Homo History: Simon Tseko Nkoli

Simon Tseko Nkoli may very well be the father of South Africa’s gay rights movement.

Born in Soweto on November 26, 1957, Nkoli felt the pain of racial apartheid early. In an effort to bypass the National Party’s pass laws, which dictated where blacks could and could not go, Nkoli famously locked his parents in a closet. That seminal event not only fueled his anti-apartheid politics, but his desire to live as an openly gay man.

Nkoli came into his gay self fairly early on. Though the government explicitly prohibited homosexuality, Nkoli’s conception of the sexual divisions eschewed traditional definition. Growing up in Soweto – and then Sebokong – Nkoli learned to call homosexuality “sitabane,” which translates to hermaphrodite. His sexuality had more to do with gender than actual acts. Perhaps it’s the linguistic dissociation which helped him embrace his difference so readily.

The would-be activist found his boyfriend in 1974, when he was just seventeen. Longing for companionship, he wrote to a white man he found in a gay magazine. The two men apparently hit it off and started a clandestine relationship. It didn’t stay that way for long.

When the couple’s parents found out, they forbade the men from seeing one another. Determined to be together, Nkoli and his white lover formed a suicide pact, which Nkoli’s parents also discovered.

Fearing for their son’s life, they begrudgingly allowed him to move to Johannesburg to be with his lover. Even while living together, however, the men had to remain undercover. Rather than going to jail for violating pass laws, Nkoli pretended to be a servant.