In this commentary, I read the recent film Inxeba alongside Andrew Tucker’s Queer Visibilities in order to ask questions about dichotomies, the space of the rural, and the framework of visibilities for thinking through African Queer urban practices. I suggest that a careful attention to the representational practices of a film like Inxeba requires us to think in more nuanced ways about Urban African sexualities.
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In his groundbreaking study of urban queer South Africa, Andrew Tucker (2009) discusses the importance of thinking through visibility as a geographic concept, one mediated not only through the power of representation but also through history, place, and materiality. In this commentary, I provide a spatial reading of the film Inxeba through the lens of queer visibilities. For the purposes of this commentary, I use queer as an overarching term to think through a constellation of non-normative genders and sexualities as they are presented in the film with an understanding that such an overarching term is inherently imperfect. Following Matebeni and Perreira, 2014,7) I see queer functioning as a way for us to think through a larger critique of normativity. Through an analysis of different scenes in the film, I will discuss the relationship between the contrasting forms of queer visibilities spotlighted by the film and the extent to which such different forms of queer visibility are enacted spatially. Importantly, I approach this reading through a process of translation provided by the film’s subtitles and acknowledge the limitations to the analysis as a result. Throughout most of the film urban queer visibilities are contrasted significantly with a set of non-urban queer (non)visibilities. Ultimately, I want to challenge us to think in less dichotomous terms about African queer visibilities even as we acknowledge the ways that geography might encourage particular queer formations and visibilities while discouraging other kinds of queer formations.
Xhosa Men’s Initiation and the Controversy of Inxeba
There has been much published about Inxeba (see Green-Sims, 2022; Kiguwa & Siswana, 2018; Moraka, 2018; Qambela, 2021; Siswana & Kiguwa, 2018; Scott, 2021; 22) and I will not rehearse the totality of those debates here. To summarize the plot, the film takes place during a traditional Xhosa initiation in a rural mountainscape. It revolves around Xolani, a factory worker who is hired yearly as a caretaker for new initiates. He is joined yearly during these initiation ceremonies by Vija. Little is known about Vija’s life outside the mountainscape but we are informed he is often under/un-employed, has a wife and children that he struggles to provide for, and that Vija and Xolani are old friends that went through the initiation practice together. We also quickly learn that Xolani and Vija are also engaged in a passionate and intense sexual relationship which seems to be made possible by the practice of initiation itself, particularly its geographical and social remove from their everyday lives. Thrown into the mix is Kwanda, a young initiate from a wealthy Johannesburg family who Xolani has been hired to take care of during this initiation season. Kwanda is privileged, openly queer, less conventionally masculine, and somewhat disdainful of the Xhosa initiation practice. Kwanda is introduced early on as an antagonist or at least a disrupter to the kinds of life choices and type of queer (non) visibilities that Xolani and Vija perform.
The film and its attendant discourse revealed a set of contestations regarding normative Black masculinities and the explosive contention that African traditional cultural practices — in this case traditional Xhosa initiation — might provide a space for the production and maintenance of non-normative genders and sexualities. The critique by many Xhosa traditionalists seemed to rest on the explosive nature of queerness in the film, that the mere connection between queerness and Xhosa initiation practices was an affront. In this way, the traditionalists continue this notion of queerness as false consciousness and colonial import, as incompatible with African culture and hence as something that is an unfortunate urban, white, and western contamination (see Tucker, 2009; Reid, 2010; Livermon, 2015). But ultimately, I would argue that much of the controversy about the film rests on the way that the film makes queerness within Xhosa traditional initiation visible through these central characters.
Initiation for Xhosa boys as a practice maintains a great deal of cultural and societal significance and its role is generally twofold. First, the initiation rite serves as a rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and within Xhosa community confers the rights and responsibilities of adulthood onto young men. Secondly, the initiation ceremony serves as a symbol of Xhosa resilience and cultural retention in the face of the violence of colonialism and apartheid. For these reasons, as a practice it is often jealously guarded and defended. The Xhosa traditional circumcision rite is regarded to be one of the most ancient cultural practices in South Africa (Ntonzini & Ngqangeni 2016) (Mashabane & Henderson, 2020). “This rite of passage consists of going into the ‘bush’ and erecting small houses and being circumcised [and cared] by older males who have successfully been through this initiation rite” (Ntozini & Ngqangweni, 2016, Mashabane & Henderson, 2020,164). Much of the tension regarding the practice in South Africa revolves around the issue of safety for the initiates on the one hand, and the sense that for some initiates their participation in initiation feels coerced or compulsory. To deal with these issues, the government has enacted a number of safeguards to prevent initiation deaths and injuries and created legislation making it an offense to force someone to participate in initiation practices against their will.
Academic literature on queer men and Xhosa initiation reveals a set of contested experiences for queer men (Ntonzini & Ngqangweni, 2016). Queer men generally are not welcome as openly queer in the initiation practice, so most hide or at the very least significantly downplay their queerness during initiation. However, many still participate in the practice because of the stature it gives them in family and community. Furthermore, some feel pressured by their families into the practice, in some cases initiation is offered as a curative to their queerness. For these men successfully going through the process proves to their communities that they are still socially and culturally men despite their queerness (Lynch & Clayton, 2017). Ultimately, while the practice of initiation often reproduces heteronormativity and gender conformity, for some queer men community and family expectations and responsibilities as well as the desire to be a part of cultural communal belonging means that they enter into these practices despite their exclusions (Mashabane & Henderson, 2020).
Inxeba: Interpreting Spaces of Queer (Non)visibilities
After a short montage showing Xolani at work in his factory job, the scene quickly shifts to the mountainscape where the film takes place, establishing that we are at a remove from urban South Africa. For the purposes of this essay, the term mountainscape functions to delineate how the geographic areas used for initiation are transformed by the practice. They take on a specific meaning attached to the practices of initiation within space. In this sense, while the mountainscape is a liminal space where transformation occurs for all participants, it is generally represented in the film as part of a larger undifferentiated rurality. Here, the term is meant to connote both the representational and the material practices of the specific geographical locations where initiation takes place. It is a specifically gendered space as no girls or women are allowed. But it is also a space that excludes the non-initiated except in very specific roles. Xolani arrives at the appointed space of initiation to do the necessary care work where he is quickly introduced to Kwanda’s father Khwalo, whose late model Mercedes marks his class positionality, but also his remove from the rural landscape and communities where the initiation takes place. The elders of the community remark upon Khwalo’s distance, commenting on how he never comes around much anymore and that Johannesburg has swallowed him whole. The space of the urban is immediately presented as oppositional to the practices of the mountainscape and as a space that removes Xhosa men from their traditional cultural practices and responsibilities. Inherent in this conversation is an understanding of the urban as degenerative and inauthentic, and the rural mountainscape as a space where authenticity as a Xhosa man can be (re)established.
Inside the Mercedes, Khwalo gives Xolani a significant wad of cash for his role as caretaker and then provides Xolani with a bit of background on his son. Khwalo states “I want you to be firm with him. The boy [Kwanda] is too soft…if you ask me its his mother who spoiled him…Lately he’s been bringing home these friends, locking themselves in his room. Something’s not right with these rich boys from Joburg” (Trengrove, 2017). In this statement, a few things are established that are critical for understanding the space of the urban in the film. We establish that femininity is seen as a contaminant, one that afflicts Kwanda — he is soft because of his mother and his femininity must be excised. Secondly, we are told that the urban allows for “something not right” to develop among the boys there. While not explicit, we understand the exchange pointing to queerness. Hence, the dichotomy is seemingly created, Johannesburg is the space of “funny acting” boys, the space where femininity and inauthenticity as a Xhosa man is allowed to flourish. As a curative, the rural mountainscape and Xhosa initiation traditions will transform Kwanda from a boy who is “soft” and “not right” into a proper Xhosa man. In a normative rendering of this practice, we would understand the initiation space to be free from queerness and to be a space where queerness is excised. Xolani also participates in this discourse when he is alone with Kwanda in Kwanda’s seclusion hut shortly after the circumcision has occurred. As Kwanda wimpers in pain, Xolani dresses his wound. Xolani repeats the common sense understanding that the rural and the urban are dichotomously opposed spaces by expressing pride in Kwanda’s choice to be initiated despite being from the city. Xolani states, “A lot of city boys don’t come to the mountain anymore. Cowards…Don’t know what it means to be a man. It’s good you came initiate.” Kwanda’s wimpers throughout establish his softness and confirms the city as the space of “not real men.” But we can be rest assured that through the mountainscape Kwanda will be made a “real man.” Initiation has been popularly represented as a culturally appropriate form of conversion therapy turning wayward boys into appropriate men (Livermon, 2015). However, the film demonstrates that far from being a space where queerness and softness cannot exist, the mountainscape of initiation might actually provide the space to create and maintain forms of queer relationality and tenderness.
The filmic text begins to explore those possibilities through the sex scenes between Xolani and Vija. At this moment, the film disrupts its own narrative in a jarring manner. We have been consistently told that the mountainscape is a place where real (non-queer) men are made. Kwanda’s softness and femininity are presented as contrasts to the man he will hopefully become through the process of initiation. The film is deliberate in creating this juxtaposition from Kwanda’s wimpering and wounded manhood to a rough sex scene between Xolani and Vija. When the film explores the intimacy between two masculine gender conforming ostensibly “straight” men we are set up to question the strict dichotomies that have been heretofore established. Kwanda appears simultaneously as a catalyst and a threat to the clandestine intimacy the two men share. Just as the care of Kwanda’s wound ushers in the initial rough sex between Xolani and Vija, Kwanda’s washing of the earthen clay from his body leads to another moment of intimacy between Vija and Xolani, this time seemingly spurred by Kwanda’s recognition of Xolani and Vija’s shared intimacy. This second sex scene is meant to contrast with the first with a bit more tenderness and deepened intimacy. Here, the two lovers are shown in shadow creating a moment of softness as they face one another and Xolani caresses Vija’s neck. However, this moment is not maintained, Xolani’s attempt to kiss Vija quickly turns into another rough sexual encounter.
When Vija confronts Xolani about his perceptions that Kwanda is queer this leads to one of their more tender interactions, where Vija remarks about Xolani’s unchanging goodness and sincerity. This moment of tenderness features a brief, yet yearning and sensual kiss between the two men. It is our first indication of real care between them. But it is immediately followed by Xolani’s wounded lament where he confesses his extreme loneliness living an isolated life that seems to come alive only when he is reunited with Vija. Xolani has framed his entire existence around these yearly, ephemeral encounters and spaces. Kwanda’s worldly queerness emerges as a destabilizing force for the life Xolani has chosen. Between Kwanda’s outward, loud performance of queerness and Vija’s expression of tenderness, Xolani is reminded that he can have something more than rushed sex on the floor of an abandoned building or rough fellatio in an empty field. Xolani’s desire for something more sparks fear in Vija. Vija immediately returns the money (most likely the same wad of cash given to Xolani by Khwalo as payment) that Xolani gave him right after their first sexual encounter. Rejecting Xolani’s desire for something more, Vija emphatically and pleadingly states, “I can’t do this…Leave me [alone]. We can’t do this!” Xolani reminds Vija that they are in fact “doing this,” that they “do this every year…the same thing” (Trengrove, 2017). But what is the “this” that Xolani wants and that Vija rejects? On some fundamental level, the audience is meant to understand that the geographies these men occupy cannot accommodate open, public queerness. That the sanctuary that is the mountainscape collapses with the introduction of Kwanda and Kwanda’s brand of queerness. Kwanda’s presence and performance of an urban queerness attached to western identificatory claims and epistemologies creates conflict for both Vija and Xolani. Vija’s rejection must be physically and violently enforced onto Xolani as he tussles and subdues him running away from Xolani and his taunts of cowardice.
The film consistently poses Kwanda as an outsider, disruptive due to his performance of gender and sexuality that is honed in Johannesburg in contradistinction to the gender and sexuality performances of the majority of the young men at the mountainscape. Kwanda is an impossible being, someone that at face value cannot occupy the geographies that he moves through. He is not supposed to be at the mountainscape and while there he is not supposed to have a successful initiation, and yet both of these things occur. I would like to posit Kwanda as an example of the kinds of “qualified acceptance” that Tucker, (2009) marks genealogically for Xhosa queerness pre-colonially. The other initiates quickly realize that Kwanda is queer, but initially their distance from him is marked less by his queerness and more by his class status. When later, the taunts turn toward Kwanda’s sexuality it is revealed that while Kwanda is held at arms length, he is not outright rejected from the space. Perhaps what is more interesting about Kwanda is that for all of his apparent disdain for the practice, he is there. And as time moves on, he finds something for himself in the practice, seemingly enjoying himself extensively in a last dance near the fire with the other initiates. Kwanda seems to move from disdain to an appreciation of his experience. Unfortunately, we will never know what could have been for Kwanda as he meets with a cruel fate of death at the hands of the person who was supposed to care for him.
Kwanda’s death at the hands of Xolani is precipitated by a swirling cloud of tension that occurs as a result of two competing forms of queerness, one rooted in secrecy and conformity and therefore seemingly culturally appropriate and emplaced in the rural; the other bold and visible and therefore seemingly culturally inappropriate and emplaced in the urban. With Kwanda’s death, the film seems to suggest that these are incompatible forms of queerness. Kwanda, sensing that Xolani is withdrawing from him expresses hurt toward Xolani because Xolani did not sleep in the hut with him the night before. Xolani is dismissive of Kwanda’s feelings in this moment confirming for Kwanda his increased aloofness. As a rebuttal, Kwanda asks “You like this place? Seeing the same people, doing the same thing? Don’t you want to leave Xolani? See new things” (Trengrove, 2017)? As Kwanda continues to point out the limitations of the kinds of queerness Xolani practices, he promises something more for Xolani in the urban. Xolani consistently interrupts Kwanda’s questioning, asking him “what are you doing” (Trengrove, 2017)? Here, I read this exchange as highlighting the difference between the two men and the kinds of queer (non)visibilities that they have created. Kwanda sees Xolani as an undeveloped queer. If Xolani’s queerness does not resemble Kwanda’s yet, it will eventually, provided Xolani leaves the mountainscape and his ascetic life in Queenstown behind for Johannesburg. Xolani’s interruptions speak primarily to what he perceives as the impossibility of him ever living a queer life that resembles that of Kwanda. During this back and forth, Kwanda tells Xolani, “They all see you, but won’t let you be” (Trengrove, 2017). Here, Kwanda disrupts one of the main foundations that the filmic text has heretofore depended upon; the idea that Xolani’s queerness is completely unmarked. Kwanda suggests that far from being non-visible, that the men who return to the mountainscape regularly in their various roles might know about Xolani’s queerness, they just choose to not let him be. However, another interpretation of Kwanda’s words suggests that perhaps Xolani and by implication Vija are practicing a queer non-visibility, but one that remains unmarked to the non-queer audience while being visible to other queers like Kwanda.
In Kwanda’s frustration with Xolani’s stasis, he taunts Xolani calling him a “moffie” — here translated in the film as akin to the English slur “faggot”. This seems to anger Xolani, who explains to Kwanda, “What’s your plan? I must come with you to Joburg? And do what there? When you leave tomorrow, I go back to Queenstown. What’s in Joburg for me? Tell me. Are you mute? The mountain is all there is for me. And its not enough” (Trengrove, 2017). Here, Xolani poses these questions and the different possibilities enabled by the different geographies and class positions that these two men occupy is brought into searing relief. The reality is that Xolani possesses a skill set that may not translate very well to Johannesburg. And lacking education and high-paying skills, what kind of life could he actually hope for in Johannesburg? Johannesburg may be freeing for him as a queer person, but queerness is not Xolani’s only axis of existence. And as a Black man from the rural areas with a limited skill set, a move to Johannesburg is just as likely to shackle him as it would be to free him. He would have no guarantee of a job nor housing he could afford. This reality is one Kwanda seems not to have considered. And his unwillingness to answer Xolani suggests that perhaps deep-down Kwanda knows that Johannesburg would not necessarily be the place of freedom or possibility that he makes it out to be.
Immediately after this scene, a confrontation between several initiates and Xolani results in another scene of masculine violence when the initiates who dared to question the nature of the relationship between Xolani and Kwanda are physically threatened by Vija and forced to apologize for speaking out of turn. Here is perhaps the first indication that Xolani’s carefully crafted life of queer non-visibility is starting to unravel when pressed by Kwanda’s presence as a different kind of Xhosa queer man. For prior to this confrontation, we are led to believe that Xolani has cultivated a level of respect among the men of the mountainscape such that questioning of his manhood is unfathomable. There is something about the growing tension between Xolani and Kwanda that the other initiates can sense, and their willingness to confront Xolani about their sense that he may not be so different from Kwanda after all provides the break that unravels Xolani and places Kwanda himself in danger.
This scene of violence is followed immediately by a sensual sex scene between Vija and Xolani shot in a style that seems more akin to a romance film with its soft focus. Gone is the roughness and violence of the previous encounters. Also, the two lovers seem to throw caution to the wind as they passionately embrace, kiss, and tenderly explore each other’s bodies out in the open of the waterfall. In a reversal from their earliest sex scene, it is Vija who leads the way and Xolani that follows. Furthermore, in the first sex scene Xolani leads Vija to the enclosure of the abandoned dwelling, whereas Vija leads Xolani into the openness and the risk of discovery that is symbolized by the waterfall. Vija who has been portrayed as reluctant to embrace the more intimate aspects of his passion for Xolani engages in this intimacy with exuberance during this scene. We are offered a glimpse of what a more free, less inhibited interaction might entail for these two men. And yet, we are reminded very quickly that whatever freedom in intimacy that these two men are able to find with each other that this freedom is completely circumscribed because it can only be maintained by the non-visibility of their relationship as queer. Their relationship remains unmarked not only to the wider world but even in the space of the mountainscape. Kwanda threatens that non-visibility both by offering a different urban (highly westernized) version of queerness, but also by recognizing the interaction between Xolani and Vija as queer in the first place. When he discovers the two entwined and embraced, he unleashes all of his self-righteous anger onto Vija, taunting him about whether his wife knows about what he gets up to in the mountain. In this way, Kwanda seems to represent not only an urban queerness but a judgemental queerness; one that sees the lives of Vija and Xolani as somehow lacking. It is fascinating how Kwanda can show such compassion for Xolani on the one hand, but little to no compassion for Vija on the other — it is as if he cannot see Vija as queer because Vija’s queerness does not align with his prescribed notions of what African urban queerness should entail. After Kwanda taunts Vija, the latter chases after him. Kwanda gets lost in the unfamiliar terrain and is only found by Xolani the next day. In the final scene between the two, Xolani vociferously defends Vija (and by extension himself) against Kwanda’s attacks. It is a defense that ultimately leads to Xolani killing Kwanda.
It is important to think about why the mountainscape might be a space for queer intimacy to occur, one that remains invisible to a larger public yet is known by those who partake in it. We must consider the mountainscape as a space removed from the everyday, a curated space that is remade by initiation practices. The exclusion of the larger community requires that ideally initiation space is apart from the larger community the initiates are drawn from. The combination of exclusion and seclusion however, also creates within it the possibility of queer relationality because it is a space made anew each year by the initiates and their caretakers rooted in homosociality. It is this space that facilitates and allows for queer intimacy to emerge between Xolani and Vija. We are not made aware of when these two discovered their attraction to one another or how, but we receive consistent clues in the film’s narrative that the yearly initiation practice and the mountainscape serve as the occasion and space to renew their friendship and their sexual and romantic intimacy. It is the ephemeral and geographic remove of the mountainscape that facilitates the queer intimacies of the film.
Their intimacy appears hidden from both the rest of the initiates and the other caretakers who come to the mountainscape. Or is it? Whatever intimacy exists between Xolani and Vija was so palpable that Kwanda could read it immediately. According to Kwanda, everyone “sees” Xolani for who he is but they will not allow him to be free, this includes Vija in Kwanda’s estimation. Perhaps a more nuanced understanding of queerness that cannot be easily reduced to the specter of visibility versus invisibility or a strict dichotomy between urban and rural is necessary. What seems hidden for Vija and Xolani seems obvious to Kwanda. Kwanda does not simply upset Vija and Xolani due to his overt queerness, he unsettles both of these men because he sees their queerness at all and dares to comment on it making it visible. If their ability to be queer at all rests on its unmarked nature, Kwanda plays a dangerous game by taunting the men with his knowledge. Xolani kills to preserve the mountainscape as the space for queer belonging and queer intimacy for himself because it is all he has. Xolani also kills Kwanda because while Kwanda expresses disgust and dismissal of Vija, he is indirectly indicting Xolani’s choices as well. Xolani wants to believe that his choices are practical and Kwanda’s offering of an otherwise is unrealistic, but deep down he is tormented by the fact that his choices are not necessarily noble or measured. Kwanda threatens to take even the little bit of happiness that Xolani has carved for himself away by insisting that Xolani can and should want more. Counterintuitively, the very thing that Xolani kills to preserve dies alongside Kwanda in the mountain. Xolani knows he cannot come back to the camp after what he has done and so the final scene is him on the back of a lorry, Johannesburg as his backdrop. The city and the queer possibilities it offers await him.
But what are we to make of Xolani’s journey to Johannesburg? For me, it symbolizes a variety of possibilities, the first rooted in the tension that develops between him and Kwanda. For while Kwanda presents what amounts to an impossible queerness, what we have to also consider is Xolani’s desire for a possible queerness that does not look exactly like Kwanda’s but it would offer more fulfillment than the life Xolani has cultivated for himself in the Eastern Cape. While Xolani may not know what is available for him in Johannesburg and he may struggle economically and socially once there, what he does know is that what he left behind was unfulfilling. What this final scene also reveals is a need to consider these different variations of Black South African queerness in non-totalizing ways. And while certain expressions of queerness may in fact manifest themselves in distinct ways due to social geographies, one can find men engaging their sexualities in ways similar to Vija and Xolani in Johannesburg on the one hand. Similarly, Kwanda’s successful completion of the initiation process suggests that such practices can and do make space for particular queer people. Ultimately, reading Inxeba allows those of us interested in sexualities research in urban Africa to reconsider any notions of dichotomous sexualities based on place. I would also suggest that a close reading of Inxeba asks us to consider Xolani’s and Vija’ queerness as an important part of how we conduct sexualities research in urban Africa alongside Kwanda’s forms of queerness. What I mean by this is that research on those who perform their queerness less visibly might help expand in critical ways who and what are the subjects of inquiry in South African urban sexuality studies.
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Livermon, X. Inxeba: Rethinking Dichotomies of Black Queer Visibilities. Urban Forum 34, 213–222 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-023-09486-y