The decision taken by the Appeal Tribunal of the South Africa Film and Publication Board (FPB) to ban the film, Inxeba from mainstream South African cinemas poses yet another threat to queer representation on television. The film could not have come at a better time than the present. The current representation of queer bodies and issues on television is poor and disheartening. The stories are mostly told from the heterosexual gaze. The presentation is categorised by queer characters existing as insignificant objects, not as independent but in relation to other characters and with a lack of a back-story.

When queer characters make it to mainstream television genres, the representation tends to be stereotypical such as the vast portrayal of flamboyantly gay characters that lack queer character development.  There is an absence of storylines that depict the social disenfranchisement of queer bodies.

Most of the time queer characters are only chosen for supporting roles, as they are perceived to be a threat to television’s commercial interests and the generated audience. Gay characters, in particular, are mostly sources of amusement and there is a lack of portraying queer people in meaningful relationships as compared to heterosexuals. Queer characters have less diversity and opportunities for creative storytelling. Instead of upholding the conscientisation role, television then reinforces the usual “gay and straight” narrative as if the two are different.

There are only few examples of films about the LGBTQI+ community that made it to the mainstream. There are rare opportunities for queer filmmakers to receive funding and other necessary support from film bodies and the public sector. The LGBTQI+ is subsequently pushed to the underground scene. As a result, the underground scene has various forms of artefacts that depict LGBTQI+ nuances. The scene is an opportunity for queer creatives to express their work without mainstream censorship. Queer audiences have also drifted to online platforms in order to access stories to get lost in and identify with.  As a marginalised group, the audience finds its outlets by mobilising itself on the web, creating its own viewing spaces, subcultures and cultural products. It is in this space that the queer experience freedom.

Then came Inxeba and it broke some boundaries. It offers real–life experiences of Xhosa gay men during the initiation school. It went as far as to offer queer visibility through its actors. Visibility is significant in the sense that members of the audience see themselves as people because the characters act and love the way they do, and not as folks to be ridiculed. The film offered ground for Xhosa gay men to speak of the torture, the sexual and physical abuse they endured during the initiation process in an attempt to “make them real men”.

Television as a pervasive medium shapes the assumptions that society has of marginalised groups. On the other hand, it influences how marginalised groups see themselves in relation to society. The lack of representation on television erases the social existence of queer bodies. It has also legitimised social stereotypes about minorities.

It is not enough for marginalised groups to merely see themselves on television but the characters should represent all of their complexities and dimensions. There are a significant number of stories that need to be told such as the erased role played the LGBTQI+ community in the anti-apartheid struggle, gender transition, black lesbians being predominately subjected to corrective rape, homelessness, to name a few.  There is more to being queer than the “coming out” stories often portrayed in documentary segments.

Through the release of Inxeba, queer voices rose into the centre resisting the social practices that police the LGBTQI+. They have challenged the status quo and questioned how they were excluded from the national agenda. It proved that the creative arts could contribute to social change, and to the necessary understanding of the intersectionality of the LGBTQI+.

Siphokuhle Mkancu is a Communications and Advocacy Intern at IJR

Image: A screengrab from the film Inxeba: The Wound. Photo by Actor Spaces