Wagons & Wigs

Wagons and Wigs

Lin Sampson meets three farmworkers who believe they are girls

Pietie Klaasen is a farm worker on Hazendal, a historic wine farm outside Stellenbosch. He is wearing high-heeled silver sandals, a tinkling charm bracelet and green eye shadow. His two front teeth are missing which puts a crack in his smile.

“Please call me Melanie,” he says.

Pietie is an expert on pesticides but his real interest is dressing like a girl and gardening. “Oh, my roses, I love my roses.

“I like wearing jeans with a little makeup during the day but in the evening and over weekends, I go right over the top. If I am doing shopping, I only buy things that are 100% female. When I was little we played farm/farm and I would always want to be the farmer’s wife.”

Pietie says his stepmother accepts it but his father can’t get used to the idea.

Rollie Steenkamp, is tiny in pink trousers, teetering heels and a tartan scarf draped artfully round his shoulders. He prefers to be called Natalie.

“When I was a little boy I liked wearing lady’s clothes and my mother brought them from work and encouraged me to wear them. She would say, ‘My child, you be yourself.’ ”

Another worker, Willem Johannes, minces across the grass, his face consumed by a big smile, traced with five o’clock shadow. “Shaving is a big pro blem,” he tells me.

“I am called Hope,” he says, proffering a manicured hand.

“My parents were religious and when I was a child they always said, ‘Why are you so different from the other boys?’

“I was eight years old when my mother died. I did always have trouble with my sexuality, and what my family says. They said if I slept with a man I must leave home.”

This is what he did the day he left school.

All three carry small clutch bags and have brightly painted toenails.

Hazendal, co-owned by Russian entrepreneurs Dr Mark Voloshin and his longstanding friend Leo Schumacher, is an eccentric place with its gothic intensity emphasised by the sweet beauty of the countryside. The farm dates from 1699 and is filled with Babushka dolls and gold-leafed icons.

Pietie finds it impossible to walk in flat shoes. “I just must have my heels,” he says. A video of him pans down to his feet, as he tends his roses, to reveal a pair of pointed stilettos, and on a conscious-raising weekend he won all the races in his silver sandals.

In the past few years, gay pageants have become a regular feature of the farming community, an event where “plaas moffies” vie with “dorp moffies” to be crowned queen. Pietie, Willem and Rollie live for these events, running up shimmering outfits on sewing machines. “We don’t have lots of money. Sometimes we even ransack dustbins to find things and use old boxes to make bags, and even cut up tins and glass to make earrings.”

They have already designed and made their dresses for the opening night of The Sisterhood, the movie made by Roger Horn about their lives. They are still secret although there are murmurs of taffeta and tulle.

“We live just from one padsent (pageant) to another,” says Rollie Hope says it is the swimsuit section that is the trickiest. “If your private parts are not covered, people will see that you are not a woman. We have to be really clever. I wear a lot of frills.”

One momentous year Pietie was crowned First Princess. “Oh my, it was the most wonderful day of my life,” he says. “I wanted to cry and laugh. You know what, I think I was, what is the word, hysterical on that day.”

Wagons and WigsSometimes they say they do feel a bit left out of big city life, “It can be very quiet here,” says Rollie “It is hard working on a farm and when we are in the fields we have to pretend to be men. It is like leading a double life. Some of the other workers just can’t understand us.”

Pietie agrees. “It is difficult to explain why I wear women’s clothes. I just feel better in them. They make me happy. It is something inside of me. Something I can’t help.”

Leonid Schumacher, the owner’s son and general manager of Hazendal, says, “In the beginning it did come as a bit of a surprise. I had no idea there were so many homosexuals in the community.”

The workers say the management is very supportive. “In the beginning ,” says Willem, “when they paid me, the other workers would say, ‘Oh that is for Hope’ and then the manager asked me my name. When I said I liked to be called Hope, he said he would write it on my pay slip.”

The girls don’t like the words moffie or transvestite. “No, moffie is rude. It’s like someone is swearing at us. We are just girls. There is no boy in me. I am only a boy on my birth certificate ,” says Willem.

The others disagree. “Being man and woman, it is the best of both worlds ,” says Pietie.

Pietie, Rollie and Willem are the offspring of farmworkers who have worked on the farm for generations, and live in the farm cottages. Pietie’s cottage is pin neat with bright pink walls. It is like a dress boutique with wigs on the wall, glittering outfits hanging in cupboards and a giant white bear on the bed.

“This is my real baby,” he croons, cuddling the snowy animal. Pietie’s dream is to be a housewife. “To cook and clean for a husband, that would be all I ask,” he says.

It hasn’t always been easy. They have been shunned by other workers. “In the beginning,” says Pietie, “We only dressed up inside the house, but now we go out in female clothes.” But, on the whole, the community has become used to seeing them, bright and shiny, like tropical birds but the “girls” know that trouble is never far away. “We have to be careful. Nobody really understands. They don’t know that this is how we are.”

As they pose for photographs, a group of farmworkers on their way home and shout, “Hello, you girls.”

On the surface things seem friendly but there are dark streams beneath that have made their lives difficult and sometimes given them a feeling of hopelessness. They have lost friends, been isolated from their families and even been beaten up.

They all have an understanding of their situation but there is an underlying sense of guilt. “I often think,” says Pietie, “that when I die and go to heaven what will I tell God? Will he forgive me?”

Social worker Greta Kotze says: “It is not only being gay. Being a gay farmworker who likes to wear dresses takes tremendous courage.”

Pietie has written a poem, with its poignant ending it is a plea for understanding, Thank you for not trying to change me, or rearrange me.

First published in the SUNDAY TIMES newspaper on 24 October, 2010.

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