Hendrik Viljoen* is distracted. It’s sticky hot in Durban, unusual for this time of year, yet he hardly notices. For the first time in the six weeks he’s spent in rehab, he’s being allowed to see his wife.
His hug is restrained, but his 45-year-old wife, Cecilia*, doesn’t react. He’s told her too often in the past decade: She’s too fat; he’s not attracted to her any more.
This time, he doesn’t say it. Instead, he blurts: "All these years, I tried to pin our sexless marriage on you. I have to set the record straight. It’s me. I’m gay. That’s the only reason we didn’t have sex anymore – not because I don't love you, not because there is anything wrong with you . . .’’
Hendrik hears the waves crashing outside. He can smell lunch being prepared. But he knows he won’t keep any food down for the rest of the day. Cecilia pulls at a single loose thread on her navy skirt. She cries without making a sound.
She steps toward him. So, he thinks, this is how it will end. He steels himself for a slap. Instead, his wife puts her arms around him.
"I always knew,” she says. “But you loved me. You cared for me and the kids. I didn’t care. Get clean and come back home.’’
This is the first time 46-year-old Hendrik has been truly honest with his wife in 25 years.
Marriage, 'the right thing to do'
Cecilia is not unusual in her “Brokeback marriage”, the trendy term coined from the Oscar-winning movie of two cowboys who fell in love. A conservative estimate is that 1,7 million to 3,4 million American women are married to men like many other young men, raised conservatively in small towns. Hendrik married at 21 because “it was the right thing to do”.
At school he refused to follow the pattern of his openly gay brother, 10 years his senior. “I won't say I was one of the manne, but I was definitely not seen as one of the moffies. I played rugby, went to parties and had girlfriends at school.''
His mom died when he was six and, unable to cope alone with the kids, his father sent them to boarding school in Makhado.
"We were four in a room. We played. But there was no mention of being gay! I had three girlfriends at that stage.”
Their “playing” bothered Hendrik though, and he confided in a teacher who told him not to worry. It was totally normal to experiment.
In his matric year, an accident occurred that was to shape his young adult life. Driving with only a learner's licence, he rolled a car and a schoolfriend was killed. Hendrik was in hospital for three months while his leg was reconstructed.
"I still today feel responsible for her death. I was behind the steering wheel. It's me that had to die that day. But I'm alive. I had to start looking for a reason.''
After school, he left his small town to work in Pretoria – where he met Cecilia. They clicked. "She made me feel safe. She listened not only to what I said, but what I meant.”
Still badly affected by the accident though, he transferred back to his hometown after only six months. He felt safer living with his sister. By the time he returned to Pretoria, Cecilia was already engaged.
Hendrik was a guest at their wedding. But with an eerie prescience, Cecilia introduced him: "Meet my next husband.''
Cecilia's husband died in a car accident two months and eleven days later. She was pregnant. "Our relationship started out as friendship and support in her time of mourning. Over time it developed into something more romantic.''
Hendrik and Cecilia married in 1984 in Pretoria – a month after her son, Carel, was born. Although the spark they shared never flared into passion, he thought their marriage a good one. In 1987 their daughter, Vanessa, was born.
Meeting an old room mate
Hendrik was in Johannesburg for a conference.
"It's me. Do you remember me?'' asked a dark man in his early thirties, during morning coffee. He was one of the room mates he’d experimented with in the Makhado hostel.
"Let's get out of here and catch up.''
They went for a few drinks and ended up at a Formula 1 hotel in Midrand. Hendrik had always felt there was something missing from his life, but hadn’t been able to put his finger on it. It was there he first experienced a spark of awareness.
Both were married, both with two kids. It was the first time either of them had had sex with a man.
Driving home to Ermelo, the doubts churned in his head. How could he never have realised what was hidden inside him? He never wanted to see that man again, he decided. And he wouldn’t tell his wife, because it would never happen again.
"I was pissed off with myself. We weren't laaities anymore and should have been able to control our urges. I should have known better. But I thought what my wife and kids didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.''
He never saw the other man again. “It was easy for me to make him the scapegoat; that if it wasn't for him, I would never have done this.”
Hendrik joined an evangelical congregation in Ermelo. He wanted his demons exorcised. He fought his sexual awakening with every molecule of his being.
"I never spoke to the pastor about it. But every time he called on people who wanted to be prayed for, I went to the front of the church to be saved. God allowed me to stray. He should help me get back to the straight and narrow.''
Nonetheless, two months after his first gay experience, it happened again. In Johannesburg on business he had oral sex in a public toilet. The same feelings of guilt pursued him all the way home.
Hendrik increasingly found excuses to leave Ermelo and hook up with men in the cities. After one particular weekend of gay club hopping in 1997, Hendrik decided never to have sex with his wife again.
"I felt dirty. I couldn’t take what I was doing home. I thought up any reason not to have sex with Cecilia. I told her she was too fat. I told her she wasn’t attractive to me any more. I put all the blame on her to hide what I was.''
Cecilia was devastated. Oddly, this bothered Hendrik less than telling his family the truth. Only his brother knew.
"He was very angry with me. He said I should never have married, because he always knew I was gay. He still blames himself that he did not kick me out the closet earlier.''
Thinking he could start afresh, Hendrik moved the family to Durban. "I thought I’d have more time to spend with my family. We would go to the beach and do things together.”
But after only a few weeks, he realised the city held even more opportunities to live out his fantasies. He visited the steam baths over his lunch hour and on Saturdays – and was pulled deeper and deeper into the gay scene.
Resorting to alcohol
"I met other married men visiting these places and slowly but surely did not feel as guilty.
"I was never too drunk to know what I was doing. And at that stage, seven years back, I did not care if I was infected with HIV. I felt I deserve Aids. I already felt infected by being gay. If I died, I might as well die from Aids. It should be my punishment.”
Hendrik began drinking heavily. But after a close call with the police, he determined never again to drive drunk. He also decided never again to be led into temptation in the arms of another man.
"I knew when I had this drink I wouldn’t get into my car and go anywhere. I finished a bottle of whisky a night. It also gave me a reason not to have sex with my wife.''
It didn’t work. He still hooked up with men during the day or after work on Saturdays. The more he cheated on his wife the less he cared about it.
Going to rehab
Eventually though, he was forced to face his alcohol abuse – for the sake of his children. They fled the house when he was drunk and wouldn’t bring friends home.
In December 2004 he booked himself into rehab. There he was forced to face his life sober. It was there he had to face the reality: he was gay. It was the first time he had said it out aloud.
And it was there he tested HIV positive.
His status didn’t shock him. "I convinced myself I deserved it. And at that stage I was so focused on becoming alcohol free, I was so tired of the whole process, that my HIV status was shifted back to the back of my mind until I had more energy to deal with it.''
Nonetheless he found it too difficult to tell his family he was positive.
He did pluck up the courage to tell his children he was gay. His daughter readily offered her support and affirmed her love. His son accepted the news with more difficulty. “Whatever,” he said.
They tried to pick up their lives – to be a family again. But a day after their daughter turned 24, Hendrik told Cecilia he was leaving and that he wanted a divorce.
Finding love in cyber space
Hendrik met Petrus Wessels* (49) in cyber space and they e-mailed for weeks before they met. But the first night they spent together just felt right.
After leaving rehab, he’d taken a second test for insurance purposes. This time he had tested negative. He had realised his viral load might be too low to be detected, yet he really wanted to believe it. “With my whole heart.”
When he fell in love with Petrus, Hendrik tested again. Positive.
His brother was furious. "Maybe you would have been negative if you made peace with who you were earlier,” he told Hendrik. But Petrus didn’t turn away from him.
Hendrik's two biggest fears are that Cecilia and his children will discover his status, and that he might infect Petrus.
“What freaks me out is that he is willing to take chances, but I won't ever play Russian Roulette with others’ and my own life again. I will be as safe as safe can be . . .”
(Pieter van Zyl, August 2010)
Night out with Bra Mo
Loving a man with HIV
Pieter van Zyl is a fellow of the HIV/AIDS & the Media Project, a partnership between the Perinatal HIV Research Unit and the Journalism Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand. This article is made possible by the support of the American People through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents of this article are the sole responsibility of USAID/Johns Hopkins University Project South Africa and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.