Bae: A multi-contextual word which represents a significant person in someone’s life.
DL (Down-Low): A socially constructed term typically used to describe heterosexual individuals- particularly men- who secretly have homosexual relationships.
Towning: Xhosa slang/colloquial for having unprotected sex.
There is actually, no such thing as a man living on the ‘down-low.’
There is however, such thing as a man who exists in a world that obliges to live his life masking who he is.
These are men who live their lives ashamed of who they are and guilty about what they do.
There has never been a more tragic time for two black men be in love than now.
Clayton often contemplates with a heavy chest, how he could be in love and have nothing to show for it. It seems as though the love Clayton shares with Uhuru is only characterised by stolen moments of passion and profound promises. A secretive love. An elusive love. Loving Uhuru is like trying to hold onto a cloud. Just like a cloud, the beauty that is Uhuru only seems to be in Clayton’s reach but, never within his grip.
It is the afternoon of the 19th of October- Clayton’s birthday. He is half-dressed, disappointed and spread out like a deliberate wine stain on the bed of his apartment in Melrose. His eyes are closed shut. He cannot bear to open them, as the sight of his packed duffle bag in the corner by the door, the plane tickets on lying on his dressing table, or even the sun shining unashamedly outside his window might bring him to familiar tears. They had planned this day for months, Uhuru and Clayton. A getaway weekend Zanzibar to celebrate Clayton’s birthday. But the true purpose of the trip was to initiate the promise of loving each other openly and wholeheartedly as the new foundation of their relationship and reality. In the early hours of that morning, Uhuru texted Clayton about why the trip could not happen any longer:
Boo, listen. Our trip is really going to have to wait for another day. I have an emergency call from work that I just couldn’t ignore. Besides that, I still have things to figure out, you know? I’m so sorry. Do you still love me, though? – Uhuru.
Although Clayton might numb to Uhuru’s excuses by now, every word he reads in Uhuru’s text feels like stones being thrown in his face. Clayton knows what Uhuru means by “…things to figure out.” Sometimes he wishes he had the courage to dare Uhuru to say that the he uses relationships with women as an outlet to “figure out” things he insists are not clear about his identity and his love for Clayton. Although they dare not to discuss the matter, the truth of what Uhuru does is no secret between them. There is nothing more painful to Clayton than loving a man who is at his best when he is with him yet, fails to stay. Clayton chooses not to reply to Uhuru’s text but, of course, he still loves him.
Clayton’s cell phone vibrates. Matshidiso Calling, it says. Matshidiso is not close enough to Clayton to call a friend but, she is not distanced from Clayton to ignore the title of acquaintance. They met a few months ago in Melville. Every time Clayton went clubbing in Melville, he would see Matshidiso. As Clayton’s hazardous outings to Stones or Liquid Blue became more frequent, the more familiar Matshidiso’s face became to him. One night, Matshidiso finally approached him. “There is no way a man can have better legs than I do. That’s it. You’re my new BFF.” While their relationship did not really grow much since its frivolous inception, Matshidiso remained in contact with Clayton and even invited him to dinner with a group of her friends.
Clayton answers his cell phone.
“Hi…” Clayton whispers. Everything in him is aching from the profound disappointment Uhuru’s text message brought. Even speaking seems fatiguing.
“Hey! Are you asleep? Did I catch you at a bad time?” Matshidiso probes enthusiastically.
“No, no. Don’t worry. This isn’t a bad time at all. I woke up from a nap about five minutes ago.” Clayton lies. He wishes he could say that for most of the morning, he has been enveloped in a silence that renders his spirit no better than dead.
“Oh, alright! Well the reason why I’m calling is because Facebook told me that it’s your birthday today. Is this true!?” The excitement in Matshidiso’s voice makes Clayton wish he never answered the phone. He just wants her to deliver her birthday wish and end the call.
“Haha… Facebook is right indeed. Thank you so much for the wishes, my darling. Bye!” Clayton rushes.
“Wait, wait! I’m not done yet. And I haven’t even wished you a happy birthday either. Here’s an idea. Two o’clock, Sandton City. We’ll decide on a restaurant when we get there, mmkhay? And I don’t need to advise you on clothing and presentation. You always have the fashion department locked, honey! See you soon. Mwah!” and Matshidiso disappears. It baffles Clayton that she did not even ask if he had his own plans for his birthday. The fact those plans were tarnished is beside the point. Matshidiso just hijacked Clayton and held him hostage with her overfamiliarity, just as she did when she first met him and claimed his friendship. Perhaps, that is what girls do when they find prospective gay best friends. Befriending men who are perceived to have inclinations of what it feels like to be a woman, is enough to get any woman unjustifiably excited.
Matshidiso is wearing in tight maroon leather pants, an oversized Versace blouse with her weave that catch the wind as she gallops towards their agreed restaurant of choice. They exchange hugs, order the first round of drinks and begin catching up. As their conversation over wine and sushi continues, Matshidiso is progressively less interested in the conversation- let alone her food. Her phone went from being attended to occasionally, to being held permanently in one hand, to now- total engagement- two hands typing fiercely. Clayton is peeved. Both the food and the conversation are cold.
‘’Girl, you know you invited me to lunch. Remember?’’ Clayton intervenes.
‘’I’m sorry! I’ll put the phone down riiight… abouuut… nooooow…’’ but she does not do so.
‘’Matshidiso, put the phone down and tell me what is keeping you from having this lunch you invited me to.” Clayton demands. Never in the history of their trivial friendship has he called Matshidiso by her full name. It startles her a little.
“You’re right. How rude of me” she responds with forced remorse. “So there’s this guy I’ve been having a bit of a thing with for the last few weeks. I rarely see him because he’s balancing work and his Master’s degree but, he’s basically my boyfriend. He’s so fine! Dark, tall and handsome, daaarling! He has that black masculine thing down! There are still good black men left in the world, you know!”
“Oh… That’s nice.” Clayton forces himself to sound interested. Anything alluding to a relationship or a significant other sends Clayton into apathy, at this point. His heart is still reeling from Uhuru’s text, among other things.
“He says he’s in the mall. He just got off work. He wants to come see me. I know this is our day but, you wouldn’t mind if he came to greet me? It would also be a great opportunity for you to meet my bae!” She says with a childish smirk. Clayton has no choice but to agree.
‘’Clayton, look behind you. There he is!’’ she shrieks. As Clayton adjusts himself to glance behind him, he laughs as he thinks about who could possibly match the mediocre description of the ‘dark, tall and handsome’ male he is about to meet.
Clayton meets his eyes immediately. The man is exactly as she is described. He stands still as his head paces in all directions looking for where Matshidiso is seated. He has a bald head with side-burns that pave the edge of his face like tire markings which manifest into a manicured beard. His tight jersey outlines the architecture of the investment he has made in his muscles. He strides effortlessly down the passage of the restaurant as he identifies Matshidiso’s shy, but, frantic waves. Clayton’s heart catches fire as Uhuru takes his seat next to Matshidiso.
From this moment onwards, Clayton is murdered little by little. Moment, by wretched moment.
Uhuru gives Matshidiso a peck on both her Revlon-painted cheeks as a greeting. She swoons. Clayton flinches. She introduces Uhuru to Clayton. Uhuru, without a trace of worry or wonder, shakes Clayton’s hand as though he truly did not know him. But, this kind of rejection is not new to Clayton. For as long as Uhuru has been in love with him, Clayton has always been more than willing to be at the receiving end Uhuru’s attempts to protect his supposed himself and manhood. Clayton has been introduced as a ‘cousin’ to Uhuru’s gym buddies and a ‘colleague’ to Uhuru’s family. Uhuru has never named Clayton as a lover anywhere else besides the safety of each other’s private space. But today, he is introduced by Matshidiso as a stranger to Uhuru. Clayton’s identity has demolished and reduced to nothing. And though, Matshidiso might have taken a place in Uhuru’s life, Clayton and Uhuru both know that she has not taken Uhuru’s heart. The irony of this is reassuring to both Clayton and Uhuru but, the current situation in its entirety is incomprehensibly painful for Clayton.
Uhuru ends up staying for lunch. And once Clayton’s humiliation of watching Uhuru “figuring” himself out with another woman comes to an end, the plates are cleared and the bill is settled. Matshidiso informs Clayton and Uhuru that had she not been obligated to drive to Soweto for a family gathering, they would have all gone out as a group to continue Clayton’s birthday celebration. Uhuru senses the fever of Clayton’s devastation and urges Matshidiso to go be with her family in order to steer her away from changing her plans. Motivated by the smooth sound of Uhuru’s voice, Matshidiso locked her Mac-coated lips passionately into Uhuru’s lips and left first. Clayton and Uhuru are left at the table. The veil of pretense falls gradually. They sit in silence, looking each other blatantly in the eyes as they both realise that something between them has broken further. But as before, Clayton allows his love for Uhuru to overwhelm him, and so he forgives Uhuru and lays with him that night. Clayton lies with Uhuru one more time, out of chronic pity and the promise of repair. It seems to be the only love they know how to make. After all, the weakest part of their selves nourishes their mightiest connection to each other.
The next day, Clayton wakes up to find that Uhuru is not next to him. There is no trace of Uhuru in his apartment either. As the day progresses, contacting Uhuru becomes a frustrating and impossible task. Uhuru’s phone is switched off. He is not responding to Clayton’s texts, DMs on Twitter or inbox messages on Facebook. Later in the evening as Clayton sorts out his wardrobe, he notices that Uhuru’s items of clothing are missing. Clayton’s intuition tells him to check the guest bedroom for Uhuru’s suits and Air Forces he left deliberately, to find that those too are also no longer there. Clayton is puzzled. He retreats to his bedroom and contemplates the whereabouts of Uhuru and his belongings. Hours pass Clayton by. So did the days and the weeks after that. Although he had not tried contact Uhuru for the weeks that followed his disappearance, Clayton kept Uhuru at the back of his mind. Taking further steps to contact Uhuru does not come to Clayton’s pass because, Clayton is still paralysed by the calamity of what he saw between Uhuru and Matshidiso. It only made Clayton imagine all the times Uhuru has handled himself without him or even because of him. Clayton arrives home at the end of one Friday from work to a letter which had been slipped under his door. This is odd because, Clayton receives all his mail through the residential mailbox- including the ominous rent notices. The letter is bare and not enveloped. It is merely folded into three precise division. Uhuru picks the letter up and reads the first line:
I hope you’re sitting down for this.
Clayton heads instinctively to his bedroom and nestles himself in his bed. His heart rate adopts a sickening speed. The letter has no name, but he knows it has been handwritten by Uhuru.
I am writing this letter to you in the middle of the night. Matshidiso is asleep in my bed, and I can’t help but hate myself for knowing that it should be you sleeping in there in her place.
Clayton closes his eyes, preparing for the devastation Uhuru’s letter is bound to serve.
Matshidiso gave me an ultimatum. She found out about us. She said that I had to choose between her and you. She said that if I chose you, she would out me. She said she would expose my sexuality and our relationship in one of her rants on Facebook and Sunday twitter. So I chose her. To protect myself. That’s why I cleared your apartment of my belongings and left the morning after your birthday. That is the truth about how and why I left that morning. Loving myself has never been as easy as loving you. But even then, loving you has not been that easy either. So, maybe in choosing Matshidiso, I was really saving you from a man who inevitably rejects you. A man who is too selfish and righteous. A man who is thoughtless and cowardly when it comes to your heart. A man who lives his life on borrowed pride. This is the kind of man you fell in love with and that is the kind of man I allowed myself to be when loving you. It’s been five weeks since we last saw each other and held each other and I wonder whether you still think of me and how I am doing. I wonder whether you ask what my inner-man says about the burden I created and left you with. I wonder whether you ask yourself whether I sleep at night knowing what I have done. Tell me Clayton, do you even sleep at all, yourself? Does the truth about us haunt you as it does me? I mean, since I left, all I ever do is ask myself: Did I do my best, even though my best was right in front of me?
Clayton folds the letter and puts it aside, realising that he finally has something to show for the love Uhuru and him shared. But, Uhuru is gone now. He had left many times before but, this time his absence is permanent. It had to take the confrontation of a woman who merely did not want to compete with another man to wake Uhuru from his unconscious way of living. Uhuru loved a man and he could not cope with that. So, it was better for him to live under the comfortable identity the world had manufactured for him. Everything about Uhuru- but his love for Clayton or any other man- met the criteria for this identity. There are consequences for loving Clayton that Uhuru is just not willing or prepared to confront. So Clayton- and Uhuru’s love for him- had to be left behind because, there has never been a more dangerous time for two black men be in love.
“The tragedy makes sense now” Clayton whispers to himself before drifting into sleep he wishes he would not wake from.
The story of Clayton, Matshidiso and Uhuru is more than a thrilling and juicy love-triangle. It is a story that illustrates and reflects the ruinous realities that occur when love, identity and sexuality interact with each other in dysfunctional ways.
A Reflection on Clayton
Although Clayton understands and identifies himself as a homosexual black man, he is an individual whose identity is too easily and inappropriately defined by his homosexuality. This is problematic because, Clayton primarily perceives his homosexuality as inferior and unimportant- in unconscious agreement with the standards of the world which surrounds him. This is the kind of mindset that accepts and tolerates Uhuru’s evasive behavior- calling the tolerance of Uhuru’s way of “finding” his identity as a form of respecting him. Clayton ends up becoming a living demonstration of displacement, powerlessness and confusion, and will subsequently attract men who echo the same perceptions and beliefs about themselves. Clayton subsequently attracted Uhuru- a similar living demonstration of what it means to be ashamed, guilty and/or unsettled within one’s own skin.
A Reflection on Uhuru
Uhuru- unlike Clayton- has yet to understand and become comfortable with his sexual identity. This is causes a circumstance where Uhuru is not clear about who he is as a black man with sexuality yet, this lack of identitive clarity governs the way he behaves with Clayton and Matshidiso. Because Uhuru is unclear about who he is as a sexual being and how that clarity is then integrated into who he holistically is, his sexual and romantic relationships are subsequently fragmented, unstable and unhealthy. Uhuru knows that being black and having confident, honest and transparent relationships with other men- especially other black men- puts the quality of his living experience in jeopardy. This only encourages his inability to understand his sexual identity- and subsequently, his holistic identity. When Uhuru does make an attempt to reconcile this unresolved and misunderstood part of his identity, he finds himself in a situation where he is in love with Clayton yet, also maintains sexual and/or emotional relationships with women at the same time. This behaviour does not mean Uhuru is bi-sexual or even bi-curious because, even these identitive terms require a reflection, an understanding and a conscious actualisation of the sexual and holistic self. What Uhuru’s behaviour really means is that he entertains dysfunction and uses the relationships he has with women as a source of reassurance to feel ‘normal’. He uses this particular standard of normalcy in an attempt to mediate and negotiate that parts of himself which continue to remain unresolved. Uhuru therefore, lives unconsciously which renders him paralysed from taking responsibility for the dysfunctional situations he creates and participates in. Being with Matshidiso is what feels familiar but, being in love with Clayton is what feels right. Being with Matshidiso is what feels normal but, the love Uhuru has for Clayton is what feels natural. This dichotomy scares men like Uhuru.
A Reflection on Matshidiso
Matshidiso is the kind of woman who perceives gay men as her masculine equals. This is why it is easy for her to serve Uhuru with an ultimatum in choosing between her and Clayton. Matshidiso is not threatened by the fact that Uhuru possesses a romantic interest in men because, she is comforted by the fact that the definition of ‘masculinity’ and ‘manhood’ that Uhuru aspires to is not only socially constructed and acceptable, it also seems to want to exist independently of his romantic interests in men. Matshidiso also understands that Uhuru- to a better extent- enjoys being the poster-child of desired black masculinity. To Matshidiso’s conclusions, Uhuru therefore, still qualifies as capable of being the man she wants him to be for her. What also makes this ultimatum easy to make is that she is aware that threatening to jeopardise her ideas of Uhuru’s masculinity and manhood by outing him on social networks will weaken Uhuru. Unfortunately, what Matshidiso does not realise is that her subsequent relationship with Uhuru- which she considers a prize- will be defined and characterised by pretense, confusion, mistrust, and jealousy. Matshidiso does not realise that the disaster of her pending unhappiness is caused by her manipulating Uhuru into what she thinks he needs to be, and not what he thinks he needs to be for her, Clayton or, himself
A Reflection on the Experience of Black Men
All we have ever done is teach our men to do and not to be. We break them further by teaching our men that doing is the supreme prerequisite characteristic of being. We have a created a world for our men where being a man is of urgent importance. For reasons associated to our adverse history and the legacies thereof, we define the importance and worth of a man based on what he can do. Further, a significant part of that ‘doing’ is aimed directly at the external world that supposedly benefits from his actions and labour. Therefore, the significant parts our men’s identities are actually robbed when the “doing” part of their identities is compromised in any way.
These are the same teachings that say to a man that his homosexuality or bisexuality is not only incompatible with what a man ‘does’ but, subsequently degrades who he is as a man. Sexuality identity- in context of a holistic identity- is the most personal and even, most sacred piece of an individual. Sexual identity may be closer to an individual than the blood that runs through their own veins. How many of our men do we have to leave broken because, we say that this important piece of who they are disqualifies them from being the important men we say we need them to be? How many of our men do we have to sacrifice to prisons and HIV/Aids because, they are busy towning and raping so many women in attempts to wash the ‘gay away’? How many of our men do we have to lose to suicides because, the load of who they are is a load no one even dares to help share with them? Yet through all of this affliction, we still have the audacity see a black man on the ‘down-low’ as nothing but a topic for Sunday twitter and tea-time gossip.
We need to start calling our men to their highest by conditioning ourselves to see their organic selves as adequate, worthy and enough. We need to love and respect our men enough to grant them the agency of walking through their lives with the pride and esteem of being who they understand themselves to be. While the reality of Clayton, Uhuru and Matshidiso could more than possibly be the reality of people outside black diaspora, the pathologies raised and discussed in this narrative are relevant and prevalent in the black experience.
For as long as we function the way we do, it will always be a tragic time for two black men to be in love.