You are black and queer, what are you doing in church?

Somizi Mhlongo is probably South Africa’s most popular gay celebrity, this past weekend he walked out of Grace Bible Church because of homophobic preaching. The pastor at the church was preaching that homosexuality is not found in nature, that dogs and lions do not practise homosexual behaviour. After walking out of the church, Somizi posted videos on his Instagram account talking about his ordeal at the Grace Bible Church. I was surprised that Somizi Mhlongo actually went to church. I am always under the impression that interesting people, worldly people, fabulous people, artists, academics, and generally people who don’t give a f*#% don’t go to church.

Of course, like most homophobes, the Ghanaian Bishop Dag Herward-Mils thought he was being clever, referencing nature as proof of the unnaturalness of homosexuality. The bishop is blithely oblivious to the hundreds of examples of homosexuality in the “natural” world. You can read more about these examples, here, here, and here.

According to Wikipedia “no species has been found in which homosexual behaviour has not been shown to exist, with the exception of species that never have sex at all. Moreover, a part of the animal kingdom is hermaphroditic, truly bisexual.” There are hundreds of studies that have debunked this widely held belief that homosexuality is not found in animals, indeed it is thriving in animals.

Also, the idea that “not even animals are homosexual” used by Dag Herward-Mils is based on the assumption that humans are above animals. The notion that we don’t do what animals do because we are better than animals is rubbish. We are a kind of animal. We are part of nature, no matter how far we try and distance ourselves from it. In fact, some environmentalists will argue that it is the problem, that we have distanced ourselves from nature so much and this has lead partly to environmental problems. Humans are not an entity existing outside of nature – we are part of it. The view that sexuality exists on a spectrum has been around since the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s study on “The Sexual Behaviour of the Human Male” in 1948. So the varied ways we experience and express our sexuality is part of the human experience. I doubt if Dag Herward-Mils has ever heard of Alfred Kinsey, or any other study about human sexuality for that matter.

I wonder if we show bishop Dag Herward-Mils that homosexual behaviour does exist in animals, will the bishop approve of homosexuality then?

This is not the first time the church in South Africa is implicated in homophobic rhetoric. The church has a history of homophobic speech throughout post-apartheid South Africa. There was the resistance of the inclusion of the protection of sexual orientation against discrimination in the South African constitution. Once the protection of sexual orientation was included in the constitution, there have been a number of talks about having it removed. The church was resistant to same-sex marriage. Church leaders and members of churches have been known to gather at Gay Pride marches in protest of Gay Pride. There was the court case of the lesbian woman that was dismissed by the Methodist Church because she revealed to her congregation that she was marrying her girlfriend. The homophobia in the church has never been shy, and so this incident with Somizi Mhlongo is an incident in a long line of homophobic incidents.

In the past I have written about how I view the church and the construction of Jesus as violence on black people. My views on black people and the church are clear: black people have no business in believing in god and the concept of Jesus. The concept of Jesus is enslavement. It is a concept designed to tame people, to make people unquestioning, to make people passive in their approach to life’s issues because something out there will solve their problems. It is a tool to quell, a tool to create a submissive population of believers instead of agitators. Therefore my view on black queers and the church is the same: black queers have no business in attending church and believing in the imported story of Jesus.

The most important question for me in this whole Grace Bible Church saga is: what are black queers doing at church? What is Somizi doing attending Grace Bible Church? Grace Bible Church has a “statement of faith” on their website that reads:

“With regards to sexual behaviour, we believe in heterosexual relationships between a natural man and a natural woman within the confines of lawful matrimony. Adherence to this stated principle of sexual behaviour is an inherent requirement of membership of Grace Bible Church.”

In other words, this is a place that has made it clear that it does not want Somizi. In one of the Instagram videos posted by Somizi, he laments that the church must state clearly that it does not want, or like LGBTI people. The “statement of faith” is a clear indication that the church does not endorse LGBTI people. It is clear to me in this statement that Somizi was never welcomed at this church. What is puzzling to me is not that the church is homophobic, that is expected, what I am struggling with is why did it take him so long to realize the church hates him. Why does he think THIS church won’t be homophobic when homophobia and other forms of discrimination are the bedrock of the church?

Let me be clear here, even if the church didn’t have this statement, I would still ask the same question: what are black queers doing at church?

I really wasn’t interested in engaging the Grace Bible Church “debate” but the violence of the church on black queers necessitates that I write this.

I have attended the funerals of black queers in South Africa. I have had conversations with my black queer friends about the omission of not only the sexual orientation of diseased black queers, but the omission of life partners, all to save face for the church.

I have seen black bishops like Dag Herward-Mils who preach homophobic hate on the Sunday sermon, but don’t make the connection of the hate they preach to the brutal often fatal violence experienced by black queers, particularly gender non-conforming black queers. The black queers who have survived physical and sexual assaults have told stories of how the perpetrators use the language of “not even dogs do this” or “this is the way God intended it.” With this in mind, I find the statements made by the Grace Bible Church spokesperson Ezekiel Mathole when interviewed by Eusebius McKaiser deplorable. To speak about the homophobic position of the church as if it doesn’t have consequences for people is irresponsible. This is not only irresponsible for Grace Bible Church, but it is irresponsible for all churches in South Africa.

The church in South Africa gets away with murder with being able to preach homophobic hate, and then turn around and call it their “biblical view”, their scripture, while black bodies are mutilated by people using the same rhetoric as the church. The homophobic taunts and jeers that black queers experience on a daily basis are partly born in the church rhetoric. The people who violate us are granted permission and then immunity by the church because people have “the right to believe” their homophobia and to preach their hate speech according to Mr. Ezekeil Mathole.

In South Africa there is a fear of the church. There is often a quiet diplomacy on the wrong doings of the church. The church has too much power in this country. The constitutional ruling on the case of the lesbian Methodist preacher who was let go from her post after she announced intention to marriage is indicative of the power of the church. Even the Constitutional Court shies away from calling the church into order. I am not going to be silenced by the church. What bishop Dag Herward-Mils said at Grace Bible Church is hate speech. That type of speech has no place in a constitutional democracy, in a country that’s recovering from a history of discrimination.

As I have shared before, I find it puzzling that black people are united in the idea of fighting against white imperialism, but do not see the church and the construction of Jesus as part and parcel of white colonial ideology. Jesus, just like Jan Van Riebeeck came on a ship. Jesus might as well have been on the Dromedaris. The concept of Jesus is as foreign as the Jacaranda tree in South Africa. As far as I am concerned, you are not serious about anti-colonial politics if the construction of Jesus remains intact. In fact, I don’t think anti-colonial politics can work with the ideology of believing in a white God and white Jesus that black people are supposed to pray to and submit themselves. The psychological calamity is of epic proportions. You don’t have to go far for evidence of the church madness; black people are eating grass, and drinking petrol for salvation.   There is video evidence of this madness, here and here. The one that really gets me is the buckets of money; I mean literally buckets of money black people give to the church.

The church is a place of hate production. The venom that has also been unleashed by churchgoers on social media platforms in the aftermath of the Grace Bible Church incident is indicative of the hate. The homophobic statements uttered by Dag Herward-Mils are the kind of statements the church thrives on. The statements are not shocking, they are something we expect from the church, which is why the church is not a place for black queers, and not a place for blacks in general. Black people need to abandon the church. Black people need to abandon the fictitious idea of Jesus.

As for Somizi Mhlongo, he has an interesting life and doesn’t need Grace Bible Church. He is probably South Africa’s best choreographer and certainly the most famous gay South Africa celebrity, and I think he should follow in Kathy Griffin’s famous footsteps and tell bishop Dag Herward-Mils “Jesus can suck it.”

Khumbulani LGBTI Pride 2015 – Thinking differently about Pride

On the 16th May 2015 I was part of Khumbulani Pride that took place in Khayelitsha. This was my second Khumbulani Pride, I went to the first Khumbulani Pride in 2013 which was primarily organised by Free Gender Khayelitsha. Khumbulani Pride 2015 was organised by Free Gender Khayelitsha in partnership with Triangle Project, Inclusive and Affirming Ministries, and Gender DynamiX. These are NGO organisations that are working towards advancing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) Rights in the Cape Town Metropolitan area. Khumbulani Pride was publicised through social networks, LGBTI e-mail networks, and word of mouth. These modes of communication were successful because many people were at the Pride march, which started at the O.R Tambo Mew Way Hall and ended at the Buyel’embo Village in Nelson Mandela Park. Having an LGBTI Pride march that starts at O.R Tambo Hall and ends at Nelson Mandela Park is significant in linking the anti-apartheid struggle with the LGBTI struggle.

Khumbulani Pride takes place a few months after Cape Town Pride 2015. Most of the people and organisations that attended Khumbulani Pride had staged a protest at Cape Town Pride 2015 and created an Alternative Cape Town Pride schedule. The protest was calling out the exclusive nature of Cape Town Pride and the unwillingness of Cape Town Pride organisers to have more voices in the planning of Cape Town Pride. Prior to Cape Town Pride 2015 a Cape Town Pride Oversight Committee was created, that consisted on ten individuals, to look into the potential reorganising of Cape Town Pride to be more inclusive and accountable to LGBTI communities at large.

The Mandate of the Oversight Committee was as follows:

  • Review the constitution process, draft a constitution and prepare for adoption at AGM in 2015
  • Set a date for the 2015 AGM facilitate the meeting
  • Oversee the organising of Cape Town Pride 2015 and ensure the calendar in inclusive and balanced

 The Oversight Committee Report “OC end out report final – Apr 2015” states that the current Cape Town Pride director is unwilling to cooperate in the building of more inclusive and accountable LGBTI Pride. The report states that the festival director, Mathew Van As, is evasive when asked questions about financial accountability of Cape Town Pride. The non-inclusive nature of Cape Town Pride and the unwillingness of Cape Town Pride director to engage with the concerns of the people forced activists and individuals who felt marginalised by Cape Town Pride to create an Alternative Cape Town Pride. The Alternative Pride was a protest and a call for an inclusive Pride. If you are unfamiliar with debates that took place around Cape Town Pride you can read them here, and here and here.

Of course these debates are not new nor are they unique to Cape Town Pride. Johannesburg Pride has had its fair share of controversy surrounding issues of inclusivity, which you can watch here and read about here.

Khumbulani Pride was very different from Cape Town Pride. Firstly the Pride march was much more political in nature. By political I mean that the placards that people were carrying were addressing issues of homophobia, xenophobia, and transphobia. The slogans chanted and the songs sang while marching at Khumbulani Pride speak to the homophobic violence, they speak to violence targeting gender non-conforming lesbians and gay men, they speak to the xenophobia that is experienced by people who are read as foreigners. There was recognition of different struggles and the pain of others and making links to other struggles that at first glance do not seem like LGBTI concerns. Khumbulani Pride is an emphatic assertion of queerness in Khayelitsha, and a demand to be visible.

Walking and singing and chanting through Khayelitsha was emotional and very uplifting. Asserting our queerness in the township space, a space that is often seen as opposed to sexual diversity, was affirming for many of us who grew up in townships. There was something, dare I say, revolutionary about being open and claiming our queerness in Khayelitsha and not being coy or apologetic about it. Our visibility in Khayelitsha as black LGBTI people plays a significant role in challenging the die-hard narratives that same-sex affection is white or a western phenomenon or that it’s ‘unAfrican’.

After we had marched and we arrived at Buyel’embo Village in Mandela Park there was a formal program, a rally if you will. The formal program of speakers is something that has been eliminated at Cape Town Pride. It’s the marching and then the after party celebrations, devoid of any political content. Khumbulani Pride included a program of formal speeches from the Oversight Committee that was looking into keeping Cape Town Pride accountable, the chair of the LGBTI Task Team, and then entertainment in the form of poetry and singing. There was a formal program that addressed issues affecting people in LGBTI communities like the reporting of hate crimes to the police and how the police are dealing with hate crimes. We heard about the amazing work that Free Gender, lead by Funeka Soldaat, has done in creating a relationship with the Khayelitsha Police to fight hate crimes targeting LGBTI people. There was also a moment of silence for all the LGBTI people who have been brutally murdered for their gender non-conforming ways ways of being. People in the LGBTI community were urged to get involved in organisations and in thinking about what kind of Pride they envision in the future because it is clear that in its current form Cape Town Pride is unwilling to embrace the diversity within LGBTI communities in the Cape Town Metropolitan area.

Khumbulani Pride was completely free to attend, and it was free to get into the enclosed Buyel’embo Village space after the Pride march. Money is an issue because when Cape Town Pride events cost money to attend them that excludes people who can’t afford tickets, and those predominantly excluded are black and coloured LGBTI folks. The legacy of apartheid has ensured that black and coloured citizens are still economically disadvantaged. This is a factor that Cape Town Pride refuses to engage with in a meaningful manner. I have heard Matthew Van As, the Cape Town Pride Director, callously say that people who can’t afford to attend Pride events must just not go or not drink at the events. This is someone who is leading Cape Town Pride. This type of class violence informs the programing of Cape Town Pride and creates an atmosphere where black and coloured LGBTI folks feel that there is no place for them in Cape Town Pride.

In attending Khumbulani Pride I have experienced the success of a diverse Pride organised by people who are interested in LGBTI politics and other struggles connected to LGBTI people. Khumbulani Pride provides us with a different model of what Pride can look like, where it can take place, and what it can achieve. Those of us who are interested in creating a diverse and inclusive Pride should really build on what Khumbulani Pride has started. Khumbulani Pride gives me a sense of a different Khayelitsha, a sense of a different Pride and ultimately a different South Africa.

In order for us to create vibrant LGBTI communities in the Cape Town Metropolitan area we can’t leave some LGBTI populations behind because they are not in the correct economic class or racial group. Because of apartheid and its legacies that are still entrenched in South African society, because of the way the world is unequally structured, because of the power of whiteness, we have to be vigilant and active in the engineering of equality. As the LGBTI community we need to check our own prejudices that are filtered through our class, our gender, our nationality, our race, our gender performance, and our physical abilities. We as the LGBTI communities must know that we are not exempt from the hard work of creating a more democratic, a more free, and more equal South Africa.

The slow violence of Jesus and the narrative “waiting for the New Jerusalem” for black people

Pecola is the little black girl who yearns for blue eyes in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. You will remember the gut wrenching yearning for blue eyes exhibited by Pecola. Pecola prays to God, every night for a whole year, to give her blue eyes so that she also could be beautiful. She prays for blue eyes so that she could also see beauty. She makes her plea to God every night for a whole year because something so beautiful, like blue eyes would take a long time to come to pass.

In the novel Toni Morrison writes: “Each night without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. Although somewhat discouraged, she was not without hope. To have something as wonderful as that would take a long, long time.”

After praying very hard for a whole year for blue eyes, Pecola does not get her blue eyes. She then turns to a Psychic Reader for help and this is what the Psychic Reader says:

“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty… a little black girl who wanted to rise out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. For the first time he (Psychic Reader) honestly wished he could work miracles.”

In my initial reading of the book, The Bluest Eye, I was struck by the intersection of race, beauty, and gender. The violence of Eurocentric beauty ideals is something I already had been familiar with at the time. A visit to the magazine section of Exclusive Books will quickly show you what is considered beautiful in our society. In reading the book I didn’t labour much to be able see the psychological effects of white supremacy on Pecola and how it affected the way she saw herself and how she saw the world she was navigating.

The psychological violence of white supremacy on the black psyche is something that has extensively been written about particularly in the 60’s and 70’s in America with black American’s fighting against American racism and the negative depictions of black people. Figures such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis, and particularly Angela Davis spotting her Afro would become a popular image that even today evokes Black Power sentiment. Out of this movement came slogans like “black is beautiful” and “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” And currently the psychological violence of white supremacy has also been talked about extensively in the Rhodes Must Fall movement, to substantiate why the Rhodes statue Must Fall, at my current institution, the University of Cape Town. The students in the Rhodes Must Fall movement argue that the statue is a constant violent reminder and glorification of Rhodes and his colonial crimes.

Going back to Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel, while I could point to the troubling effects of gendered white supremacist notions of beauty, I was blind to the slow violence of the “fervent praying” that even when she was discouraged, she continued to pray. Even when she wasn’t getting blue eyes, she continued to pray. It would take me years before I could see what Rob Nixon (2011) calls the “slow and lasting” violence and make the link between Jesus and prayer and slow violence. You see the slow motion butchering of Pecola by praying every night for a year for blue eyes, ironically I was sluggish in picking this up. So my sluggish, my own slow realisation of the slow violence of white Jesus and of prayer is indicative of the very imperceptible nature of this form of violence. My own negation of this particular violence reveals the way in which this is not considered violence but just the way things are. Jesus and prayer is what people call upon when they are distressed.

So the character of Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel was instrumental in shaping my thoughts on the slow psychological violence of Jesus, and prayer on the black psyche. The pain conveyed by Toni Morrison is slow and immense and pushes me to critically evaluate the idea that Jesus and prayer are violent. I couldn’t, I still can’t get over the psychological destructiveness of how she prayed for a whole year for pretty blue eyes, blue eyes she will never attain. You have to appreciate the fuckery of it all: here is a black girl praying for blue eyes from a white God – it is the epitome of white supremacy – a black girl asking to be saved by a white God by making her white. Because lets face it asking for blue eyes is to ask for whiteness.

When I was in school and when I attended church, I was taught that I should try to be more like Jesus. There are multiple scriptures in the bible that call on black people to be more like Jesus. John 13: 15, John 15:4, John 15: 10, First Peter 2:21, First John 3:24, and the list goes on. Now in my Sunday school books Jesus had long golden and sometimes brown straight hair with blue eyes. In the many black houses I have visited, the pictures of the last super or of Jesus and his disciples are of European descent. This is the Jesus that black people must pray to and want to be like. There is no escaping the calamity of the relationship between black people, Jesus, and white supremacy.

You see reading this book I understood Pecola because I was Pecola. I too grew up in a church going household. The first church I ever went to was the Don Bosco Roman Catholic Church in Port Elizabeth. See as a little boy I also used to pray, I used to pray for a deeper voice because mine was allegedly too girly, I used to pray to stop lusting after other boys, I used to pray that I played better soccer, because being a black boy in the township and not being able to play soccer is social suicide. I prayed to be more butch. I prayed to be normal. As a young boy I was aware that yearning after other boys is playing with my chances of accessing heaven. I was experiencing ridicule for my gender non-conforming tendencies.

Of course like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s novel I prayed to no avail, I still have an allegedly effeminate intonation, I still had dirty thoughts about other boys and I developed an aversion to sport.

When I think of Pecola praying and I think of my young self-praying, I am held captive by the slow production of self-hate. For both Pecola and my young self, prayer and in turn Jesus are an active participant in the slow production of self-loathing. The double effect conundrum is that Jesus is the reason for the self-hate, and he is also the fixer of the reasons you self-hate, which is why you pray. There is a slow violence in the promise of prayer; there is a slow violence in living life in the hope that things will be better once God decides to intervene. The slow violence is in the constant nature of prayer; it is the everydayness of prayer that is destructive; it is the constant need to feed the beast.

Currently in black South African communities God, Jesus, and prayer have a very strong hold in the way people live their lives. When I think of black churches, black funerals, and other black spaces like a moving bus, it is common to hear songs and preaching about the New Jerusalem. I want to focus on the narrative of the New Jerusalem, the coming of the New Jerusalem to be exact, because this narrative plays a crucial role in the construction of black people’s lives. The New Jerusalem narrative filters through black lives, and determines the ways that black people respond to life. You must understand that the New Jerusalem is more than a geographical location, it is an ideology.

Now you must imagine that people go to church almost every Sunday. These messages about the New Jerusalem they hear on a weekly basis. Some people go to church more than once a week. The New Jerusalem narratives mostly function on a subconscious level. These New Jerusalem narratives manifest gradually, what Rob Nixon (2011) terms “a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space.” This is what I am trying to demonstrate here. These narratives are quite alive in reality, they manifest in black people’s lives.

The “New Jerusalem” first appears in the Book of Ezekiel as a prophecy. It also appears in Revelations 20-21. As with most bible scriptures, what the New Jerusalem narrative means varies from church to church. I would imagine the white English interpretations of the New Jerusalem might differ from white Afrikaans interpretations; just as both of these would differ probably from the black Xhosa congregations’ interpretations of the narrative. I am really only concerned with black interpretations, particularly Xhosa interpretations.

iJerusalem entsha ezofunyanwa ngabo bathe ngokubephila emhlabeni bazinikela ku Yehova. Abantu abozofumana iJerusalem entsha ngabo bathe bavuma uYesu. Silindile iJerusalem entsha. Translation: Those who have given themselves over to God while on earth will inherit The New Jerusalem. Those who will inherit the New Jerusalem are those who have accepted Jesus. We are waiting for the New Jerusalem.

The question of Jesus is a pressing matter for black people’s liberation because the construct of a white Jesus is one of the strongest ways black people are held captive. Here I am NOT concerned with the issue of whether Jesus is real or not, whether he lived or not, whether he is really blond or not. I am interested in interrogating the slow violent construct of Jesus and the New Jerusalem narrative as real in the ways that black people experience it and live it. I find the narrative of “The New Jerusalem” and what that ideology represents a slow motion butchering of the black psyche. It impedes self-realisation and it hinders the rejection of inferiority complex that plagues the black self.

Firstly the Coming of the New Jerusalem narrative is closely linked to the narrative of “storing your wealth in heaven.” This is amongst the most popular bible quotes, that one should not accrue wealth whilst on earth, they should rather go to church and store themselves illusive “heavenly treasures.” This narrative is troublesome because is promotes complacency in black people. It promotes the idea that people need not try and be wealthy, while wealth would improve their lives. It paints the idea of wealth in a negative light for black people, while others; predominantly white others are enjoying wealth right here on earth.

The irony is that it is people who used to worship ancestors before the arrival of Europeans who are now obsessed with the construct of Jesus. You have to appreciate the peculiarity of it all, that although black people have been “emancipated” from colonialism and in South Africa also from apartheid, they continue to be enslaved to a Jesus that was an instrument in their colonisation.

The storing of wealth in heaven narrative is connected to my second point, which is the construction of poverty as virtue. Black people aided by the church often couch poverty and struggling as virtuous things. That it is noble to be poor, that it is better to be poor, and all of this is captured of course in the bible verse that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye a needle than it is for a rich person to inherit the kingdom of god.

The narrative of the New Jerusalem linked with the issue of storing wealth in heaven and then paired with the construction of poverty as virtuous has destructive manifestations for black people. These narratives ensure that the cycle of poverty is entrenched in black families because generations of black people do not leave inheritance for their children. These narratives create self-loathing black people, and then exploit that self-loathing to sustain systems of exploitation. The New Jerusalem narrative pacifies black people from demanding more in this life; demanding more from their relationships, their work life, their communities, and their government. To echo Karl Marx, these narratives encourages black people to believe that the afterlife will be better which lulls them in the current life, which renders them incapable of demanding a decent material life.

Black Consciousness pioneer Steve Biko was very much attuned to the issue of Jesus as a black problem. Biko asserted that “because the white missionary described black people as thieves, lazy, sex-hungry etc, and because the missionary equated all that was valuable with whiteness, our Churches see these vices not as manifestations of the cruelty and injustice which blacks are subjected to by the white man but inevitable proof that after all the white man was right when he described us as savages.” Frantz Fanon also issued warnings about Jesus in Concerning Violence when he said, “The church in the colonies is the white people’s church, the foreigners church. She does not call the native to god’s ways but to the ways of the white man, of the master, of the oppressor. And as we know, in this matter many are called but few are chosen.”

The narrative of “the new Jerusalem” is an ideology that has been slowly slaughtering the lives of black people. The relationship between black people, Jesus, and white supremacy is psychologically damaging and warrants critique. We need to question the concept of Jesus and the things black people do in the name of God. The systematic structure of white supremacy, which is part and parcel of the construct of white Jesus, needs to be challenged and even if God is not willing, it needs to be overhauled.

Miss Uganda, Miss Gay Ekasi – constructions of African beauty

                  Miss Gay

Written by Lwando Scott 

I was recently asked to be a judge at the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant organised by the Desmond Tutu Aids Foundation. You can imagine my excitement when I was asked to be a judge at the pageant. The competition took place at the Delft Community Hall in Delft. After giving the crowd a Queen Elizabeth wave as I was introduced as one of the judges, I took my seat and waited for the contestants to come on stage in their casual wear. When I arrived at the competition I was under the impression that Mr Gay would be women in drag, as in dressed up as men to compete for Mr Gay and the Miss Gay would be men in drag. To my surprise both the Mr and Miss contestants were men. I suppose the Mr “Gay” and Miss “Gay” tittle should have been the first clue, but that will teach me to assume the gendering of gay pageants. Although after the pageant I couldn’t help but think about whether there are any Mr and Miss Lesbian pageants? I don’t ever remember attending one, or hearing that it’s taking place, which brings up a number of questions about gender in LGBTI pageants.

As soon as the competition began I realised that this was going to be a tough job, but I was ready and willing with my scoring sheets. The contestants strutted on stage trying to impress us in the second round with “wild life” themed outfits. The contestants came out in swimsuits and other “wild life” interpretations including what looked like goatskin. This round was followed by eveningwear, which was the last round the contestants could use to impress the judges. Throughout the competition the crowd was really not shy about whom they thought should win, and became more aggressive about it by getting closer to the stage towards the end of the completion.

After much debate and deliberation we, the judges, chose the top five Miss Gay and top three Mr Gay and after questions and answers we came to a conclusion of who should win.

The Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant is community centred. It is an annual celebration of young LGBTI people who are living their lives, the best way they know how, under extremely harsh social conditions. In the participants I saw young people who are brave, who challenge their communities gender expectations and defining for themselves what it means to live free. In the participants I saw a determined spirit that I hope burns on in other areas of their lives. I was inspired to be in the company of black LGBTI people who are marvelling in each other’s presence. The energy in that Community Hall can’t be described it had to be felt.

I am not new in the world of beauty pageants. My fascination with beauty pageants began in the mid 1990’s when I still a primary school going little boy. I used to watch Miss South Africa every year and then watch Miss Universe and then conclude the holy trinity of pageants with Miss World. I used to have a note pad and a pen and I would closely watch the scores and write them down so I could predict the winner. I became very good at predicting the winners because after watching religiously I picked up on the patterns of the competitions. I think maybe these were the first signs of my interest in social science.

As I grew older and began to have a more nuanced understanding of the world, I began to see beauty pageants in a different light. Pageants are not divorced from the racialized ideas of beauty. The politics of apartheid ensured that black women were excluded from entering the national beauty pageant but after apartheid fell Jackie Mofokeng was crowned the first black Miss South Africa in 1993. The following year Basetsana Khumalo (Makgalemele back then) was named Miss Africa 1994.

It is important to note that the black women who win Miss South Africa in the post-apartheid era are women who closely resemble white ideals of beauty. These ideals include slender figures, relaxed hair or hair extensions, etc. By saying this I am not condemning black women who choose to straighten their hair and wear weaves, but what I am saying is that beauty pageants seem to ONLY accept this style of black women to enter and win. This was largely replicated in the Mr and Miss Gay Ekasi pageant, although the woman who won Miss Gay Ekasi had a shaved head, which was refreshing for the judges.

The racialized politics of beauty continue as we have seen with the crowning of Leah Kalanguka as Miss Uganda 2014/15 and the amount of abuse she has received because she is seen as “ugly.” On social media platforms Ugandans and other people have called Leah Kalanguka all kinds of derogatory names and have said that she does not deserve the crown because she is not beautiful. People often talk about beauty as if it is something that is “natural” but society is actively involved in the process of constructing beauty. The ways in which beauty is constructed in society, including African communities, does not take place outside of the notions of white supremacy. I would argue actually that current constructions of beauty are based on white supremacist foundations.

We live in a world where black people are obsessed with “yellow bone” beauty. I have written about the white supremacist foundations of the term “yellow bone” and I think calling Leah Kalanguka “ugly” is a manifestation of “yellow bone” narratives. I don’t think Miss Uganda 2014/15 is “ugly” she has dark skin and it is her dark skin that people are equating with ugliness. In a world of “yellow bone” beauty, where beauty is measured by proximity to whiteness, of course people will find her “ugly.” The statements made by people on social media platforms about Leah Kalanguka do not shock me. This is not a surprising at all. Actually, sadly, it’s quite expected.

This story about Miss Uganda speaks to the desperate need for black people to deprogram themselves of white supremacist notions of beauty. Although there are many platforms like magazines, books, websites, twitter accounts, Facebook pages that celebrate African beauty, the venomous colonial narratives of beauty persist. We live in postcolonial times on this continent, and post-apartheid in South Africa, and the possibilities of constructing African beauty according to our own ideals is infinite. As people who are working towards the realisation of an African Renaissance it would do us good to shed the limited conceptions of beauty, of love, of sexuality, of the good life, of success, of gender, of Africa-ness, left behind by colonialists.

Achille Mbembe articulates quite successfully the essence of what we should be striving for when he states “we need to reopen Africa to the circulation of ideas and mobility, against models of post colonial, internalised boundaries.” We need to break the narrow confines with which we work with to define African beauty and identities.