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Performing masculinity in Men’s Res

- Deborah Minors

Q&A with Moeketsi Gordon Koahela on his research into masculinity and male university students.

Moeketsi Gordon Koahela earned a Master’s in Sociology from Wits in November 2021. His research explores how masculinity is rendered among male university students at Wits’ all-male Men’s Hall of Residence (Men’s Res). Koahela – black, male, homosexual – shares his lived experience and findings.

Men's Res at Wits University | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

What does it mean to be a man in the 21st Century?

In my opinion it’s about holding a mirror to myself as someone assigned the ‘male’ gender at birth because of the genitalia with which I was born and reflecting on the unearned power that comes with that. 

From early childhood we learn our power to dominate women and to see LGBTQIA+ men as ‘weak’. My research suggests a persistence of patriarchal, sexist and homophobic ideals of being a man accompanied by risk-taking behaviours associated with manhood – drinking, smoking, multiple sexual encounters strictly with ‘females’ – and these markers are constantly reinforced.

However, there were also positive attributes at Men’s Res, exemplified through the ‘big brother’ programme aimed at senior students mentoring first-year students where privacy enabled the necessary emotional vulnerability.

Is this comparable to being black, male and homosexual?

My notion of a 21st Century man is very much in conflict with the views expressed by the men with whom I spoke  – being a gay man is unfortunately still seen to be wanting to be a woman and weak. 

What is abundantly clear is that masculinity across races, classes, ethnicities and sexualities is violent – through the eroticism of young children and infanticide, to femicide, ‘corrective rape’, femphobia and internalised homophobia. It is also violent towards heteronormative men themselves who largely enact violence, motivated by the system of patriarchy making them believe that they are superior.

Being gay at the residence means being seen through the lens of a caricature who is always eroticising other men. I found myself in constant negotiation with my identity and movements. Other LGBTQIA+ men who I interviewed spoke of the constant battle to ‘perform maleness’ to avoid being shunned. 

How do South African men understand masculinity?

The majority of South African men hold binary and patriarchal understandings of masculinity, even some who attended liberal institutions like Wits.

The men I interviewed were South African nationals across race, ethnic, class and sexual lines. ‘Masculinity’ heavily relied on the idea of providing for your family. Notably, some men referred to their fathers (present or absent), by reflecting on how fathers influenced their notions of manhood, which were characterised by having money and providing for family. 

Manhood was also understood through the lens of enacting physical aggression and doing ‘manly’ work. According to one male interviewee studying mining engineering, drilling underground is an exclusively male task because of men’s biological wiring deeming them ‘fit’ for the task, whereas he perceived that a woman drilling underground would damage her biological reproductive organs.

How do you define masculinity?

My definition of masculinity is a constant reflection on the benefits that I enjoy because of being born with male genitalia, and ways I use these unearned benefits from patriarchy.

I constantly have to remind myself to check where I might be complicit in unconscious bias against women and other trans/non-binary/gender-fluid identities and bodies, because being a black gay man does not, in any way, absolve me from patriarchy.

Locating myself as a black homosexual man in society allows me to reflect on both the threat of oppression due to my skin colour and the privilege afforded by being a gay male but presenting as straight. When I walk to the Joburg MTN taxi rank, I will not be cat-called or sexually harassed because I am not feminine presenting. I understand that if I want to get home safely, then I negotiate my identity by acting ‘more masculine’ through body movements, my voice and clothes. 

How do we change the narrative?

I am often worried about the use of language especially regarding GBV (gender-based violence) in our country. Often you hear ‘real men don’t kill women’ or ‘real men wear pink’ to raise awareness on GBV issues, but I think that we have set the bar substantially low for boys and men by praising them for not groping or sexually harassing women. It should be the norm not to do that. We like to give accolades to things that should be normalised as part of one’s upbringing, like respect and vulnerability. Language is another powerful platform that we cannot take for granted. 

  • Deborah Minors is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.