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Welcome to Leeyola’s Queerdom – Livemag

Welcome to Leeyola’s Queerdom

Mamaputle Boikanyo

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“Being heterosexual doesn’t make you more human than anybody else, so why does it have to be a crime to be yourself and be human. If being gay is a crime, then being human should surely be a crime”

Being queer and confident in a cishet world

One look at Leeyola and you’ll see a young woman who is fierce, confident, colourful and ready to take on the world of the cosmetics and entertainment industry. Leeyola, who is a model, entertainer, founder of blaqpoutfaces, and makeup artist, uses social media for fun and to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community. 

“As early as five years old,” she says, “I knew that I was different from other boys. I knew that I wanted a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend. I knew that I wanna see myself playing with dolls, playing house and being the mommy. At five you don’t know what gay, bi or lesbian is. So for me, I was just different but obviously I couldn’t say that to the next person ‘cause I myself was trying to figure out why I was so different.”

Because she grew up feeling misunderstood as a child and teenager, Leeyola had to figure out puberty and her trans identity on her own. Her upbringing is part of the reason she was able to develop a thick skin in her adult life and navigate a world where being trans is not the norm.

Even though Leeyola  was really introverted around her family as a child, her life today requires a different version of herself where she has to be social. Her job as a makeup artist has brought her into the entertainment world, where she’s been able to rub shoulders with celebrities like Zandie and Kelly Khumalo, KB Motsilanyane, Mshoza and  Shonisani Masutha. When she speaks about her time working at Etv’s Morning show as a makeup artist, she speaks fondly of her experiences. She didn’t have to feel like she was out of place, as she did in her childhood.

“As a queer person [working] in a production company, it was amazing. I was never seen for my sexuality… I was seen as a human being before anything. I was seen as a makeup artist and as part of the family. It was a great space to work in. I’ve met people from different walks of life, which was fun and it came with the work that I do.”

While her social life is very active, she also knows that social media is a very significant part of her job and her personal values. Through her social media, she’s able to show off her artistry and also celebrate queerness.

“Social media is a very big part of our lives, especially when it comes to learning about the LGBTQI+ community. It is our source of information, a place where we can create a lot of awareness about hate crimes and other things that affect us as the LGBTI+ community. Because it’s such a powerful medium, my presence on there is a reflection of who I am in person. So whatever I put up on social media has to represent what I’m about.”

In one Instagram post, the model in her is posing nude and seductively while dressed in a revealing mini coat. The caption is about remaining true to yourself and is posted on International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. In another post, the makeup artist in her shows her face beat in a proud rainbow-coloured eye shadow palette, where she has her head tilted back and held steady by a hand with perfectly manicured and nude-coloured fingernails. In the caption, she states “We fucken matter. Happy Pride Month!”. She is unapologetically trans and queer in her expressions.

Leeyola, whose full name is Tshepiso Leola, grew up in Johannesburg and was raised by a single mother, who, despite being loving and caring, was not always able to understand Leeyola’s queer identity. She thought that it was just a phase and that Leeyola would one day get over it. Even though Leeyola is confident and unapologetic in her queerness today it wasn’t always like that. As she begins to tell me about her childhood when we meet up at Northgate’s Doppio Zero, she flicks her hair behind her shoulder and orders a gin cocktail as if to gesture that it’s all behind her.

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While growing up, Leeyola mostly kept to herself. “I was always very introverted around my family because I felt very misunderstood”, she says. “Also, I felt like there was a lot that I bottled up for a very long time because obviously if you feel like people don’t understand you, you don’t see any need for you to confide in them or talk to them about anything.” Leeyola is like many other people in the queer community who find support in friendship when other communities and families fail to offer it.

“Imagine how hard it is trying to discover yourself and having people have their own way with you, not thinking that you’re also human, that you get hurt and that you deserve love, you know? It’s why some people commit suicide. It really affects your mental health and wellness as a human being”, says Leeyola.

Being a teenager is hard as it is, but being a teen who is also queer can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. LGBTQIA+ youth experience high rates of bullying, abuse and discrimination. In fact, in 2016, Love Not Hate released a national report that documented the critical levels of abuse and hate crimes experienced by queer individuals in South Africa. It showed that 56% of queer individuals in South Africa aged between 16 and 24 experienced discrimination and bullying based on their queer status at school.

Leeyola is completely baffled by how and why so many hate crimes and bullies against queer people still exist in 2019. “Imagine how hard it is trying to discover yourself and having people have their own way with you, not thinking that you’re also human, that you get hurt and that you deserve love, you know? It’s why some people commit suicide. It really affects your mental health and wellness as a human being”, says Leeyola.

“Along the way you meet people, you meet friends that actually go through the same things that you go through and find that there are actually people you can talk to. I have a friend, Given, who’s been with me since 2009. He’s one of those people that you see yourself in. When you look at them you’re like “okay that’s what I wanna be actually”. He was very smart, very outspoken, he stood his ground very firmly. He was just one of those unshakeable people. He was very hardcore and fierce.”

Feeling estranged from communities that prioritise the well-being of cishet people is common when you’re a queer person, but Leeyola has seen so much change in perceptions of queer people over the years and has hope for things to get better in the future.

“Before, growing up, it would be so hard for me to walk around with makeup on or my weave or heels on, but now people are more understanding and I feel free to go wherever I want to without people saying nasty things behind my back. The hate and discrimination is not as bad as it was and I personally feel more”, she says.

“Being heterosexual doesn’t make you more human than anybody else, so why does it have to be a crime to be yourself and be human. If being gay is a crime, then being human should surely be a crime”, she says in quiet frustration.

Personal freedom is a right but when you’re queer, it can sometimes feel like a luxury. Indeed, many people across Africa still do not get to experience the personal freedom enjoyed by people in societies that are more liberal in their laws. When I ask Leeyola what she thinks about countries like Uganda, where LGBTQIA+ individuals continue to remain unrecognised, she points out that heterosexuality is so normalised, that people think that their straight identities can make them more human than others.

“Being heterosexual doesn’t make you more human than anybody else, so why does it have to be a crime to be yourself and be human. If being gay is a crime, then being human should surely be a crime”, she says in quiet frustration.

In her personal life, haters and bullies are dealt with very swiftly. Leeyola’s developed strength and backbone that is not as strong as it was in her teen years. Thanks to her friend Given and the friends that she’s gotten to know and get support from along the way, Leeyola knows the importance of being able to stand up for herself against bullies in real life and on social media.

“I’m over that phase of allowing other people to bully me. I always find a way to turn things around with a clap back or I’m gonna ignore it or reply positively. I feel like the more we grow, the more we understand ourselves, become stronger and be sure of who we are. So whenever anybody comes to you trying to offend you, you become so unshakeable. You become selective of what deserves your attention.”

In a world where heterosexuality is the most accepted form of being, it’s easy to let other people’s perceptions of you affect you and your confidence. However, looking at Leeyola, it’s hard to think that anybody could ever prevent her from rocking her weave or wearing makeup. Today she is in control of who she is and says she wouldn’t dare go out without a beat face. After another sharp toss of her hair behind her shoulders, she tells me about a hard lesson she’s learnt on her journey of gaining confidence.

“It’s important to teach people how to treat you and if they reject that, you can’t take them seriously anymore, because obviously you’re not someone they respect. It has not always been easy but today, I know how I deserve to be treated.”