It’s Johannesburg (read Sandton) Pride again on the 25th of October and it has reminded Dylan van Vuuren and Gabriel Hoosain Khan of a discussion they don’t believe our community has completely dealt with. And we do need closure on our Pride problems, they say. Van Vuuren and Khan ask you to join them in an attempt at being conscious gay community members.
Currently there are five Pride events in Gauteng (Ekurhuleni Pride in KwaThema, Soweto Pride, People’s Pride at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg Pride in Sandton and Pretoria Pride in Centurion). The number of Prides do not reflect a growth in LGBTI activism, these represent a community more divided than ever.
Let’s flash back 25 years ago to the first Johannesburg Pride. It all started in 1990 as a march organised by a group of activists called the Gays and Lesbians of the Witwatersrand (GLOW). This makes it the longest running and the largest Pride on the continent. It was founded by Simon Nkoli, also an anti-apartheid activist and member of the Congress of South African Student and the United Democratic Front.
Simon expressed in his speech at this first march how he experienced racism in the gay rights movement and homophobia in the anti-apartheid movement. The theme of the first Pride was ‘unity in the community’ and the political vision was that of a march that would highlight intersecting forms of discrimination and bring a fractured community together. We have failed at this objective; the issue is now as relevant as ever. (Simon is probably turning in his grave at the state of the Pride movement.)
But we have done it before: the first Pride march successfully united the diverse parts of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for a moment during the euphoria of the 1990s transition, but the situation was and still is complicated. Our progressive Constitution, which promised to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender, has been met with a reality of a country where LGBTI people experience violent transphobia and homophobia.
The hope of non-racialism has been met by the reality that most South Africans are black, poor, do not have access to cars or computers and certainly do not have access to the rights promised to LGBTI in our Constitution and law.
It is because of this dichotomy that the One in Nine campaign, a feminist collective, protested Johannesburg Pride in 2012 – bringing these issues of segregation and access to the forefront and upsetting the pretty Pride parade.
They aimed to question the relevance of the event, which had become increasingly commercial, largely apolitical and discriminating against people based on race and class. This was reflected by the fact that the board of Johannesburg Pride and its audience was largely white and middle-class.
The event was hosted in a place which was difficult to access, privileged (Rosebank being an affluent neighbourhood) and far away from where most of the community live (in townships, in the city centre and other suburbs). Lastly, it became an event which was too expensive for most people to access – people were not allowed to being their own food and drink – and food and drink sold inside was too expensive for people to afford.
The One in Nine protest and critique of Pride led to the organisation folding. This moment of anarchy also led to a promising series of community meetings. At these meetings, it was decided that the community would need to create an ethos for Pride and from this a structure for the event would emerge. But tensions between activists interested in the politics of Pride and community members interested in being pragmatic about the event led to a breakdown. A group of community members broke away from the group and elected themselves as the Johannesburg Pride committee. The community members who continued with the series of community meetings culminated in the People’s Pride events in Johannesburg.
This is where our conversation becomes a hard one. Where to from here? Do we stay segregated in each of our little Prides or do we boycott all of them until unity is the only option?
We don’t know the answers but what we do know is that if a Pride event reproduces an assemblage of inequality going against all that Pride was founded on – as we believe Johannesburg Pride has done in recent years – it is not something we can support.
We cannot support an event which created a fenced boundary for rich, mostly white people to celebrate Pride, while outside that fence sit people of colour who do not have access to that privileged space. This is essentially how the apartheid system worked – a system of enforcing boundaries and access to rights and resources based on categories – of race and class, gender and sexuality.
The only way we see a way forward is for people to be informed – especially the new young gay generation that is mostly unaware of the fight that came before them. Gay people need to know why we have Pride and the history behind it in order to make informed decisions and avoid repeating history.
In the meantime we’ll keep wishing we could all get along like we used to in 1990. We wish we could bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and that we would all eat it and be happy. If only it were that simple.