“Hell’s Teeth”: Some Nostalgia (Just for the Fun of It)

Michael Worsnip at Hell’sTeeth appears to have a background resembling my own: a once married, gay Catholic (Anglican) man from Johannesburg, later settled in whaat he calls Cairp Tahn, and I call Cape Town. (UPDATE:  My apologies to Michael for labelling him incorrectly as Catholic.  He has politely but firmly told me he is an Anglican, of the “spikey variety”.  I thought I had seen a clear reference to “Catholic” on his blog, but didn’t do the fact checking when writing.Iguess that’s why I’m a blogger, and not a proper journalist. )

He writes “from the sanguine side of life”, which is a frame of mind often induced by those lucky enough to be in Cape Town – at least, those with homes and incomes. He says of himself:

I’m not cool. Nor do I have have aspirations to being cool. Most of the time, I don’t even understand cool. I happen to live in Cape Town, (“Cairp Tahn” if you are cool) which is supposedly cool. I am Gay. I am 52 (which is Gay terms is way past cool). I have two adopted boys aged 6 and 7 and partner who doesn’t want to get married. I have a job in a rather curious field. I like music and reading and writing and cooking. Oh, and eating.

But don’t be fooled:  while writing about and exalting the ordinary, daily things in life he is not blind to the difficulties and social problems around him – he just doesn’t dwell on them.

I particularly liked his reminiscences of the “Butterfly Bar” at the skyline Hotel in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, brought back to him by a visit to a present day gay bar in Cape Town.  The Butterfly Bar was the first gay bar he ever visited, as it was for me a few years later, as it was for probably most Johannesburg gay men at around that time. I well remember the feelings of nervousness mixed with excitement at my first visit, the sense of daring associated with it (police harassment was a real possibility for years), but also the profound sense of self-recognition that came from being in a room full of other gay men, with an associated marked psychological lift.  At this time, I was living less than five minutes walk away, and this bar and its regulars became an important part of my life and growth as a gay man for the next two years.  This is how Michael remembers it, in “Return to Gay Eden”:

Johannesburg in the 1970’s was a fairly difficult place for a Gay teenager to explore sexual orientation. Mostly because there was so little to explore! One heard whisperings of a bar which operated in Hillbrow, called the Butterfly Bar, in the Harrison Reef Hotel (I think by my time, it had been renamed the Skyline Bar). Entering the Amsterdam Bar, the other night made me remember my first experience of the Skyline Bar.

Of course, we are talking here from the hindsight and not inconsiderable experience of some 35 years or so – so I didn’t walk around the block for 15 times, too scared to go in. I wasn’t sweating profusely and wondering whether or not my paisley shirt with fashionably long collar and skin tight light green bellbottoms with a big zip in the front would have the desired impact. No, I just parked outside and went in, taking in the strange drapery on the outside of the building and the gold angel-hair curtain one needed to go through to get inside.

The moment I stepped inside, memories came flooding back to me. Because here, like so many other places I experience in Cairp Tahn, was like walking into a time warp. I remembered the absolute relief I first felt, when entering the Butterfly Bar, all those years ago. To see gay men, in numbers – not just isolated camp queens walking down a street every now again – but clumps of them, gaggles of them sitting around tables, smoking and drinking, laughing carelessly, being at home with themselves. That was a huge and fabulous relief.

The person I went with was a school friend and a regular at the bar. I was jealous of how many people he knew. He waved to this one over there. Told me conspiratorially that that one over on the other side of the bar was trying to “camp him up”. Kissed (dear God, that was a revelation and a half!) another one, who was mincing around in extremely tight pants which showed off every asset he had below his naked belly button.

I was jealous of my friend but extremely relieved for myself. Because at last, after what seemed like years (all 18 of them!) in the wilderness, I had come to a place which I could call my erotic home. And believe me, never a Saturday night would go by, after that, without me being there for at least some portion of it.

Or this simple, sensible way to approach confession as an out gay man (told in the post  called simply “Confession“):

What about homosexual acts? That, of course, was is and was a much more complicated question for the church – but in the end, it would not be something I would be confessing as a “sin”. There were, in my life, much bigger things to consider. Acts of cowardice. Deceit. Integrity. Honesty. Acts where love and compassion were lacking. These were, and for me, remain much more serious concerns than genital ones.

And so I made my confession. It was a simple affair, of me and the priest seated facing away from each other in the chapel. He simply listened as I spoke. And when I was finished, he gave me counsel. It was not admonishment for the wrongs I had committed, but rather encouragement to move beyond. When he spoke the words of forgiveness, I felt able to forgive myself. That was the key – the permission to forgive myself for the things I had done, because I had heard words of forgiveness from someone else.

And consider this, on an important factor in South Africa today: “Trans-Racial Togetherness“.

Trans Racial Togetherness

(Some background information.  With an appallingly high incidence of HIV/AIDS, and very limited government support for treatment, AIDS mortality rates are high.  This leaves an extraordinarily high number of “Aids orphans”, most of them Black. There always were a large number of black babies put up for adoption for different reasons:  the additional Aids orphans have expanded the number. As everywhere else, there are also childless couples wanting to adopt – most of them White.  Households with White parents and Black children have become fairly common.  South Africa was also one of the first countries to rule that in terms of its constitutional protections from discrimination on grounds of orientation, gay couples have the same rights as any others to adopt. )

After much to-ing and fro-ing we were invited to attend what was described as a “trans-cultural” adoption group yesterday. Now, what might a “trans-cultural adoption group” be, you ask me?

Well, this particular group was one where white single mothers, who have adopted black children have got together on a monthly basis – for reasons of support, I suppose. I would have called that a trans-racial adoption group. The fact that they call it a trans-cultural adoption group is cause, I would say, for some concern. It goes back to the substantive matter of whether or not culture is racially defined. This, after all, was one of the fundamental tenets of apartheid ideology – that we are all racially and culturally separate-able andcircumscribable. It then took it further. It said that culture was something fixed for all time. It was something which was defined primarily by skin colour, and once defined, it was something one could not escape.

As Michael goes on to show, it’s not only differences in race, gender and orientation that need to be negotiated, but differences in values as well:

When our names came up, apparently, one comment was “but do we really want two gay men in the group?” Again, it is really a question of values. Of course, in the real world, our children are going to need to realize that not everyone is accepting of gay men parenting children (trans-racial or not). But do we want to belong to a group where some of the parents are not completely affirming?

t’s difficult. This is, after all, Cairp Tahn. This is one of the most racially divided spots on the African continent. So, there is some sense in taking what is on offer. But does that mean that values need to be compromised as well? I really don’t know. I suppose I also have some missionary zeal left in me, which means that I still feel constrained to convert the infidel, but does one do that in the context of one’s children? That is a question which we will be considering in the next while, for sure.

And considering them, I would think for a  long time to come.  I wish them well in their journey.

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