Some of us are freer than others
Joburg Pride has accused activists of hijacking the yearly parade, but in many ways, it was Pride that hijacked it from them. Charl Blignaut considers a history that the mainstream movement is ignoring – at its peril
A few months before the first lesbian and gay Pride march in 1990, my boyfriend and I did something that was probably reckless.
Walking down a street in Pretoria, we held hands. We knew that it was a provocative act in a conservative city in a time when it was illegal to be queer and we paid for it.
Within minutes a car with three hefty young men stopped. Screaming we were “moffies”, they did their best to beat us up. The streets belonged to them, not us.
At that first march, my boyfriend opted to wear one of the brown paper bags on offer to hide his identity from the TV cameras.
He was still afraid of bringing shame to his conservative family. The rain came down on the 800-strong protest, making a mockery of his paper bag and he pulled it off. We held hands all the way through Hillbrow, my head full of freedom.
After the first march, the closet doors in our apartment in Pretoria were ripped off and my boyfriend and I continued – out and proud – with our privileged education at leading tertiary institutions. Our families and community steadily learned to cope with our gayness.
At that march, I met Simon Nkoli and Bev Ditsie from Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand (Glow), who had initiated the event. They had chosen the theme of Unity in the Community for Africa’s first Pride, a conscious reminder that black and white, gay and lesbian, needed to stand together if we were ever to be decriminalised.
Later Nkoli told me about his own coming out. It put mine – the usual “despairing, self-blaming mum and awkward, angry dad” scenario – in sharp contrast. He had been taken by his mother to numerous sangomas to “cure” him. Like me, he stood up to his community, battled the church and was sent to a psychologist.
But he had a double struggle. I had fought against the army, smug in my liberalism and protected by anti-conscription lawyers.
He was a 15-year-old student leader when he was arrested by apartheid forces in Sebokeng. For three months he languished in a cell in his school uniform. When he came out to his comrades in the Congress of SA Students, they went into crisis.
“The entire region met to discuss my sexuality,” he told Mark Gevisser in Defiant Desire. “The argument against me was that homosexuality was not African; that we cannot accept to be led by a gay person.”
He won the vote and continued in the resistance. He was arrested again, at an activist’s funeral in 1985, and became one of the Delmas Treason trialists alongside the likes of Terror Lekota and Popo Molefe. It was in prison that Nkoli had to come out a third time.
Again, meetings were held. Concerns were raised that his public homosexuality would jeopardise the trial.
“One of the co-accused said we can’t be seen to be on trial with people who are embarrassing us,” tells fellow trialist Gcina Malindi in Ditsie’s documentary, Simon and I.
Nkoli was charged with attempted murder, but as he told the court, he had an alibi. He had been attending a meeting of the Gay Association of SA (Gasa). But when Nkoli appealed to the organisation for support, it was declined. Gasa said that it could not support a terrorist.
And yet Nkoli went on to found a march that has always been predominantly attended by white queers, who generally have easier access and face less resistance from their communities.
From the outset it was in conflict between the two groups – those, like me, who saw it as a celebration and those, like Nkoli, who saw it as a protest.
Into a megaphone, along with Ditsie and Edwin Cameron, he made a now-famous speech before the march.
“Many of my friends in the ANC ask me why can’t I shut up about gay rights and just fight for black rights. My friends in the gay organisations ask me why can’t I just fight for gay rights and forget this other struggle. This is what I say to them: I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate my struggle into primary and secondary struggles. They are one.”
I moved to Joburg and found a job as a journalist. In the course of the next marches and several interviews, Nkoli educated me – sometimes camply and sometimes bitchily, but always with a big smile on his face. If some of us are not free, then none of us are, is what I learned from him.
Yet it was Ditsie’s story that really conscientised me.
“That first Pride was one of the best days of my life,” she says. “But I was on TV that night. It was a religious show. This priest was saying, ‘These people should be killed’.”
Two days later, 20 angry men surrounded her house in Soweto, “demanding that I come with them so they could teach me a lesson”.
The showdown eventually ended, but for weeks the black lesbian who had led the first Pride was terrified to leave the house.
In the streets of Pretoria, I risked being moered for being openly gay. In the streets of Soweto, she risked being raped and murdered. Today, I can kiss my boyfriend in those same streets. Ditsie cannot kiss her girlfriend. The “spate” of correctional rape and lesbian murders continues unabated 22 years later.
I asked Ditsie this week how she felt about the ugly incidents between paraders and activists at Joburg Pride last weekend.
“I’m not surprised,” she said. “Our issues were never addressed, and until they are, we will always have two separate Prides – one a parade celebrating the rights the other half enjoy; one a protest against the brutality the others face. The reality is that some of us are freer than others.”
Over the years, I observed committee meetings and watched Glow lose control of the march – partly through a need to address Aids awareness in the townships, partly through apathy and partly through a lack of access – but mainly through the claiming of the event by gay, white, middle-class committee members.
I remember the fights between the white members of the committee and black activists about moving the march away from its historical downtown site and uptown to a “safer” space.
“The march at the time was too political and this was preventing people from coming. White gay boys want to have fun; they want to drink,” says former Pride chair Paul Stobbs in Anthony Manion and Shaun de Waal’s Pride: Protest and Celebration.
I remember asking Nkoli how he felt and he was infuriated and disheartened, but by then he was often too sick to get involved.
In truth, since the beginning of the event, the status quo has reacted with alarm when the “acceptable” image of their community has been threatened. Black drag queens sexing it up in 1992 were reminded by an organiser that “the whole country is watching us, so we must be very careful how we present ourselves”.
Activist Steven Cohen was asked to leave the 1996 march for a banner that mocked the hysteria around gay men being paedophiles. The next year, organiser Gary Bath called on participants to bring fluffy toys and donations for anti-child abuse organisations “to show them we’re not so bad”.
I call them the pink police. The privileged white queers who want to place us all in a neat, homogenous box – one that is non-threatening to straight people and attractive to sponsors.
The new pink police seem unconcerned that some township queers cannot afford the Pride afterparty or the refreshments being sold in the “official” Pride section of Zoo Lake afterwards.
“If you go further into the park, you’ll see thousands of black marchers having their braais. You’ll get a call from someone asking
, ‘Are you on the black side or the white side?’” says Ditsie.
In our apathy and in the absence of the likes of Nkoli, a new queer apartheid has steadily built up over the years.
Last week it erupted into violence. “Go back to the townships!” yelled a young white man as he pulled zap signs with both hands at the 20-odd black lesbians and feminists lying down on Jan Smuts Avenue in a video released by the One in Nine Campaign.
The activists were engaging in a passive but renegade action calling for the parade to stop for a minute’s silence to acknowledge the reality that black lesbians are being raped and murdered.
In earlier years, activism was understood at Pride. And it was also not uncommon for the parade to stop without prior warning.
Those in front were simply asked to sit down. We did it in 1999 in Hillbrow, at the newly named Simon Nkoli Corner at Pretoria and Twist streets. Nkoli had died from Aids.
If Nkoli was alive today, he would have been outraged by what happened at Pride.
In the activists’ video, the chair of the Pride board, Tanya Harford, can be seen shoving an activist.
Ditsie says she met the activists after the incident when they were laying assault charges against Pride.
The young woman who had been head-butted had a swollen face and broken teeth.
But none of the images are as telling as the arrival on the scene of another board member, Jenni Green. She is leaning on the hooter of her shiny silver Merc.
“Drive over them!” calls a marcher. Green looks at the camera and declares: “This is MY route!”