Singer, Loyiso Bala was the source of controversy on Monday after he sent his brother, Phelo Bala, a birthday message that was suggestively homophobic. His tweet caused a Twitter storm that left many in anger, while others felt that Loyiso’s message was being misinterpreted and that his well wishes were genuine and from a good place. Trying to understand why and how some people don’t see it as homophobic can be mind-boggling, especially since Loyiso’s tweet referred to his brother’s homosexuality unnecessarily. The reason for this could be just that – it’s not really Loyiso’s words that are offensive, it’s how he went out of his way to presents himself as a holier-than- thou, authoritative, Christian orthodox man alongside his brother’s queerness.
In order to understand why a tweet like this came off as controversial, it’s probably a good idea to put words like Loyiso’s in context. Words are never innocent. The words that people speak recall and are a reflection of identities, communities, societies and ideological beliefs. Loyiso’s words reflect a type of Christianity that might be frowned upon in the woke streets of Twitter, but they’re intensely embedded into our real world.
This is not to say that his message is not offensive generally, but in reality the gesture of his words (which are blatantly homophobic) are normalised and sometimes even tolerated in private, familial spaces. It’s exactly why Loyiso is able to justify his homophobia with a screengrabbed message from his brother thanking him for his happy birthday tweet. We often reluctantly accept when family members say stuff like this to us because, well, ‘they mean well’.
Whether he knows it or not, Bala’s tweet is an act of speech that’s more about claiming his identity, narcissitically centering himself, than wishing his brother a happy birthday. Like any type of act, the act of speaking is a way of defining oneself and making a statement about one’s identity. When you meet people who regularly quote bible verses and incite Christianic phrases like “God bless you” or “it’s God’s will,” they’re not only wishing for your well-being or comforting you, they’re also speaking back to their community, identity and their social world. In essence, they’re making a statement of self-definition. The problem is that in that very performance of self-defining himself, Loyiso also ends up differentiating himself from Phelo in a way that suggests that he is also somehow superior to him.
So, for those looking from the outside, Loyiso’s tweet simply reads as a performance that announces that he is a loving, Christian, God-fearing man, who stands as a ‘better’ man than his openly gay brother. His tweet basically reads, “It was my brother’s birthday, and this is what I said to him: ‘I point you to Christ and happy birthday’”. He isn’t really saying happy birthday, he’s claiming his (false) superiority and is being (indirectly) homophobic in doing so.
Loyiso establishing these two opposite figures is much too reminiscent of the way that queer people are othered in religious and traditional communities. It reminds us of a time/space where Jesus and saviour-like figures create the illusion of accepting and including othered individuals, when in fact those individuals are just tolerating the presence of the ‘other’ in the hope that they might change.
Think of colonialism and the arrival of missionaries carrying out their duties of civilising black people with western clothing, acceptable hairstyles, education and the English language. Christian missionaries perceived their own arrogant and patronising ways as helping others become better people. While some people have read Loyiso’s words as non-homophobic, his act of self-definition belongs to a history of otherising queer people in religious and conservative communities. This makes it explicitly homophobic.
It seems as though Loyiso was just not the Jesus-like figure that Tweeps hoped would return. Still, others remain unphased by the message and claim that he “means well”. These individuals, and Loyiso, speak to a real world community that is extremely prevalent in our society. While Loyiso should indeed be called out for being homophobic, it doesn’t take away from the patronizing and dominant Christian gaze that already exists in society and our communities. It’s similar to the White gaze – while calling out a white racist person is completely justified, it doesn’t take away from the fact that institutional racism will continue to enable daily instances of ‘minor’ acts of racism.
Is it just Loyiso’s words that are offensive or is it that they also stir up memories of the real communities we live in where things like homophobia and sexism are extremely rampant? While Twitter and the online world are spaces where people are able to outspoken about injustices and discrimination, our real, daily lives are places where such behaviour is very much normalised.
[Update: Loyiso Bala has since apologised for his tweet]
Let us know what you think about Bala’s controversial tweet to Phelo in the comment section below.