9 years. When I arrived, I was greeted by family members who had already been here for 9 years. Unlike most, I had a family to come to in this scary mining town whose iridescent shimmer has made many lose their way. But what is a family besides a constellation of preset agreements that makes one an insider or an outsider, according to how well you abide. Families as we reap them are not built to carry the weight of difference. It was not until I lived in the city on my own, by my own rules that I could finally call it home.
Although I don’t regret making a home here, I had few choices. For me, being a part of a biological family meant taking instruction; much like one would at a workplace. A gendered dress code marked the boundaries that made sure everyone conformed, albeit adding their smatterings of uniqueness. I was free to be myself, as long as the most important, affluent members of the family could make sense of me. I was to be the right kind of self. Freeing myself from that meant freeing myself from the weight of blood. It was a choiceless choice.
Every festive season or long weekend, residents note with excitement that they can’t wait to go back home. When they say this, it reminds me that they don’t consider the homes they’ve made in this city their homes. They may be sub-homes, but there can only be one home. For queer people, the comfort of home has been pried from our hands. For me, there is nowhere to go back to. When things go awry, I have to fix it or else I will not survive. The home I create is the first and last resort and, against all odds, it must remain standing. Home is not waiting for me somewhere. It is only ever what I have managed to create. Home grows only if I grow.
I wish I could be spellbound by the romance of family so unchanging and immovable as a concept, that living on my own seems but a temporary exploration. Family for me is not a pre-existing fact backed up by reams of documentation, but an emotional and intellectual endeavour that requires consciousness and choice to sustain it. It is something that can change in composition, as people enter and exit agreements they make. It demands reciprocity and intentionality. In my family, we are family because we choose each other every day, with no ransom to be paid.
Writing They Called Me Queer about my changing relationship with home in 2019, I reflected on how I related to the choices I’ve had to make:
“I look back on this journey with pride and immense sadness. My pride is something I contend with and remain critical of lest I be fooled into thinking that my individual choices have liberated us from the systems that inspired my resistance in the first place.
My sadness, however, is motivated by feelings of grave loss … So we find ourselves adrift in a sea of unfulfillment, further battered by the violence of heteronormativity gushing from the walls of every home we enter, in hopes of taking refuge from the other afflictions that attach themselves to us.”
I don’t feel sad anymore and I realise now that I have not lost. I am the loss. My interest, however, is whether the immovable concept of biological family truly holds up for others or if it is indeed a hostage situation. And for those who feel the warmth of being chosen by the families they were born into, do they ever contemplate how it is not simply a fact of life attached to all people?
So, do we stay because the agreements are honoured, or have we just been disempowered and discouraged so much that choosing ourselves seems like the most inconsiderate thing to do? Family is indeed a choice and an agreement with conditions. For queer people, losing ourselves is often a condition to remain affiliated.
The home consists of related individuals who live under the same roof. If a family is constructed by the concept of home, if we change the meaning of home, we can change the families it produces. For some of us, that change is the difference between life and death.
This series will draw parallels between queer people, victims of domestic violence, immigrants and wanderers who brave the brutality of strange newness in search of a home that is not enforced but created. I am reminded of Warsan Shire, who says that no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. Indeed, home is not simply where we were born, it’s where we are free.