Lost and found: sexuality and identity at varsity

By Surprise Netshioswi

Surprise Netshioswi, a student from the University of Venda speaks out about growing up in a homophobic environment and navigating his sexual identity later in life at university. This is his story.

I was raised in the rural village outside Thohoyandou. My entire life evolved there. I attended primary and secondary school there. A diverse environment was something I knew only from television screens. Being raised in a village has its disadvantages. As a homosexual man, I found it hard to be accepted and acknowledged as an equal human being. People were judgmental, and they still are, and most of their judgements are supported by the bible. I find it difficult to argue with the religious, or advocate for myself between the pages of their holy book.

I remember being quite young when my parents started treating me differently. Negatively. My mom would tell me that I’m a “disgrace” to the family. She often asked what people “out there” would say about my sexuality. The tipping point was when they threatened to disown me. I felt so lost and lonely and I knew I had to rethink my being to survive.

I started to act straight so that people would perceive me as any other male in the village. I had to watch the way I walked, what I ate and whom I befriended. It wasn’t a happy life. But this is what I was forced to do. From a young age, most of my friends were girls and later, women. I was forced to cut contact with them and started hanging out with other guys.

I tried hard to fit in, but never felt I belonged to these groups. That marked the end of my social life. Every day after school I would go home, stay indoors and watch television. I wouldn’t go for my usual morning jogs. I wouldn’t be seen at the stores. I had to protect myself. My safety in this violent environment was my priority.

In 2016, I enrolled at varsity for a Bachelor of Arts in Media Studies Degree at the University of Venda. I felt so lost. I had no idea what I had to expect there, let alone how to behave. It was me against the world and I felt so alone at times. There I was, a young gay guy once again caught in a homophobic environment. The University of Venda is a space where different people who share different views about things don’t interact. There are no structures which advocate for homosexual rights, it’s not considered a pressing issue. I knew I was vulnerable to homophobic statements and even physical attacks.

One particular instance was especially traumatic. During one of my classes my lecturer asked if I was gay or not, and I gladly answered “yes” without thinking twice. I didn’t think that I would be ostracized. But my lecturer passed some derogatory statements and my classmates laughed. I was embarrassed, dehumanized and put to shame all because of my sexuality. What hurt the most is that even the people we expect to protect us can harm us.

I struggled to make friends, but eventually I met a group of women and felt comfortable enough to introduce them to the real me, a gay guy. They didn’t judge me, and for the first time I felt like I belonged, I felt comfortable as a gay man around them. As we continued spending time, however, I then realized that this was a group I shouldn’t have associated myself with. Regardless of the fact that they accepted my sexuality.

Despite the hardship, I am now comfortable as a gay man, and I walk around with dignity knowing that I belong, and that I love myself, even if people around me are prejudiced. I am now content and making the most of every situation.

More stories in Issue 98

Contributors

Surprise Netshioswi

Surprise Netshioswi 23 is from Mangondi, which is located outside Thohoyandou in the Limpopo province. He is a Bachelor of Arts graduate from the University of Venda and is currently an honours student in film studies at the University of Pretoria. He also holds a certificate in Electrical Engineering.

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