Eye on fiction: Capturing the experience of homophobia

Martin Milton on André Carl van der Merwe’s novel Moffie

Psychologists have to navigate a tension. We are positioned as having special knowledge that we deploy in service of people’s well-being. Yet in the consulting room we recognise the limits to that expertise and, like the rest of the population, engage with intuition, gut-feeling, hunch and experience. It is the managing of this tension that makes all the difference when providing a therapeutic encounter. Similarly, when trying to understand a phenomenon we don’t just have one set of documents to consider. We consider professional guidelines and are informed by the available research. As practitioners, we also want to understand what clients have tried to educate us about.

 This is the case with any client’s presenting concerns. But there are particular difficulties when trying to meet the needs of LGBT clients. Some of our empirical evidence has been coloured by heterosexist assumptions and therefore offers very little knowledge about people’s experiences. More worryingly, this body of knowledge has offered a pathologising perspective and led to poor practice and inappropriate treatment (see Garnets et al., 1991; Milton, 1998). But, even for the psychologist who mines the literature and finds the more appropriate seams (see Coyle and Kitzinger, 2002 for a review), there are limits to what that material can offer. These bodies of knowledge cannot always help us get that elusive ‘feel’ of an experience. To know abuse has happened is one thing, to know what that abuse feels like and the impact it has on one’s sense of self is another. In our efforts to understand people and their situations as fully as possible, we must not underestimate good literature.

For those wanting to better understand the impact of homophobia, there are not many better books than André Carl van der Merwe’s novel, Moffie. ‘Moffie’ is a horribly pejorative, originally Afrikaans, term for a gay man. The novel is set in apartheid South Africa and narrated by Nicholas van der Swart: as a young child, ‘different’ to others; as a high school student, secretly starting to establish a sexualised existence; and as a conscript, aware that only by keeping his sexuality secret will he survive. All of these positions offer us the starkest, most visceral understanding of living with homophobia. So while this novel offers readers insight into many different aspects of apartheid South Africa, it is in relation to homophobia that this novel has a lot to offer the psychologist.

Nicholas’s account helps the reader feel what it is like to be born into a world of non-stop pressure to not be who – or what – you experience yourself to be. Heterosexuality training starts very early and Nicholas’s experiences helps us recognise that no opportunity is missed to ‘train’ this young boy out of being gay. As a four-year-old (after his older brother dies), when thinking about his mother’s sadness Nicholas is aware that ‘[h]er one son is gone and the other is “different”’. As a nine-year-old the sense of difference is beginning to be understood and he writes:

I am gay. Gay – this word and everything it stands for – is what I am at the age of nine, although I have not even heard of it yet. I know it, I feel it and, in secret, I start living it.

This awareness is ever-present. As a teenager, he notes:  And through it all runs the cord of sexual discovery. How mortified would he [his father] be if he knew about the sex, his son’s exploration of the unmentionable, the other races. Yes, to him that would be the ultimate evil.

The novel gives us an insight into the ‘unknown knowns’ that many LGBT people report. People tolerate the difference but only on condition that it is not acknowledged. This lack of acknowledgement can be through silence or, for Nicholas, by threat.

[Nicholas’s father] changes his tone to a sound I have not heard before as he turns to me. ‘If I find out that you are a moffie, that is the end.’ He waits for the gravity of the words to sink in, looking at me, looking through me. ‘That will be the end,’ he says in a measured way, stepping slowly from one word to the next.

I am paralysed, because that means it is already the end and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

[...] I know that to survive I have to hide the inescapable feelings I carry around inside me. What does he mean by, ‘That will be the end’? I dare not ask him. I am walking on a knife edge and my only defence against catastrophe is my ability to deceive.

Pejoratives proliferate in the policing of sexual identity, and it isn’t only parents or authority figures who use such language. Like Nicholas, those being policed are very sensitive to language.

Poofter, queer, moffie, sissy, homo, pansy, fairy, trassie – how those words scare me. I’m so terrified of being ‘discovered’ that I obsess about it. Being a homo gives everybody the licence to persecute one. If I’m found out my life will be ruined. I MUST AT ALL COST, KEEP THIS A SECRET.

Despite knowing that negative ruminations or ‘obsessing’ is seldom psychologically useful, there is little point simply encouraging clients to rely on positive thinking. Nicholas does this and it’s clear that it is his way of keeping safe, but it comes at significant cost. Such pressure exerts a toll and those experiencing discrimination can suffer psychologically (Bidell, 2012, Rivers, 1997, Stonewall, 2012). Nicholas struggles and seeks comfort in different ways.

I search for my Creator with exaggerated fervour. I read books on religion and spirituality in every spare moment and establish even stronger ties with the one man I trust – a mentor whose patience I test with my delirious perplexities. I don’t tell him about the root of my problems, for fear that even he won’t understand, so I only pose masked questions to Mr Davids.

I stop sleeping. In the darkness, I am haunted even more, and by the time morning comes, I am more confused than ever. Eventually my school work starts suffering. My parents have no idea why their son is so introverted and spends all his time behind locked doors.

Later on in the novel, Nicholas reflects back on these difficulties and says: When I eventually come out on the other side, systematically shedding the scabs, I realise that all this anguish hinged around my being gay. Being the unmentionable, the worst, the utterly sinful, irredeemable, and carrying it all on my own – a secret too large to bear, too devastating to share and too dreadful not to. My mother’s Catholic Church, my father’s Dutch Reformed Church, all our friends and family, my entire world, it feels to me, regard one thing more heinous than anything else, and that is what I am. Hell is guaranteed; at the end of a living hell I did not choose.

This is a powerful way of illustrating the concept of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ (Kitzinger, 1987). All the resources of the community amass to privilege one way of being and to create numerous sanctions against anything vaguely different.

The accounts of Nicholas’s conscription into the South African Defence Force are numerous and painful to read. Physical and verbal abuse are the norm, and so is the pathologising and demonising of same-sex sexuality. As the novel puts it:

The Defence Force distinctly forbids homosexuality, regarding it as an unpardonable offence against God and country, so perverse that it is socially acceptable to mete out punishment to anyone found to be of such orientation. If you are caught, you are sent to the psychiatric ward for shock, hormone, and aversion therapy – you are as good as eliminated
Through this multi-layered account of homophobia, Moffie gives us insight into the power of secrets and an understanding as to why the recipients of long-term discrimination and rejection may not be able to talk to anyone about their experience. This is important for therapists to consider as it follows that clients may not be able to discuss their core concerns, certainly not immediately. Even with one’s friends opening up may be difficult. I want to look at Malcom but I can’t.
I want to talk to him. I want to tell him how I feel, but sharing my fear could prove too much, could make me lose control, and all I have left is this thin line of restraint. Nothing else is within my power.

As well as the painful account of homophobia and an understanding of the trauma this incurs, the reader is also offered moments of hope, strength and optimism in this novel. We need to empathise with trauma but not overlook resilience and talents as people navigate the world. The novel also gives us a sense of the excitement and joy of falling in love.

Ethan is my first army friend, and for the first week my only friend. Ethan is whom I want; Ethan is the drug to see me through – my medication. We are reshuffled [in platoons], and by the grace of God we are put in the same tent. For the first time I believe I am going to get through it all.

Reflexivity is probably important. I too grew up in apartheid South Africa and know this never-ending preoccupation with compulsory heterosexuality by way of misogyny, homophobia and racism. While delighted to say that my family life bears no resemblance to Nicholas’s, I too had to don the brown cadet uniform and march many an hour away in an absurd pretence at becoming a better soldier (read ‘man’). I was not spared fear and anxiety as I could not escape the exposure to the Church, school and wider culture’s insistence that nothing other than macho, somewhat misogynistc, heterosexuality would suffice. So I know this story in my bones and this is a realistic and well-crafted novel. A story of family violence, school and cultural oppression, racism, sexism and homophobia, could have been treated with sensationalism. Van der Merwe avoids this and captures above all else the subtle, yet crucial experience of needing to keep a secret. It’s because of this that Moffie is now on the reading list for my module in ‘Working with difference and discrimination’.

Martin Milton is Principal Lecturer and Programme Director at Regent’s School of Psychotherapy and Psychology and Regent’s University [email protected] 


Bidell, M. (2012). Addressing disparities: The impact of a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender graduate counselling course. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research: Linking Research with Practice, 1, 8.
Coyle, A. & Kitzinger, C. (2002). Lesbian and gay psychology: New perspectives. Oxford: BPS Blackwell.
Garnets, L., Hancock, K.A., Cochran, S.D. et al. (1991) Issues in psychotherapy with lesbians and gay men: A survey of psychologists. American Psychologist, 46(9), 964–972.
Kitzinger, C. (1987) The social construction of lesbianism. London: Sage.
Milton, M. (1998). Issues in psychotherapy with lesbians and gay men: A survey of British psychologists. BPS Division of Counselling Psychology Occasional Papers: Vol 4. Leicester: British Psychological Society.
Rivers, I. (1997) Lesbian, gay and bisexual development: Theory, research and social issues. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 7, 329–343.
Stonewall (2012). The school report: The experiences of gay young people in Britain’s schools in 2012. London: Author.

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