STORY" I grew up in South Africa. In 1994, we were promised a new constitution with protected rights and social acceptance for gays. I was out of the closet, but, I was skeptical. South Africa still seemed very backward and homophobic. I was also tired of my boring corporate job and felt like the entire rest of the world was happening without me. I was aching for more than what I was experiencing in Durban, where I was living at the time.
After a summer in Greece, I decided to follow the sun and headed to Florida. In 1994, Miami was a city in the midst of a resurgence and was all about Stallone, Madonna and South Beach, derelict Art Deco buildings next to remodeled delights, beautiful people, and fashion models and film crews everywhere. I was now one of them! Perhaps, I could find fame and fortune here, where I knew I’d be accepted, denim shorts and roller blades notwithstanding.
Everywhere you looked there were men, men, and more men. I was young and caught the eye of many. Gianni Versace was very much alive in those days and we all used to hang out on the stretch of beach in front of his house. Tanned to a crisp, wearing my black Speedo, I secretly hoped to catch his eye and be invited back to his mansion, where many legendary stories took place.
There was always fun to be had in the form of weekends away in Key West, long days on the beach, rollerblading on Ocean Drive, and hot nights in the nightclubs. South Beach was totally pink with gay clubs, restaurants, clothing shops, and galleries exclusively supporting gay artists. How different this was, I thought, from the everyday straight-acting life I’d led in Durban. I managed to pay for all this in Miami with a mindless office job I’d gotten through a friend. Carefree and lucky is how I thought of my newfound life. I received letters from friends back home now and again, filling me in on the drab life I’d left behind. Now, however, I was celebrating being gay in the gayest possible way.
“Nice shoes. Wanna go to bed with me?” I overheard a sexy tanned Colombian guy in his early 20s say to a muscle daddy standing next to me.
I was on Ocean Drive at the Palace, the local gay watering hole, on a Sunday afternoon. I had just turned 25 and had decided to celebrate at a tea dance that was held each week at this time. I’d moved to Miami a year before it became something everyone did. And I’d discovered that all you needed to participate was to be gay, have a pair of cut-off denim Levis, and wear a smile
Standing next to the muscle daddy with the nice shoes, I was reminded that conversations here were almost always about sex. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and many gays were dying of AIDS. They used to call South Beach “heaven’s waiting room.” A lot of guys would find out they were positive, cash in their savings and life insurance policies, and come here to live it up until they died. I met many such men and had sex with some, too. It was always protected sex, but clearly risky, when I was drunk–which was a lot of the time.
I watched the Colombian and his “daddy” disappear and found myself looking at the floor at other men’s shoes. Had I just learned the pickup line of the century? It was definitely easy meeting guys in those days, but this was a new approach. Perhaps I should try it?
I came from a country where I had always felt inhibited. Now, in Miami, as a 25-year-old, I was learning new and exciting ways to break down my barriers. Shoes! A new frontier in picking up someone, perhaps? Then, a friend told me about a party taking place at a newly opened club called Amnesia. That night, they were going to have the first foam party ever held in Miami. With plastic “plakkies” (South African flip-flops), and my denim shorts on, off I went. Another night of celebration and, perhaps, another hottie to meet? I had arrived!
Strangely though, the next week, I woke up feeling a bit restless. I opened the local gay magazine, full of social pages featuring shirtless men from around town. It was there that I saw a picture of myself in denim shorts at the Amnesia party, surrounded by hot men all covered in foam.
As I looked at this picture, I knew I was done with it all. While life had become very pink and exciting, I realized I hardly knew the so-called friends I was hanging with. After a year in Miami, I only had a few friends—mostly just acquaintances. Some were dying or had died, while others were hustling to get by, and most were looking over my shoulder for the next guy to bed. I didn’t feel like I was living a well-rounded life. I was tired of hot and hotter men. There was something fake about it all. The mindless chatter, dodgy pick-up lines about shoes, and cruising and dating were boring–never mind dangerous. Madonna wasn’t calling me for lunch. I wasn’t hot enough to be included in the troupe that hung around Versace.
What the hell was I doing there, I wondered? I missed my brain. I missed a bit of my soul. I missed home. I wanted a career and to build a life for myself. That was not going to happen so far away from my home, working illegally, with little money, and few real friends or connections. I craved reality. I knew I was meant for more. My moral compass reset, I booked a flight home.
I came back to Johannesburg, South Africa, and found everyone was talking about equal rights for the LGBT community. Powerful constitutional protection sounded fantastic, but what was really happening on the street, I thought? One day, I found myself in my local book and magazine store. I used to buy tons of magazines in those days, as it was my window to the big wide world. Before I’d left for Miami, you could hardly find a gay title there, and if you did, they were porn magazines on the top shelf, hidden behind the girly mags. The irony of that always amused me!
But, that day I found some men’s interest magazines and one of them was a new title for a local magazine called the GAY PAGES. It wasn’t hidden in the back of the top shelf. Instead, it was at eye level, proudly next to a car title.
How brazen, I thought! It was explicitly for gay men, and the cover made it very clear it had something sexy to say. I realized then that I had arrived back to a new South Africa, one that was perhaps about actual change and exciting possibility. America was “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” But, perhaps, that life had followed me back home? Proudly paying for my new precious gay magazine in full view of everyone, I felt some of that change and realized that I was young and full of energy, and South Africa was where I would make a real life for myself.
Soon, I easily reconnected with old friends, and my first time out we went to a new bar in Braamfontein called Champions. As I walked in with a squad of loved ones, things felt real, comfortable, and full of promise.
I also found myself looking down. Wow! There were definitely some great shoes in Johannesburg!