Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why I Think I'd Rather Climb Ev'ry Mountain Than Date in Cape Town

So this is what I've been missing?

That was my thought exactly when I read the digital display on the iPhone that my new acquaintance was holding up in front of my face. I wasn't sure what to think, but he clearly had an agenda. He wanted to elicit a specific response from me -- not shock, not outrage, but the ah ha! of enlightenment. He was waiting for me to finally get it.

We'd met two days earlier through a mutual friend, and we'd immediately found common ground. We were both gay black men from the United States who had spent a significant amount of time living and traveling abroad. A self-described "academic" (translation: professional student) whose specialty was African studies, he told me that he's been based in Cape Town for one year, but he's been coming to South Africa for 10. He seemed to have a love-hate relationship with Cape Town that was similar to the one I used to have with Buenos Aires (before the hate took over). We had a lot to talk about.

I told him about my experiences at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, and how my background played into my reaction to everything I saw there. He nodded. He understood. I told him about Sophiatown Bar Lounge, and how on my final night in Joburg (or Jozi, as Cape Town locals also call it), the jazz scene there had reminded me of something out of the Harlem Renaissance. He knew exactly what I was talking about and described it as "1990s A Different World-style new African awareness crossed with 1920s jazz." Bingo!

I told him about the book that I'm working on, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, which documents my experiences as a gay, black man living abroad, with a focus on my various romantic entanglements over the last seven years. He got everything I was saying in a way that most of the (white) people I told about it never fully grasped because it hadn't happened to them. Nothing I said surprised him. He'd lived it, too.

When I saw him last night, he asked me about my experiences dating in South Africa so far. I was ashamed to say that I had nothing. I haven't been out on a date since my second week in Tel Aviv nearly two months ago, nor have I enjoyed (or not, which is typically the case these days, hence my inactivity) any romantic encounters in nearly just as long.

I go through these celibate, hermetic stages with increasing regularity as I get older. I suppose that years of romantic disappointment have taken a toll. That and the fact that I simply haven't come across anyone who has captured both my eye and my mind. I've seen plenty of attractive men, and I've even been pursued by a few of them, but I'd rather spend my nights in my own company than that of a relative stranger who is too busy wondering what I look like naked (or fiddling with his smart phone) to be listening to anything I'm saying. Been there, done that. I'm better off alone.

But I've occasionally wondered if I'm missing out while staying in. Not on any potential Mr. Rights -- I gave up on his existence ages ago -- but on new, fascinating stories to add to my gallery of exploits. I'm in South Africa, after all, a country in which I'm no longer the racial minority, the exotic forbidden fruit. There shouldn't be the same mystique about me here that there was in Argentina, or Australia, or Bangkok, or any of the places I've visited these last few years. 

I had imagined that if I were to dip into the Cape Town dating pool, my experiences might be a lot like they had been in the United States, where there were enough black guys to go around that nobody ever wanted me simply because they'd never had anything like me before. And South Africa's history of racism and segregation (both of which continue to be blemishes on the gay scene, judging from what I saw at Crew and Zer021 last Friday night) would see to it that I'm just as invisible among the white gay population here as I had been in the U.S.

I left the U.S. before the rise in social media, the acceptance of online dating, and the emergence of Grindr as the principal meet market for gay men, so I have no idea how the new technology would influence how guys back home would respond to me now. Grindr in South Africa, though, has offered more of the same old, same old in the proposals I've been receiving. (I've pretty much retired from making the first move because I deal with enough rejection in other areas of my life.) I easily could be in Melbourne or Bangkok or Berlin or Rome or Tel Aviv, the only difference being that for the first time, a few black men are thrown into the mix of guys who approach me. 

For the most part, the guys on Grindr in South Africa are, surprisingly, white. I'm not sure if the reason for this is social (homosexuality being less accepted among African blacks) or economic (African blacks being less likely to have smart phones with which to use the Grindr app), but the lack of a black presence on Grindr in South Africa has brought out the same response to me online as the lack of a black presence in everyday society brought out in every predominantly white or Asian city I've spent time in since 2010, whether I was online or off, surrounded by gays, straights or a mix of both.

I'm bombarded by the same indelicate messages from horny guys who are only looking for one thing. For many, my skin color continues to make me the fresh catch of the day. "So want a black cock!!" one guy, a tourist from Greece, indelicately announced, as if there weren't plenty of those to go around in Cape Town. (Tourists and expats, incidentally, appear to comprise a larger portion of the Grindr population in Cape Town than in Joburg, which might explain the resurgent awareness of "black" here.) Others, some South African, have resorted to the question that has been the bane of my bachelorhood for more than seven years: "Is it true what they say about black men?"

They make it so easy to lapse into dateless celibacy, which might be as much of a reason as the places I've been in for the peaceful easy feeling I've enjoyed these past two months. But sitting across from my new acquaintance who was inquiring about my impression of gay dating in South Africa, I felt uneasy because I had nothing to contribute. Then there was the Grindr conversation I was looking at. It was one in which he had approached a shirtless white piece of beefcake who appeared to be in the shower. My acquaintance began the exchange with a simple "Howsit?" followed by his own shirtless pose.

The second sentence of the guy's three-sentence response sent a chill down my spine:

"I'm sorry, but I don't cross racial lines in dating."

I was as disarmed by his perfect punctuation as I was by the declaration it had been wasted on. He simply could have ignored the message, or he could have offered some vague reason why he wasn't interested. Despite the formal tone, there was a certain level of hostility in his message. He came across like a well-educated bigot. I'd encountered plenty of those, though I'd never been rejected by a guy who specifically offered my color as the reason. 

"I guess that's the kind of reaction I'd get if I were online dating in the U.S.," I concluded. While allowing gay guys to hide behind fakery, Grindr has also had the effect of making them more brutally honest, often to a fault. Maybe the modern American gay guy who doesn't do black wouldn't have any qualms about bluntly saying so either. Could "I don't cross racial lines" be a delicate way of doing it without getting too specific and bogged down in "black" and "white," sort of like subbing "fun" for "sex"?

My new acquaintance begged to differ regarding the U.S. comparison. Clearly I didn't get it. This response, he pointed out, was uniquely South African, because it had the lingering thumbprint of Apartheid all over it. It wasn't just a personal choice, nor was it personal, not exactly. It was a cold, clinical reflection of the institutionalized racism and segregation that had defined South African society for decades. He hadn't said, "I'm not attracted to black guys," or "I don't date black guys." His specific wording (without being specific at all) seemed to imply that it wasn't just about preference or attraction but rather adherence to a long-standing principle. In his dating world, the events of the early 1990s in South Africa hadn't changed a thing. It might as well have still been 1984.

Wow. I hadn't even thought of that angle. I am, after all, new in South Africa, and he is someone who has had an entire year of dating experience in this country, plus his African studies, to influence how he contextualizes Grindr messages. He'd seen and read it all before. I thought I had, too, but this was a first for me. I was glad I had ventured out for a beer after a day spent climbing Lion's Head and scaling Signal Hill, if only to experience vicariously something I had no desire to live firsthand. 

I was even more grateful for my current dateless, sexless existence. I don't need ugliness like that ruining all of Cape Town's breathtaking views.
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