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.