My friends and I laugh about the girls I "dated" in primary and high school. The highlight of my short-lived relationships with the girls was always Valentine's Day. My first girlfriend, Albertina Mnisi (the most beautiful girl in primary school) chose me over other boys who spoke better English. It was a thing back then. I think people still shame each other about this.
It was just before Valentine's Day when Albertina promised me my first kiss. I won't say I knew I was an LGBTI child, but I wasn't thrilled about the set time, date and venue for the kiss. However, the obvious envy of the other boys made me look forward to it.
I won't go into detail about the day, but I will say I was elevated to new social circles.
But this is also when I realised that certain social expectations were now placed upon my 12-year-old shoulders. I now faced the uphill battle of maintaining the relationship with my new girlfriend. It meant I was always asking for extra cash and more lunch-box goodies.
It didn't work out so well. I remember Mama threatening to take me back to the township school if I didn't stop with my demands. She complained that my bus fare and school fees were already disadvanting my other siblings.
My mother was a shop assistant at CNA so, naturally, my stationery was on point. And I was generous. I gave out pens in pretty colours to pretty girls. But soon after Valentine's Day of 1996, Albertina dumped me, because I could not deliver a R5 caramel-dip ice-cream. I didn't want to share mine either. I'd come to the conclusion I was tired of carrying her bag to her taxi after school. I was forever nervous and conversations were awkward.
Then I was made fun of for being dumped.
Now, lesson number two was knowing that people saw me as a different kind of boy. The fact that I was happy to let my girlfriend go opened me to abuse. Justin and his crew got a new name for me. Moffie. I didn't know what it meant. The unpopular kids who accepted me back from the upper class explained what it meant. I thought they viewed me that way because of the amount of time I spent playing with the girls at home.
Fast-forward to high school. It didn't take long before my academic achievements would cease to shield me from abuse. The confusion was palpable because I started noticing good-looking boys. I had not given the way I felt a name. I refused the gay or moffie labels. They were used to denigrate boys who were not "man enough" to do certain things.
Every year, Valentine's Day was a big deal. It was celebrated with beauty contests, wearing civilian clothes instead of uniform and the exchange of gifts. Oh and the gossip about the seniors and what they got up to. My first high school Valentine was my friend to this day Itumeleng Ramaila. But I don't think he knows, or even remembers.
We both wore school uniform on that day. I was just protecting my already bruised self-esteem. I knew the clothes I owned were no match for the children I went to school with. I had never worn Nike, Adidas or any of the popular brands. So we both sat and watched the activities unfold.
The following year, an opportunity to date a girl presented itself once more. Hahaha! Mary, the girl, was from Mamelodi. I laugh because I was reliving the Albertina days.
There was the lead-up to Valentine's Day, followed by a kiss, then the prize-giving. I remember calling Mama from a tiekie box to tell her what I'd like for Valentine's. It was the list given to me by Mary. Chocolates and a teddy bear. I had to make an effort to dress up like everyone else. So I wore my brother's Levi's jeans, which he bought with money from his small camera film business. The high-fives and appreciation I got, for being one who takes care of his woman made me feel great.
Now, looking back, this is one of many ways young boys are conditioned to be the providers, and sometimes the abusive partners, to their girlfriends. My friend Charmaine helped me carry the goods to class and the wait for Mary began. I did not see her in the school assembly hall. When we walked back to class, I got news that she had been dating one of the popular guys in the senior class and they had gone to the movies and were not coming to school that day.
Charmaine, now a mother of two with a top job in a leading bank, reminds of this day every time we get together for a catch-up over wine. Even my husband tells this story with authority, as if he was there, thanks to Charmaine.
So, with Mary not at school to receive her gift, Charmaine was happy to eat the chocolates. But she didn't want the teddy bear because she had a boyfriend who was yet to give her what was due to her. I don't even remember what happened to the cuddly bear.
Was I heartbroken? No, just disappointed. It was more of a bruised ego than a sore heart. I remember Itumeleng, who didn't have a Valentine, consoled me. He suggested we leave early and walk around the Pretoria CBD, before catching the bus. This would be the best part of my Valentine's Day that year. There was nothing romantic about it, or maybe we just didn't give things like that names or labels back then. But it felt good. It later became the strong foundation of a friendship that would endure.
Fortunately, my last attempt at a relationship with a girl had nothing to do with the 14th of February. It was the matric dance. To cut a long story short, I ended up at the matric ball with one of my best friends, and the girl I had been dating brought someone else. We sat at the same table. This didn't break my heart either, because I was beginning to make peace with my sexuality and gender identity. My father was paying for a therapist. He didn't understand why I needed one, but he knew my matric results depended on it.
I'm happy to say that my hubby and I don't really celebrate Valentine's Day. We celebrate our love every day, because to get to where we are we have been working on our relationship daily, and we have families who helped us nurture this love.