Gay Pride: The politics disruption

 

 

“No Justice. No Pride.” describe themselves as “collective of organizers and activists” from DC, Washington comprising of “black, brown, queer, trans, gender nonconforming, bisexual, indigenous, two-spirit, formerly incarcerated, disabled, white allies and together” they “recognize that there can be no pride for some without liberation for all.”

The disruption of the Capital Pride Parade in DC, Washington has made headlines in many LGBTI corners around the world. During the disruption, activists were calling for a more political Pride parade, chanting “No Justice, No Pride” as they disrupted the Capital Pride parade. In recent years a number LGBTI Pride parades have experienced disruptions by activists calling for a different kind of politics in Pride marches. There was the disruption of Johannesburg Pride in 2012, there was the creation of Alternative Pride in Cape Town – which marched in the Cape Town Pride in protest of the non-inclusive nature of Cape Town Pride, in 2016 there was the disruption of Toronto Pride by Black Lives Matter activists, insisting that Toronto Pride was anti-black, there was the disruption of Phoenix Pride by a group of gay immigrant-rights activists in 2017, and there was also the disruption of Celebrate Israel Parade by activists from Jewish Voice for Peace in 2017.

Now, Pride disruptions are not new, they have occurred at almost every Pride cycle, the only difference now is that they are getting more publicity. It is perhaps the political climate we find ourselves in, – signified by the election of President Trump in 2016, and the continued murder of black men in the United States by white policeman with no accountability, no justice – that these disruptions are being taken seriously to the point of making the news.

Now as a South African queer person, who is involved in Pride politics in South Africa, the disruptions come as no surprise. In the past I have written about politics of Pride in Cape Town, and in a forth coming special issue of the academic journal Agenda on intersectionality, I have written about the disruption of Johannesburg Pride in 2012. I am interested in the politics of disruption because as a South African I am well versed in the politics of disruption, and my interest in the recent disruptions of Pride Parades is an interest in what disruptions are able to achieve. In light of these disruptions, it is worth thinking seriously about the politics of disruption.

In the past three years South African universities have experienced much disruption. What started with a group of black students calling for the removal of the statue of John Cecil Rhodes in the middle of campus at the University of Cape Town grew to be a national student movement comprising of student disruptions at different universities all over the country. The #RhodesMustFall movement was the catalyst for other #Fall movements, including the recent #FeesMustFall where students have been demanding free education.

What I want to highlight here is the on-going disruptions of university life. The University of Cape Town closed early in 2016 because it couldn’t function because of the #FeesMustFall disruptions. The #RhodesMustFall and then #FeesMustFall movements have spurned another movement, #DecoloniseEducation. The student movements have used the methods of disruption to be heard. The methods have been incremental in cases, where there was a march, and then the occupation of buildings, the occupation of classrooms – making it impossible to learn and teach, the closing of entry ways to university grounds, some of the tactics have lead to the destruction of university property. This has lead me, and many South Africans, to think hard about the politics of disruption. Disruption can be described as: to break apart, to cause a rupture, to throw into disorder, to prevent something – a process or a system.

What the student disruptions have done is halt the “everydayness of university life”, to say it is not business as usual. One of the biggest complaints about “change” inside South African universities is how the bureaucratic process – which often includes committee set-up upon committee set-up – is at best sluggish at addressing “change.” The disruptions at the universities have necessitated a new direction, because that’s what disruptions do; when they succeed they make you stop and think of a new way forward.

Of course disruptions are nothing “new” in the South African contexts, anti-apartheid methods involved all kinds of disruptions to fight the apartheid state. So disruptions have been part of South African politics, and with the “new” student movements the politics of disruption continues, and now also Pride parades are grappling with disruptions in 2017. I am interested in what disruptions do? How we think about them and most importantly what are the possibilities created by disruptions?

Bringing the conversation back to the Pride parade disruptions; there seems to be a similar threat running through many of the Pride Parade disruptions. Whether the disruptions took place in DC Washington, or Sea Point, Cape Town, or Toronto, Canada, or Rosebank, Johannesburg, the activists involved in the disruptions are all dissatisfied with the current politics, or lack therefore, of Pride. The activists that have spear headed disruption campaigns demand that Pride be more than just a party on floats. Now, although the demands on Pride parade organisers are slightly different in each particular case of disruption, there are many commonalities. The demands that are being made seem to be centred around:

The One In Nine Campaign activists disrupt Johannesburg Pride in 2012 in Rosebank. 

  • That Pride has become apolitical. That Pride is only interested in having a party, for white middle class gay and lesbian people devoid of any politics.
  • That Pride has gone to the market, where pride organisers are only interested in revenue generation through sponsorship. The corporatisation of Pride has been a topic of discussion for many writers including, India Ross, who in the Financial Times dubbed Gay Pride – Gay Christmas, Danielle Kurtzleben who wrote a piece of how corporations are profiting from Pride Parades, and of course Alexander Chasin’s Selling Out: the gay and lesbian movement goes to market.
  • That Pride does not engage social issues affecting other people within the LGBTI umbrella, people that are not middle-class and white and male and cis. Pride does not centre issues such as racism, gender inequality, Transgender Rights, Immigration Rights, and economic inequality. In the Cape Town context specifically, Cape Town Pride has been critiqued for being exclusive, negating black and coloured LGBTI communities that reside in the Greater Cape Town area.
  • Particularly in the context of the Israeli and Palestine conflict, Pride, in the Jewish state has been criticised for being a vehicle of Pinkwashing the Human Rights violation in the West Bank. For more on this, Sarah Schulman provides some food for thought.

What is interesting to me with these Pride disruptions is the reactions to these disruptions. Now, I want to speak specifically to the South African context, because it is a context I am living in and therefore interested in, but also because it is a context I am well versed in because of my proximity. The reactions from people within the LGBTI movement to the disruption of Pride parades have been divergent. The disruptions of Johannesburg Pride and Cape Town Pride have caused what one might call Pride Wars, where essentially there are two camps, those who support ideas about a more inclusive and political Pride and those who see nothing wrong with the current structure of Pride.

In the South African context, these two groups are shaped by race, geographical location, economic status, gender, ability, gender identity, and gender performance. In Cape Town Pride, the people who want Cape Town Pride unchanged, who want to keep the organising of the Pride exclusive, they are cis-gendered white men living middle class lives and reside in suburbs of the city. Black and coloured LGBTI people, and some white, mostly female activists are demanding a new direction for Pride, one that is political, one that is inclusive of the different races, genders, and accommodates people who are the working-poor.

Recently, I had a conversation on Facebook about the politics of Pride, and why Cape Town Pride is problematic, and how there is no transparency in how the Cape Town Pride is operated. When prompted on what are the issues are, I responded:

“There is an outright refusal to engage opinions about Pride that differ to the people who are seating on the Pride Board. There is a continued neglect of different ideas of what Cape Town Pride should and/or could be. My friends and I (and other people) have attended some of those Pride meetings in past years to volunteer. The Pride meetings we attended were not about generating ideas about Pride, but how we can help the already existing structures of Pride. We don’t want to just be marshals; we want to be involved in the conceptualising of Pride, where it takes place, theme choosing, the geography of the march, etc. so that we make sure it accommodates more than just white people from Sea Point.

In 2015 a group of activists came up with “Alternative Inclusive Pride” and they asked for inclusivity and openness when it comes to Pride.

There are many unanswered questions about Pride. There is NO transparency.
• Who seats on the Board? Who CAN seat on the board?
• When does the Board vote?
• Who can vote?
• Why are Cape Town Pride meetings not publicly announced so all who are interested can attend? Not just “come and volunteer” meetings when all decisions have already been taken about Pride.

Some of the critiques against Cape Town Pride is that decisions about Pride are taken behind closed doors, and there is no accounting for the said decisions. One of the long-standing issues is the location of Pride. Must Pride always be in Sea Point/Greenpoint? The answer to this question is not so important, but the discussion that leads to that answer is what is important. It cannot be taken for granted that Pride must be in Greenpoint. As if all of Cape Town’s LGBTI people live in the immediate areas.

We can’t pretend that apartheid legacy is not with us. We can’t pretend that there are no structural issues that impede working-poor LGBTI people to attend costly Pride events. We can’t address these issues if we are not at the important meetings.”

Interestingly, my response above was in a thread on my social media account about a recent study that found that racism is endemic amongst gay men. What was interesting was the headline of the article that read, “shocking study finds racism endemic amongst gay men.” My response to the headline was ‘shocking for whom’? I doubt if the Black Lives Matter activists who disrupted Toronto pride would be shocked, I doubt if the One In Nine campaign women who orchestrated the disruption of Johannesburg Pride would be shocked, and I know for a fact that my friends and I and other LGBTI people of colour were not shocked by the results of the study because we all have experienced the racism first hand at gay establishments.

These spaces are marketed as “gay bar”, but really should be marketed as “white gay bar.” The “shocked” headline reads a bit disingenuous because LGBTI people of colour have been decrying the racism within the LGBTI spaces for a long time. There are so many blog posts and op-eds about the racism experienced by people of colour on dating websites and dating apps. Some of these written pieces can be found here, and here, and here.

The fact that this study is “shocking” points to a political problem within LGBTI spaces, a problem of not taking seriously the issues raised by non-white, non-cis, non-male LGBTI people. So the study that reveals the racism, and the subsequent “shock” the study prompts from mostly white LGBTI people, enables one to understand why there are Pride parade disruptions. The ignoring of the demands of certain demographics within the LGBTI movement has become so chronic that it necessitates the disruption of Pride to bring these issues to the fore. The question becomes, of course, how do we move forward after the disruptions.

Well, I imagine there are multiple ways of moving forward, chief amongst those is to have open discussions about the Values of Pride, and be committed to creating a Pride that represents LGBTI people and their concerns as whole as much as possible. Before all of that can take place, Pride organisers need to have a politics, a politics that understands the context in which Pride is taking place.

To be able to understand the context, that is the city – the province – the country, that Pride is taking place means genuinely involving local organisations, local activists, and local lay people in the organising of Pride. When a Pride organising committee consists of only cis-gendered white men, and one black person – for posturing – that committee is off to a really bad start. Having one person of colour in a Pride organising committee does not inclusivity make.

Part of the solution of Pride politics lies in the understanding of intersectionality, and adopting a frame of Pride organising that is not blind to intersectional politics. I have made this argument elsewhere discussing the disruption of Johannesburg Pride, and I will re-enforce the argument here. What Pride needs is an acute understanding of intersectionality. This seems self-explanatory but as we have seen with the continued disruptions of Pride and the continued hostility from Pride organisers, understanding of intersectional politics is lacking.

I use intersectionality in the same vein as Kimberle Crenshaw conceived it; in that it helps us understand that our lives are affected by our social position and our identities. The relative smoothness or the difficulty with which we move in society is because of our identities and social position. We each have multiple social identities, and these social identities intersect with each other to give us unique experiences in the world.

For example, a black gay man and a white gay man although both are men and probably can share stories about experiencing homophobia, they experience the world in different ways because of race. The difference in racial experience intersects with their maleness, and their gayness with divergent results. The racial experiences of these two men translate to having radically different ideas/experiences/feelings about their sexuality and their manhood. This is made more complex if you consider other issues like socio-economic background of the two men, their educational background, their gender performance and expression, and the list goes on. In South Africa this is complicated further by the history of apartheid where economic inequality is distributed along racial lines, and is also gendered.

Why is this important for Pride? Well, it is important for Pride because the Pride disruptions have been centred around the silences on issues affecting different demographics under the LGBTI umbrella. It is important because as Kath Weston once wrote “gender is about race is about class is about sexuality is about age is about nationality is about an entire range of social relations” and the implication is that we can’t bypass these issues in LGBTI Pride if we are serious about inclusivity which are part of the Values of Pride.

Pride organisers don’t seem to care about racism affecting LGBTI people of colour; I mean there’s even a study proving that gay men are racist. Pride organisers don’t seem to care about the working-poor LGBTI people; high non-negotiable entrance fees to Pride events that poor LGBTI people can’t afford demonstrate this. It is when pride organisers understand that South Africa is a post-colonial state with post-colonial issues that we can move forward.

It important that Pride organisers keep in mind that apartheid legacies such as apartheid geography still exist, and so when the decisions are being made about where the Pride parade should be, those decisions should take into account that other LGBTI people do not live in the city centre – and they don’t live in the city centre because of history.

Taking all of this into account, how apartheid legacy shapes South Africa, how gender injustice shapes our society, and how economic inequality is at the core of why Cape Town Pride is mostly white, we begin to see why Pride is experiencing disruptions. It is only when the importance of inclusivity within Pride, the recognition and engagement with “other” people’s struggles along with their sexual identities, will we see and experience a more united Pride.

 

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.”

Boet/Sissy – Black. Queer. Xhosa.

I was introduced to Majola’s album, Boet/Sissy by a friend who tagged me on Facebook. I immediately went online to have a quick listen, and then bought the album instantly. The subject matter of the album is of particular interest to me. The album focuses on the experiences of a black gay man, trying to make sense of the world. The album is the life journey of a black gay man predominantly sung in Xhosa. I love this album and I am with Majola in the politics of this album. This album is the epitome of being young, gifted, queer, and black. In this piece I embrace and celebrate Majola’s work talking to all the ways that this album resonates and inspires me. Boet/Sissy is a poignant reminder of the artistic talent in South Africa, but also of the myriad of stories we are yet to tell about what it means to live with the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, in post-apartheid South Africa.

The first thing that grabs your attention about this album is the title. When I read about the album I was first amused and then really moved by the title Boet/Sissy. You see as an effeminate gay man, I know all too well the weight of the term Boet/Sissy. I’m also acutely aware of the venom that usually accompanies this phrase. Growing up in Xhosa culture (I believe this is the case in other black communities in South Africa) Boet/Sissy was, and to some still is, a derogatory term that is used to bash gay men, especially effeminate gay men. The phrase is directed at effeminate gay men for being men who “act” like women. So Boet (or in Xhosa Bhuti) represents the male side, and then Sissy of course represents the effeminacy. It is a term that is often used interchangeably with “talase” which is a word people call gay me. It is a term that suggests one has both male and female genitalia. So then Boet/Sissy and talase are used as derogatorily synonyms for each other. People who use these words as putdowns often don’t care about the “real” meaning of the words, but are only interested in using the words to shame and to hurt whoever is perceived to be of a different sexual orientation. With the risk of sounding too postmodern, Majola is reclaiming this phrase; he is taking back the power. For me, Majola uses the Boet/Sissy in a productive way, similarly to the ways in which we have reclaimed the word queer. The use of Boet/Sissy is also similar to the way academics and artists have found productive use of shame, shame associated with same-sex sexuality. Majola’s use of Boet/Sissy is a queer thing to do, therefore immensely political. The fact that the album is mostly sung in Xhosa, which means it is directed to a black audience, speaks profoundly of the politics Majola is engaged in. When I saw the name of this album, I immediately thought about the piece I wrote about the complexities of sexual identity and the Xhosa language. In the piece I try to come to terms with having no specific Xhosa words in everyday language to talk about the diversity of sexual and gender identity. This piece sparked a number of conversations over the radio, and it seems the conversation of sexual identity and language continues in a different form with Majola’s album.

boet-sissy1

In the beginning of the album, in the first interlude Majola is standing in front of a judge before he is sentenced to jail. So his first utterances in the whole album is “I stand in this court a man, fully aware that manhood is a narrowly defined subject within society.” This opening lines targets the narrow definitions of manhood, particularly black manhood that often positions black gay men as outside of manhood. And then Majola goes on to define what he thinks is a man. Although I like what he says, and I think that he is politically astute to issues of masculinity, I find the five interludes in the album interruptive.

After the first interlude Majola then proceeds to the first song, track number two. The track is named Khanyisa, and it starts with the birth of a boy named Khanyisa in 1985 (which incidentally is the year I was born). In the song he does this haunting repetition of “kwazalwa indodana” – a boy is born. As Khanyisa grows up, experiences life, trying to discover himself, he gets lost wondering through life. Khanyisa eventually meets a woman called Nobanzi who saves Khanyisa’s life. The friendship that Khanyisa has with Nobanzi   restores him, as this woman loves him. The affection with witch the lyrics are delivered warms the heart. The song is almost homage to the relationship between black women and effeminate black gay men. I have these relationships. These relationships are what got me through high school. I would be nothing, nothing without the love and support of black women. The song sets the tone for the album in a way, as he deals with issues of light and darkness, getting lost and found, and eventually loving yourself.

The third track called Bawo – father – the word is also often used in reference to God. This song is an affirmation of the gay identity. Majola talks about a boy who is cursed out, really chased out by his father for falling in love with other men. Majola begs in this, asking why the father is rejecting the gay son, where will he go? What is this boy to do? There is a theme of redemption in this album, and in this song Majola then continues with the narrative of being lost and found. The gay boy who is cursed out by the father finds his way to the big city and his life spirals out of control. This is a powerful song that speaks to the lives of many lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) young people who escape home because of abuse. The homophobia experienced by young people is sometimes so intolerable that they would rather live elsewhere with friends or on the streets. Majola begs, and pleads for acceptance in this song. The piano keys coupled with Majola’s voice especially as the track fades towards the end has an incredibly haunting sound. I feel like this song is also speaking to the difficult relationship gay men often have with their fathers. A relationship of course that is mediated by the culture of patriarchy which often renders the gay boy useless, not man enough, and therefore not a good son. Having never had a real relationship with my own father, I can relate to this song. Majola is really engaging us in a conversation about masculinity and what it means to be a father to a gay kid.

The Xhosa tradition of men going to the mountain for circumcision is a topic often treated with kid cloves. In the song Mountain View Majola rejects kid gloves and sings about falling in love and having a relationship on the mountain with another initiate. Interestingly, this is the only song on the album sung in English. Majola is bold because not only does he have a love affair on the mountain with another dude, he then sings about it. It is a kind-of middle finger to the homophobic Xhosa culture establishment. Because of what the mountain represents, it is the last place one would expect a same-sex love affair to flourish. But then again, maybe it is the ideal place seeing that it is only men walking around naked often with their penises hanging out. Although men are often all alone on the mountain, there’s often nothing erotic about that space, on the contrary, it can be dangerously homophobic. Maybe Majola is trying to prove to us that you can find love anywhere. I have to say though, getting a boner is not ideal on the mountain seeing that you are trying to heal a wound on the penis. This has got to be the first romantic song about a love affair on the mountain during initiation. The love experienced on the mountain is depicted as raiser sharp. Hot. And saucy. Majola talks about learning to love another man and understanding love. Singing about the lover on the mountain he states: “He was kind to me, patience a gift from him. I understood love, and how to make love from that initiate in the mountain.” Although both men experience great love, the love doesn’t survive beyond the mountain. This is definitely one of my favourite tracks on the album. Audacious. And just awesome.

The second interlude is track number five where Majola talks about being different and the journey to self-love. “I have always felt different to other males, stares of disdain, the name calling, distant affection from elder males and sometimes the violence inflicted on me confirmed that I was indeed different. The price I paid for being different is the excruciating loneliness I felt. Accompanied by guilt, shame and stigma, I overacted being a man and still wasn’t man enough to many … I was a secrete friend to some, and a secrete lover to many. I thought I was deserving of secrete validation, someone had to take a stand for me, and to my luck that someone turned out to be Me.” – Poetic.

Then there’s the title track where Majola captures the anxiety of growing up gay in the township. He speaks of the warnings people often give to visibly gay kids where they warn the young gay about their deviant sexuality. When I was growing up, people would say that you will grow up and become like uNokuku. Nokuku is an effeminate openly gay man that lived in New Brighton and was well know in Port Elizabeth and the surrounding areas. I believe Nokuku still lives in Port Elizabeth. Nokuku is what all young gay kids were warned against, he was used as an example of what one should never be. Nokuku had cult status as an openly gay person in Port Elizabeth, the only gay in the village kind-of status. Majola also references the other warning issued to gay boys that they must not become like the men who are on the Felicia Mabuza Suttle show. You will remember The Felicia Show had a number of episodes that were about members of the LGBTI community. The reference made by Majola of course means that he grew up in the 1990’s, when Felicia Mabuza Suttle was a big talk show host assisting South Africa through the transition to democracy. In the song Majola also makes a reference to “Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve”. Homophobic heterosexuals often quote this line as if it’s the smartest line ever invented. The phrase ‘it’s not Adam and Steve’ is often accompanied by unintelligent smugness. This phrase needs to die and be buried. In the chorus of the song, Majola repeats “ndingu boet/sissy” –I am Boet/Sissy. He asserts and affirms himself in the song that he is he what he is, “and so what?”

Imbali is the next track. It is a track about love. It’s a lovely tune, but it doesn’t do to me what the other songs do. It is a soft song, and Majola holds himself back as he sings the song. Which I suppose is a good thing for an artist to be able to have restraint. It’s plain song for me, and it is preceded by some really marvellous tracks, so it doesn’t shine that much.

Throughout the album there are references to bible scriptures. There is an interesting way that Majola plays with church references. “Khulula ezombadada” is the line said to Moses by God that he needs to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sondela is a slow jam. It is about two men making love; it is made that much sweeter by the Xhosa lyrics. Majola speaks of listening to the body parts of his lover, and how these body parts encourage him as they become intimate. The song is beyond courageous. Majola poetically croons about his manhood and the manhood of his lover and all this is done with a persistent haunting sound in the background. My heart skipped a beat when I heard this song for the first time, I had to go back and listen again to make sure what I heard was correct. I am not going to even pretend that hearing a black male artist talk about two men being intimate on a record in Xhosa is not a bit of a mind fuck.

In the third interlude Majola does not shy away to speak directly to the political situation of the African gay. He directs his words to those that prosecute gays all over the African continent. Majola states: “My sexuality is used as political fodder to dissuade from real political issues. Men whose crime is to love other men fill up prisons that should be filled by men who snatch bread from hungry mouths. Who rape and murder daughters and sons of this land. Love is one of the greatest virtues to be possessed by any human being. To be prosecuted for the courage to love is the highest crime committed against life itself.”

After the third interlude there are three tracks that are similar in mood, Ndindedwa, Luthando, and Andizoncama. It is in these tracks that you hear the influence of church or choral music. Although the influence of church music, particularly black Methodist, is felt throughout the album, there’s something about these three tracks for me that really captures that essence. In the title track Majola does make a reference to the Methodist church where he carries the cross in the church procession, but is afraid when he leaves the church that there is a boy that will taunt him on the way home without anyone there to stand up for him. The influence of church music in the album is undeniable. Of course Majola follows in the footsteps of many black artists whose artistry has been “honed” in the church.

Interlude number four is all about loving men. Majola states: “I love men, I love the feeling of being held by another man. In another man’s arms I find comfort, safety, healing, escape, release, pleasure, and unspeakable joy.” These words reminded me of the beautiful piece written by Fumbatha May called a love letter to the black man in the Mail and Guardian. Fumbatha May writes a loving and inspired piece. After speaking these words in the interlude, Majola proceeds to one of the two up-tempo songs on the album. The name of the song is Zithande – Love yourself, which is really an anthem for gay people to practice self-love. Living in a world that is dominated by heterosexist institutions, it becomes political for LGBTI people to love themselves. Majola sings “funda ukuzithanda” – learn to love yourself. In this track I find Majola’s lyrics affirming and reassuring. The way he articulates ‘”learn to love yourself” one can’t help but think of the message of black consciousness, where black people are made to realize that loving themselves is a political act. So in the same way that black love is an act of resistance so is black queers loving themselves.

In queer circles, especially black queer circles Simon Nkoli need no introduction. In the song Simon Nkoli, Majola praises Simon for his activism in the anti-apartheid struggle, the gay liberation struggle, and also his involvement in HIV/Aids activism. Simon Nkoli was a hero and Majola gives him the honour and respect he deserves. In this song Majola gives Simon Nkoli the same reverence that Madikizela-Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, and Nelson Mandela receive in Thandiswa Mazwai’s Nizalwa Ngobani. Also in this song Majola continues his narrative of darkness and light as he speaks of Simon Nkoli as a light in the darkness. And for many black LGBTI people, Simon Nkoli was just that, a light. The up-tempo beat gives the song a celebratory feel, celebrating a man’s life spent trying to conscientise South African society. This album will now be part of the archive of black queer lives in South Africa, and the fact that it pays homage to legendary people like Simon Nkoli makes it even that much more poignant.

The fifth interlude is the sentencing of Majola from the judge who he stood in front of at the beginning of the record. The judge then proceeds to read his sentencing.

The closing track Majola sings about Ikhaya lam – my home. In this track he goes back to his melancholic sound that was interrupted by the two previous tracks. Interestingly, the question of home has been a topic of conversation within my friendship circle. I was born in Port Elizabeth. Many of my friends come from diverse backgrounds and different cities from all over the world, and the question of what is home is always a topic of discussion. Although I call Cape Town home, it is never without qualification. Majola asks for his home to take care of him, to protect him from the world. Home for Majola is a place where he finds safety, a place that offers protection. In this song Majola concludes with the narrative of darkness and light, talking about wanting protection from the darkness of the world. Again, it is hard to miss the biblical undertones. Bible references and all, Majola has given us an amazing piece of art. The album is a bold queer statement. The subject matter of this album is about what it means to be black and gay and live in South Africa. Majola takes us on a journey of a black gay boy, negotiating manhood, falling in love with other men, and experiencing rejection from family. Although one can claim universality in the experiences described by Majola in this album, this is an album about the life experience of a black gay boy. Majola bares himself and speaks his truth, and in the process holds a mirror for me to see myself and I am grateful for 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 inclusion of Sexuality, Gender, Transgendered issues in the #RhodesMustFall movement

I first went to Azania House (formerly known as Bremner Building) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), on the Saturday after the first night of the occupation. The energy was amazing, the discussions were vibrant, and at the time I wasn’t sure if the Rhodes statue would ultimately fall or not. I was just excited to be in the presence of black students who are fighting for transformation at the university. I was excited to see students demanding to see themselves represented at this African university.

On my next visit to Bremner I witnessed a heated discussion on the issue of Gender Neutral bathrooms on the first floor because there are transgendered students in the #RhodesMustFall movement. One of the transgendered persons in the room suggested that the female and male bathrooms on the first floor should be made Gender Neutral. Others met this request with resistance for a number of reasons. The cis gender woman mentioned reasons of safety that they do not want to go into a bathroom where males can also go. One of the guys sheepishly voiced not wanting transgendered women entering the male bathroom.

The cis gender woman tried to explain that firstly she respects the transgendered person, but she really doesn’t understand transgendered issues and why the bathrooms have to be Gender Neutral. The concerns of the cis gender woman about safety issues in the bathrooms are valid in the climate of sexual violence on women in South Africa. But transgendered persons and other gender non-conforming bodies also face physical and sexual violence in this country.

The transgendered person in the conversation tried to explain that they also feel uncomfortable going into male or female bathrooms. Male bathrooms are often hostile and you are treated like someone who is there as a voyeur on male penises. The trans person also voiced that female bathrooms are also filled with cold stares and judgements and sometimes-verbal abuse.

While listening to this conversation I couldn’t help but think of how Simon Nkoli conscientised some of his comrades about homosexuality while they were arrested in the Delmas Treason Trial in the 1980’s. Simon Nkoli’s fellow comrades in the treason trial often spoke about Simon Nkoli with affection and how they learned about gay and lesbian rights from him. The transgendered person in the conversation at Azania House was conscientising fellow comrades on transgendered issues and I was moved by this interaction. It was a real and honest moment and although these students had different opinions and feelings about Gender Neutral bathrooms, it was an open discussion; it was on the table and the students were grappling.

In the end the students decided to stick paper signs designating the first floor male and female bathrooms Gender Neutral? and Gender Neutral. What I saw was the first of many discussion that I would witness about transgendered issues in Azania House and in the #RhodesMustFall movements as a whole. In the following weeks during the occupation of the Archie Mafeje room the politics of gender, sexuality, and transgendered also became central as intersectionality as a framework took shape within the movement.

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The #RhodesMustFall movement has adopted Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness as the foundation for the movement. The Black Consciousness movement has in the past been critiqued for not incorporating gender struggles within the movement. The #RhodesMustFall movement made it a point to incorporate gender, sexuality, and transgendered politics as they fall part of the emancipatory project of post-apartheid South Africa.

The inclusion of gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues within a predominantly black student movement is no small victory. My sense is that continuously invoking gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues in the race conversation is what is going to deliver us. The battle for gender, sexuality, and transgendered rights has always been ghettoized and only fought by people directly affected by these issues. Our strength actually lies in our ability to see that the race issue is connected to the gender issue and the sexuality issue and the transgender issue and the class issue. In the piece How Black Women Claimed Their Place Mbali Matandela articulates the significance of having black women’s voices in the movement to amplify the specificity of the pain of black women in this country.

The psychological, emotional, and sexual violence that black women, gender non-conforming people, transgendered people are subjected to is from predominantly black men. And this needs to be addressed. The violence these groups of people are subjected to is because of the systemic patriarchal order in this country that black men are part of and need to be part of its undoing. And so it is critical then that a movement created for the dismantling of white supremacist patriarchy embodied by the Cecil John Rhodes statue must include the dismantling of black patriarchy.

Addressing the issue of black patriarchy remains an issue as some black males within the #RhodesMustFall movement remain stubborn about their conservative views about gender, sexuality, and transgendered issues. There is hope because many are willing to learn and strong black feminists and gender non-conforming LGBTI people challenge these black men.

The adoption of intersectional politics in the #RhodesMustFall movement was a genius move because intersectionality is immensely beneficial in understanding the multi-layered South African context where race, class, gender, disability, and sexual identity intersect with complex results. The very lives of black students at UCT are an example of the complexity of intersectional identities in South Africa because black students come from different class backgrounds, have different sexualities, and have different gender identities and all of these must be navigated in this often hostile white environment.

For me the #RhodesMustFall movement represents the hope for the future. A future where black students see themselves in the architecture of the universities they study in. Perhaps this is a sign of how future South Africa movements will look like, that they will recognize how struggles are connected. It is in the recognising the different ways that we as black people, as poor people, as LGBTI people, as women, as disabled people, are all chained by systems of oppression. This recognition then becomes the impetus for us to come together and dismantle the systems that oppress us.

Lwando Scott 

The politics of Pride – Cape Town

“Gender is about race is about class is about sexuality is about age is about nationality is about an entire range of social relations.” – Kath Weston

In this quote Weston captures the intersection of social and identity struggles and how these struggles pull and push on each other. The intersection of struggles is no more evident than in the South African LGBTIQ community, where race, class, gender and sexuality intersect and produce a complex set of relations between people.

During Cape Town Pride this year, 2015, there were two schedules that were put out. There was the official Pride that was organised by the Cape Town Pride organisation. There was also an Alternative Pride schedule that was organised by members of LGBTIQ community in Cape Town who felt unrepresented and ignored by the official Pride organisers. Leading up to Pride there were numerous meetings that were held with the organisers of Cape Town Pride but these meeting never yielded any agreements about the events on the Pride schedule. Cape Town based LGBTIQ activists, NGO organisations and other individuals requested an inclusive Pride, where all within the LGBTIQ community can be represented in Pride events. The efforts to create a more inclusive Pride fell on deaf ears. The Alternative Pride schedule was created because of a lack of diversity and a lack of consideration for marginalised LGBTIQ people within the Cape Town LGBTIQ community.

I attended one of the official Cape Town Pride meetings after they had sent out an e-mail requesting volunteers. The meeting was help at 6 Spin Street in the Cape Town city centre. The organisers of Cape Town Pride chaired the meeting and they solicited ideas about pride events, but rejected most of the ideas because of “budgets” constraints. We were then asked to sign up for volunteer hours to help with Pride but then never heard from the organisers again. During the meeting, it sounded like the Pride was already fixed and that there was no real input needed, even volunteers weren’t seriously wanted. It felt like a smoke and mirrors exercise, not really geared at engaging the people, and I didn’t appreciate the waste of my time.

Looking at the 2015 Cape Town Pride schedule, the schedule had 9 days of events and out of these 9 events only 2 were free. The rest of them you had to pay a fee in order to access the events. If I decided that I wanted to go to all of the events on the Cape Town Pride schedule, it would cost me R850. Now the important question becomes, who can pay to get into these events? Who are these events geared towards? Are these Cape Town Pride events representative of the L-G-B-T-I-Q communities in Cape Town? What is missing in these events? What is a Millionaire Gala that costs R450 per head? I think the answers to these questions will reveal much about the politics of the organisers of Cape Town Pride.

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As mentioned there was an Alternative Pride schedule, which was a direct response to the lack of representation of the diversity of the LGBTIQ community by Cape Town Pride. Some of the events organised under the Alternative Pride schedule were free, and when they did charge it was not ridiculously expensive, so many could attend the events. I attended a number of the events and found that they spoke to the experiences of many LGBTIQ South Africans. The Alternative Cape Town Pride schedule included events that were located outside of the Cape Town city centre, like Gugulethu. The Alternative Cape Town Pride events were organised in a really short space of time, but they were a huge success. While attending some of the events I couldn’t help but imagine how impactful and inclusive they would make Cape Town Pride.

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The Pride Parade is usually one of the last events on the pride calendar and this year was no exception. The LGBTIQ activists, NGO’s, and individuals who were opposed to the way that Cape Town Pride is organised planned a protest. The details of the pride protest were ironed out at the “Talk Pride To The People” event that was part of the Alternative Pride Schedule. In this meeting activists spoke of the non-accommodating and non-inclusive stance taken by Cape Town Pride organisers. The activists also spoke about how there shouldn’t be just a “stay away” from Pride, that it must be protested, people must show up, and reject the bullying tendencies of the Pride organisers.

The protest took take place during the Pride parade. The protesters consisted of people from different NGO’s in Cape Town, individuals, and LGBTIQ activists. There was so much solidarity during the protest amongst protesters from different LGBTIQ communities fighting for inclusion. The Pride protest was filled with songs, the beating of African drums, and chanting, calling for the recognition of black, of poor, of disabled, of transgendered, and of sex worker LGBTIQ struggles. Cape Town Pride organisers seem to lack an understanding of the way struggles are connected. There’s a refusal to comprehend that organising Pride in a socially and economically divided city like Cape Town, you have to consider how the events accommodate people who are not middle class, who are not men, who are not white, and who don’t live in the Cape Town city centre.

“Pride is a celebration” is one of the arguments used by Pride organisers for the lack of politics in South African Pride parades. How Pride events situated in South Africa can be devoid of politics is mind-boggling. Many LGBTIQ South Africans are still fighting for the right to exist. Many black gender non-conforming LGBTIQ are targets of violent assaults and murder. Transgendered individuals are fighting for access to social services, access to health services, and the creation of laws that allow people to live their lives in their preferred sex and gender identities. Not to mention the everyday bullying, and taunts, and the indignities that LGBTIQ people struggle against because of institutionalised homophobia in this country. Under these conditions how do we embrace Pride parades that are devoid of politics? Under these circumstances how can LGBTIQ communities be asked to only “celebrate” Pride?

It is clear that the Pride protests in South Africa target the depoliticization and subsequent commercialisation of Pride, and the resulting exclusion of certain groups of people. This is not unique to Cape Town; Johannesburg has had its fair share of Pride protests. Both Cape Town and Johannesburg Pride events have been mired in complex politics of representation. Although there had been a number of protests during Johannesburg Pride in the past, it was the disruption of Pride by the One in Nine Campaign protesters in October 2012 that really placed a spotlight on the problems with Pride in Johannesburg. The disruption of Joburg Pride in 2012 started a conversation within the LGBTI community about the politics of pride and the meaning of pride in the context of South Africa. This is an on going conversation and it remains a touchy subject because the issues that caused division have not been solved, chief amongst them the representation of “black” struggles within Pride.

When the One in Nine protesters disrupted Johannesburg Pride they were asking for a minute of silence from the organizers of Pride to honour members of the LGBTI community, particularly gender non-conforming black women who have been murdered because of their disruption of normative gender expectations. They were demanding Johannesburg Pride and its organizers to focus more on LGBTIQ politics in the country and less on the commercialised aspects that had become a priority for Johannesburg Pride. Johannesburg Pride organisers and the pride goers responded to the call for silence from One in Nine with hostility and assault.

You might be wondering what exactly are LGBTIQ NGO’s, activists and individuals demanding from Cape Town Pride? What would an inclusive Pride look like? If Cape Town Pride is going to be inclusive it will have to consider the following points very seriously:

  • Cape Town Pride does not seem to care about poor LGBTIQ people in Cape Town and so does not make attempts to include such people in the Cape Town Pride schedule.
    • The events surrounding Pride and the after Pride enclosed festivities are expensive and this excludes people who can’t afford.
    • Cape Town Pride does not exist in a vacuum, it can’t just ignore LGBTIQ people who are poor by just saying “if you can’t afford, don’t come.”
    • Because of the history of colonialism and then apartheid economic classes are racialized in South Africa, which means that the majority of people who can’t afford to access the paid sections of Cape Town Pride are predominantly black. This means that black people are mostly excluded from Cape Town Pride events.
  • Cape Town Pride does not organise events that include LGBTIQ people who have children. The schedule does not attempt to have family friendly events.
  • Cape Town Pride does not engage with feminist politics and lesbian feminist politics, in fact Cape Town Pride does not engage in any kind of politics. It’s just a “celebration.”
    • The struggles of black gender non-conforming peoples within the LGBTIQ community needs to be taken up and seriously engaged with. There is something seriously wrong with the politics of Cape Town Pride when we have people in LGBTIQ communities assaulted and murdered and the response during Pride is silence and “celebration.”
  • Cape Town Pride does not engage transgendered issues, and this needs to change. The T in LGBTIQ seems to be decorative only. There’s a negation of transgendered people’s experiences and their needs.
  • Cape Town Pride shouldn’t place financial gains before political struggles.
  • Cape Town Pride needs to include LGBTIQ communities in organising Pride. It’s understood that Pride programming will never fully satisfy everyone, but there has to be an open process that tries to be as inclusive as possible.

The creation of a better South Africa, of a more democratic South Africa, of an inclusive South Africa is the responsibility of all of us. Cape Town Pride is not exempt from this. Cape Town Pride needs to consider the different communities in the alphabet soup – LGBTIQ – when designing the Pride schedule. The 2015 Cape Town Pride schedule caters to the needs of middle class white gay men. If Cape Town Pride is for middle class gay white men, then it should be termed as such, and rebrand, and not give the illusion that it caters to the whole LGBTIQ community. Cape Town Pride should also remember that Pride has its roots in protest. But most crucially Cape Town Pride must remember that the situation of the African queer necessitates that Pride be political.

Indigenous language complexities with LGBTI terms

This week one of my pieces titled, iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English, which focuses on the trouble with indigenous South African languages and the derogatory terms they use to describe and talk about LGBTI communities was discussed on different platforms. The piece also tackles the way that African languages in South Africa are not evolving as fast as they should and their evolution is not documented. I use my mother tongue IsiXhosa as an example, that there is little to no academic work in the vernacular.

The piece was picked up by three other publishing websites. Holaafrica picked it up and then it was picked up by Voices Of Africa and lastly picked up by The Guardian. This obviously exposed me to more readers and subsequently more people engaging with the piece. This is something I am happy about because it means that we are having a broad conversation about this issue.

Towards the end of the week Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk requested a conversation with me about the piece and the issues it raises. Here is a recording of that interview.

The feedback from the piece has been awesome. People have challenged my assertions and some people have affirmed my arguments as they also have experienced the lack of vocabulary in indigenous languages to talk about LGBTI issues. Some people on twitter have argued that some of the derogatory terms in IsiXhosa referring to LGBTI people are not in fact derogatory. Many others and I obviously disagree. In this process I have learned of a new Xhosa term for gay that I didn’t know before that may not necessarily be derogatory from a friend on Facebook, the word is “Omakhanukanodwa” which loosely translates to “those who want their own.”

Here are some of the issues raised and feedback from people while discussing the issue of language and LGBTI terms.

“It’s broad and the issues are varied and intricately intertwined. It’s a conversation that needs to happen at all levels and we, as the LGBTI population should lead it. I think you nailed by linking the derogatory language and discourse used to talk about the LGBTI population and the oppression of African languages in referring to how Western languages and discourse has been nurtured to evolve while “Other” languages have be ignored and not given space to evolve. Or how such evolution is not documented…because in everyday life in the streets the languages remain dynamic.”Thiyane Duda

This is a great exchange I had with Fumbatha May on Facebook:

  • Fumbatha May: There are words like “amakhanukanodwa” and “oodlezinye” that aren’t necessarily derogatory.
  • Lwando Scott: First time hearing “amakhanukanodwa” which is very descriptive. And I’m on the fence with “oodlezinye”. But all in all this language thing is something we should wrestle with a lot more. Particularly in bridging the “culture” gap between LGBTI & Afrikan. Thank you for engaging. I’m learning as I go.
  • Fumbatha May: I enjoyed your article immensely. I have long dreamed of turning the former Pick n Pay building in Bhisho into an Africana library that would house a think tank to tackle the issues you raised in the article. I do, however, disagree with your point about academia being the source of new words to describe human behaviour. Yes, for less “obvious” or “tangible” phenomena like gender identity for instance, it does become necessary for academia to give us the words to describe and explain them. However, we should not preclude the possibility of regular folk coining the phrases and popularising them (e.g. the two words I mentioned in my other comment). Also, social networks are making that process a little easier as words trend like wildfire (e.g. ukutowna – a word that existed only in East Londond, Mthatha and surrounds until it was popularized by Khaya Dlanga).

 And lastly here are some exchanges on twitter:

 

Chomi – the black gay experience

                                      chomi

Written by Lwando Scott 

The play Chomi was long overdue. The play focuses on the intricacies of the lives of four middle class openly gay black men who live in Johannesburg. The play was part of the 10th Anniversary Spring Drama Season at Artscape. The program brochure said that the playwright Pfarelo Nemakonde who wrote Chomi wanted to “explore the relationships, friendships and otherwise, experienced by black gay men and the complexities that arise.” Mr Nemakinde achieved this goal. It was exciting to see the lives of black gay men presented on stage in a nuanced and affectionate manner, something that happens very seldom. This play felt fresh, and nicely captured aspects of the black gay experience; it felt both affirming and largely true.

I loved seeing black gay men being represented on stage in mostly non-stereotypical ways. The characters were presented as having intricate lives that were emotionally complex. Yet it did not shying away from exploring the self-destructive tendencies of some of the characters.

Watching the four friends interact with each other on stage reminded me of my relationships with my own gay friends. It reminded me of the special bond I have with my gay friends, cemented by our common experience of homophobia and racism. The friendship between these four gay men reminded me of the “family” we often choose for ourselves as LGBTI people because we don’t always connect with our kin. It’s not going on limb to say that my close gay friends are my family, and they know me better than my kin family does. It was great fun to try and match the characters’ personalities in the play to the personalities of my friends.

Watching this play was like seeing my life and the lives of my friends reflected back at me and that was a powerful and affirming feeling. The representation of black gay lives in our cultural institutions and productions reflect a new maturity of our democracy. When the black gay experience becomes part of the cultural landscape of the country, we know that we are moving in the right direction in dignifying the experiences of LGBTI people.

Part of our marginalisation and oppression as black people and as gay people stem from the fact that we do not always see ourselves represented in mainstream culture (whatever that may mean). The politics of representation continue to “other” us – in gay publications, events, and gay clubs. We can’t underestimate the politics of representation because not representing the black LGBTI experience in the cultural realm reinforces an already strong narrative of LGBTI people being “unAfrican.” Not seeing representations of the black LGBTI experience, young black LGBTI youth are denied opportunities to develop positive images of themselves represented in cultural spaces.

When I say the play provides positive images of gay black lives, I do not mean sanitised and unrealistically idealised images of black gay men. These men have sex and talk about it. They have other types of fun too. They are real people: neither the stereotype of saintly, innocent victims, nor the stereotype of the hysterical, shallow pleasure seeker, has any place in this play.

The one gripe I had with the play is the way gender is performed. The play does not avoid the stereotypical notion that “tops” are masculine guys, and “bottoms” are feminine guys. Although these stereotypes do exist in people’s lives, there are other diverse ways in which gay black men live their sexualities and I wish there was a more nuanced take on gender performance and its link to sexual acts.

With that being said, I really applaud Mr Nemakonde for the way he scripted the sex and the sex scenes in the play. Although gay sex whether in theatre, television, or even in books has come a long way in terms of being visible, it is still a thorny issue. Remember the drama a couple of years ago when the local soap opera Generation had warning signs scrawling down on the television screen when the characters Jason and Senzo were to have their first onscreen kiss.

Scripting gay sex and doing it right can be tricky because of the tightly monitored boundaries of gender performance underpinned by a heteronormative framework of understanding sex and intimacy. This framework is often embodied in questions such as “who is the man and who is the woman”, “who is the bottom and who is the top” and these constructs are often limiting and they seek to imprison our sexualities within heterosexual binaries. One of the characters in Chomi really takes ownership of his sexuality. The character has a monologue where he goes on about his love for sex and loving being penetrated and I think that was a revolutionary moment because even in some gay circles bottoming has a negative stigma attached to it.

What Chomi has shown me is that we really need to be intentional about representing the black LGBTI experience in South Africa. We need to be conscious of and actively support the insertion of black LGBTI experiences in the cultural sphere. And most importantly we need to support these creative efforts. I want this play to come back. I think it needs to be seen and appreciated by many more audiences. Mr Nemakonde has created something beautiful and we should follow his lead and create more black LGBTI affirming productions in more plays and more books, where black LGBTI experiences are the centre.

Only after watching Chomi did I realise just how thirsty I am for black LGBTI storylines in books, on television, in theatre plays, in magazines; stories that appreciate the complexity of black LGBTI life in South Africa. Chomi really quenched that thirst and I want to thank Pfarelo Nemakonde for his work. I hope to see more productions like this not only from Mr Nemakonde but others as well. I for one am very inspired by Chomi!

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.

iGay, iLesbian, iBisexual – Xhosalisation of English

A few months ago I received an e-mail asking my advice about IsiXhosa equivalents of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender. IsiXhosa equivalents of these words do not exist, and I am not talking about derogatory terms. Growing up I had no language to talk about sexual identity; even the concept of having a “sexual identity” was a revelation in my late teens. Although visibly gay while growing up, there was no concrete articulation of my gayness as a sexual identity. I have often struggled with articulating sexual identity terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) in my mother tongue.

I have had an on-going conversation with my close friends about the issue of not having a “language” to talk about LGBTI issues. The language we use to talk about LGBTI issues and the terms we use to classify sexual identity are English language words. When people use the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) in the vernacular people just add an “i” or “u” in front of the English word. So gay is then iGay (a gay) or uGay (he is gay), or iLesbian (a lesbian) or uyiLesbian (she is a lesbian). The same is done with all the other letters in L-G-B-T-I.

Now, although there are no specific terms, all of the terms in the L-G-B-T-I acronym can be described in the vernacular. Which is something people do when they talk about LGBTI people – they describe what gay people “do”. So if I am to answer the question – what is a gay man – in the vernacular, I would describe a gay man in the vernacular as “umntu oyindoda othandana namanye amadoda” which translates to “someone who likes or falls in love with other men” which means gay. There are multiple ways in the vernacular in which people say “gay” by describing what the term means – or what the person who is gay “does”. This is more or less the same process or application to the other letters in the L-G-B-T-I acronym.

Homophobes People have often raised the issue that because there are no equivalent specific terms in indigenous languages for L-G-B-T-I terms, homosexuality must be a Western import. This is a complicated point and needs to be addressed carefully. While it is true that the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transgender are all from the English language, what these terms name and describe is a phenomena that takes place in many cultures around the world. So although there are no equivalent words in the vernacular for gay, lesbian, or transgender, that doesn’t mean that, there are no gay, lesbian, or transgender individuals amongst Xhosa people. So saying that because we don’t have a specific word for “transgender” in the vernacular therefore transgender people do not exist is lazy logic that won’t move us forward in making sense of the world.

Equally important is keeping in mind that the words gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual are also “new” words in the English language. The word “gay” and the word “lesbian” only become a reference for homosexuality in the late 19th century and increasingly in the 20th century. These words are less than 200 years old. The word “transgender” is even more “new” as a word because it comes to life in late 20th century and increasingly becoming part of our daily vocabulary.

New words are introduced into a language as new human phenomenon is discovered. New words are introduced as cultures find ways to explain people’s behaviours. Life is constantly evolving. The problem with IsiXhosa and other indigenous languages is that there are not enough people who are writing and producing knowledge in the vernacular, which is one of the ways new words are coined. The irony is not lost on me that I am writing this piece in English discussing IsiXhosa language issues. It pains me to admit that as awesome as my Xhosa is –I can read, write, and speak- it’s not as good as my English. It takes me twice as much time (if not more) to write a Xhosa piece than it does an English piece. Glancing over at my bookshelf I can’t spot a single Xhosa book. I used to read more Xhosa books when I was younger, but that changed as I grew older and went to mixed school and was required to read English books.

The language issue is a national issue, or at least it should be treated as such. IsiXhosa like all other indigenous languages of South Africa are not evolving by additional words being added in the language. Instead we see what my friends and I call the Xhosalisation of English words (which is a phenomenon that needs dissecting). Xhosalisation takes place in different ways, one of the ways it happens is the placing of the prefix “i” or “u” on English words. There is also the creation of “new” words by amalgamating English words with IsiXhosa words like the word “Xhosalisation.” Xhosalisation of English is useful for immediate everyday conversation but I wonder about its sustainability.

It is impossible to talk about language in this country without talking about the effects of colonisation and apartheid on indigenous languages. These systems of oppression have negatively affected the organic development of indigenous languages in epic proportions. Unlike English and Afrikaans, there are no structures in this country to ensure that indigenous languages continue to evolve. Universities like Stellenbosch are bastion of the Afrikaans language and ensure that the language is moving with the times. There are no equivalent indigenous language institutions.

The post 1994 government has also failed to prioritise education and indigenous languages continue to be neglected. I think we need to think of ways in which we can articulate the struggles with gender inequality, sexual identity, and the changing culture in this country in indigenous languages. We need to be able to articulate the complexity of human sexuality in indigenous languages and maybe this will lead us in a direction where people gain a better understanding of sexual diversity.

It is a big problem that no academic work takes place in indigenous languages, as this is where ideas and new ways of being are articulated. This is not to say that people in the streets are not contributing towards the evolution of language, but it is knowledge producing centres that coin terms for human phenomenon and in the process helps us understand that human phenomenon. A few years ago for the first time at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University a PhD thesis was written and submitted in IsiXhosa. The sad reality is that even if you wanted to write a sociological PhD thesis in IsiXhosa you will struggle to find supervisors who would be able to read it. Not to mention the struggle you would encounter with trying to explain “deconstruction”, “queer theory”, or “intersectional analysis.”

There are ways in which we could try and improve the language situation in this country but that demands political will and that is sorely lacking. Universities in this country are in a good position to create language/cultural centres for indigenous languages. This could start a project of taking indigenous languages seriously and slowly introduce knowledge production in indigenous languages. Universities could collaborate with people who speak indigenous languages to learn more about the languages and the cultures behind them. At times it seems to me that the 9 indigenous languages of the 11 official languages in this country are only decorative. Imagine if all 9 of the indigenous languages had a language institute.

Also as people who speak indigenous languages, we should really seek ways in which we maintain indigenous languages in our everyday lives. Imagine a South Africa with IsiXhosa book clubs and IsiXhosa reading rooms at universities in the Western and Eastern Cape. Imagine a South Africa where students can study sociology in the vernacular. Having IsiXhosa centres could also serve as great instruments in diffusing the alienating white supremacist culture of former whites only universities in this country because black people will then feel part of institutions and not just needing to adapt to a white world. What we need is a vision of the kind-of South Africa we want to live in and work towards that vision. Creating language institutes will probably not be easy, but creating a healthy South Africa that is content with itself requires hard word and an on-going conversation about our difficult past and where we want to go. We also need to make piece with the fact that the great South Africa we want to create will be enjoyed by future generations. Just like we are enjoying a democratic South Africa that was created in part by many people who died in the process of creating it and never had a chance to experience it.