Tribute to Bass John Khumalo

As 2017 comes to a close and I reflect on this incredibly transformative year, I want to pay homage to a dear friend who passed away this semester, Bass John Khumalo.

Amanda and I met Bass John in Sept 1999 during our first week of dissertation research. We were at a dance at the International Lesbian and Gay Association conference in Joburg, the first ILGA gathering on the African continent. Bass John relentlessly hit on Amanda, they danced, and we all became fast friends.

Bass John was one of my favorite people on the planet because we could talk about ANYTHING! It was an incredibly intimate connection, especially given the constraints of its context. We were always touching and laughing and talking about all sorts of super personal stuff—across this huge cultural divide, staying together in close quarters—whether crammed together on the mini taxis or sleeping in the same bed. We trusted her with our lives basically, as she was our guide throughout Soweto—and she trusted us with her heart, which was not a small deal growing up in apartheid South Africa.

Me and Bass John
Bass John and Susie

Bass John was, I believe, 42 and, from what we’ve been able to find out, appears to have had some kind of seizures while out of town with her mom at a family wedding. They took her to the hospital, it was a 3 day weekend so there were no doctors, she was supposed to see a doctor on the Tuesday after and passed away suddenly that Monday. Her family had no money for an autopsy, so we will probably never know what actually happened.

I suppose Bass John’s early death was not totally shocking, however. Even compared to our other South African friends, Bass John had a life of hardship. Growing up in poverty, Bass John lost her father, a police officer, during adolescence and just a few years later started coming out as a lesbian. She attracted attention at school by playing soccer and proposing to other girls, wearing boy’s clothes and having a boy’s hairstyle, so her teacher called her mom in for a meeting. Though eventually a close and supportive relationship was forged with her mom, initially her mom was very upset to find out her daughter was a lesbian and Bass John felt quite rejected and lonely at home.

Despite the adversity and heartbreak that she faced, Bass John was so friendly and open, full of life, always singing and dancing and joking and loving boldly—a true light in the world. Being around Bass John was probably the single thing that most helped me to let go of some of my self-repression and be more expressive—being around Bass John really helped me to loosen up and come out more.

Bass John singing with Amanda

Bass John and Amanda—late night singing

While when we first met Bass John, she strongly identified as a butch lesbian and wanted to work in tourism (a natural match given her friendly outgoingness and her excellent English), by the time we returned to the States a year and a half later, she was becoming a sangoma (traditional healer). There are actually quite a number of lesbian sangomas in Soweto, as there are advantages to the path. If you are strongly led by a male ancestor, you are able to wear male attire and have relationships with women—and people are scared of sangomas due to their spiritual powers so it greatly decreases instances of harassment (Bass John actually made me and Amanda sangoma bracelets—they have red and white beads—because she knew it would keep us safe because people would be scared to mess with us, and it worked!).

It is typical for folks to receive their shamanic call through some kind of sickness or breakdown. For Bass John, this was an attempted suicide. There was a rash of Soweto lesbian suicides that summer. In addition to the economic hardships and family rejections, most of the township lesbians identify as butch so they mostly get together with straight women, and get their hearts broken, since most of those relationships don’t necessarily last. And they will often get raped or even killed for it, as township men get angry and jealous and go after them. When we first met Bass John, she’d been driven out of her township and was staying with some friends and there have been numerous high profile lesbian murders since that time.

During Bass John’s time in the hospital after the suicide attempt, her ancestors came to her and told her that she would not get well until she surrendered to her shamanic call. We visited her numerous times during her sangoma training.

Bass John throwing the bones with her sangoma teacher

Bass John and her sangoma mentor—throwing the bones

It was in fact where I received my first shamanic call ironically. Her sangoma mentor was pretty scary, I’ll be honest. One day she summoned me over—which alarmed me because I’d never directly interacted with her before and generally just tried to steer clear of her! She basically told me that I was spiritually powerful, that I was healing on behalf of my whole family, and that I should train as a healer. :-0 I wonder if, like my dad, Bass John will communicate from the other side (both of them were excellent and generous communicators in life). Maybe now that I’m really starting on more of a healing career, she will come and assist in my practice. 😊

I decided to dedicate the book I’m writing to Bass John. My dissertation was dedicated to my dad (who passed away just months before I finished) as well as my friends in South Africa who died of HIV and my 2 dissertation committee members who died prematurely while I was writing it (the structural hazards of both the academic profession and life in South Africa…). For this book, I plan to dedicate it to Bass John and Susie, 2 good friends who were lost along the way in the writing of this book.

Dancing with BJ

Bass John and Susie—late night dancing

I do think that in this world there are four directions—north, east, west, south. That means we have girls, boys, lesbians, and gays. There’s no world that lives with two directions.”—Bass John Khumalo

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