Queer rights activism between 1950s and early 1960s

The history of South African activism for the queer community began as early as the mid-1950s. According to a book by Edwin Cameron and Mark Gevisser called the Defiant Desire, at the time, homosexuals were viewed as either the ‘child-molester’ or the ‘drag queen’. Despite these two stereotypes, homosexual cultures still existed in the major cities of South Africa: Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. In Johannesburg, in the Joubert Park area was known at that time for its bars and its cheap accommodation and later became a common neighbourhood for young people to live in, including the queer community. In Cape Town and Durban around the port-cities, gay men were more visible around the seafronts closest to the warships. In contrast, Gevisser explains that during the 1950s, lesbian women were always under pressure to remain secluded and meet in smaller public venues than gay men. This was due to social traditions like marriage that were more limiting to women than men and the fact that men were more economically independent and wealthier than women.

The law reform movement of 1968

In 1968, there was a proposal of an anti-homosexuality legislation, causing panic in homosexual communities in South Africa, especially among the female members of the queer community, who were previously ignored by the law and the media. It was at this time that the activist group for homosexuals was formed, known as ‘Law Reform’ that aimed to combat the proposed legislation before the Select Committee. The group raised funds to retain a firm of attorneys to lead the case and by April 1968, the first gay public meeting ever held in South Africa took place at the Park Royal Hotel in Joubert Park. But by the following year, the movement had not been successful in reforming the law as only three amendments were presented. As stated in the book, Defiant Desire, the first amendment was that the ages for male homosexual acts were raised from 16 to 19. The second was to ban dildos. The third was the infamous ‘men at a party’ clause, which criminalized any “male person who commits with another male person at a party or any act which is calculated to stimulate sexual passion or to give sexual gratification”. The problem with the amendments was that the state had imposed more repressive laws on the queer community rather than lessening the laws and could still raid any social gatherings, thus tightening its grip on the community. However, the book states that the queer community was still relieved and had a profound sense of victory. Soon after this, the organization had collapsed due to “lack of democratic process.”

The queer culture between 1970s- 1990s

Gevisser writes about Pretoria in the 1970s as having a large gay, Afrikaans community which transformed into a subculture, allowing for the development of the first exclusive gay venue, the Club Exquisite. It was during this time that some communities began to accept the queer community, due to the gay rights movement that took place in Europe and North America. Gevisser mentions that the only other attempt to restore the gay movement of 1968 happened in the early 1970s at the University of Natal in Durban but was dissolved soon after. In 1976 a gay man named Bobby Erasmus founded South Africa’s first gay organization since the Law Reforms days of 1968. GAIDE or Gay Aid Identification Development and Enrichment, collapsed 2 years later when Erasmus emigrated. This proved how dependent these organizations were on political leaders and strong influencers. In April 1982, GASA or Gay Association of South Africa was formed. Gevisser also states that “during its active years, GASA facilitated a groundswell of gay activity that focused the gay community and provided a basis for the more radical and politically explicit […] activism and was to follow it.” The group lasted for a few months but collapsed soon after. It was only in the 1990s, when GLOW (The Gay and Lesbian Organization of the Witwatersrand) was established, that the queer community finally found solid ground in South African society. Today, events such as pride week mark and symbolize the attempts made to make South Africa more accepting and pro-equality.

Post-apartheid queer community

According to the SASAS or South African Social Attitudes Survey – conducted by The Other Foundation and Human Sciences Research Council in the years of 2012 and 2015 – “one in four people (27 percent) in South Africa reported having a friend or family member who is homosexual” and another 55 percent were willing to accept a family member who was part of the queer community. In post-apartheid, queer members have become outspoken particularly against discriminatory laws that violate the basic laws of equality. Interestingly, the “majority of South Africans think that all LGBTQ+ members have the same human rights and social acceptance”. However, according to the report, the levels of violence against members of the queer community persist and have increased. The study showed that despite the increase in violence against the queer community, “about 90 percent of all racial groups say that they have not physically hurt gender non-conforming women and violence against gender non-conforming men, although less common, is still widely prevalent.” The report also highlighted that there is also a wide misconception amongst some South Africans about gender identity and sexual orientation even amongst individuals who aren’t sure of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The report also explains that people assume that all gender non-conforming people are either gay or lesbian and gender conforming people are “wrongly assumed to be heterosexual”. This could be a result of South Africa’s multiple languages or array of phrases that describe people who are gender non-conforming as stated in the report. A third interesting avenue that was studied in the report was the attitudes of people towards the queer community. Men aged 45-54 years as well as 16-19 were seen to be the most disapproving of gender non-conforming individuals. In contrast, people aged 20- 24 were reported to be the most tolerant [of] all three. Education and level of income are also likely indicators of the level of tolerance and attitudes. The report showed that people with an education up to tertiary level were more tolerant, with a minority being part of the “two thirds of people who have no schooling think sex between two men is wrong.” Still, more than half of all South Africans believe that gay people “should be allowed to be part of their culture and tradition” with only 0.1 percent of individuals disagreeing. In the 2012 survey, a question about ‘gay marriage’ received 13.5 percent of the population who approved of same-sex marriages. Three years later, the number of supporters increased and the population of individuals who disagreed dropped from 48.5 percent to 23.4 percent. The results show that there is a great shift in attitudes about sexual orientation and gender identity in South Africa in this post-apartheid era, Regardless more awareness and education is required.

Pride in South Africa

There have been Pride parades in South Africa since the first one took place in Johannesburg on 13 October 1990. This was also the first Pride to occur on the African continent. According to South African History Online, the first Pride was organized by the organization GLOW, which was started by famous gay anti-apartheid activist Simon Nkoli in 1988, and this first “march was part of the broader struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in South African law and to end Apartheid”. Historically the Pride parades were used to protest the legal discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. After Apartheid, Pride was used to celebrate equality and LGBTQ+ identities. In more recent times some members have used the parade to protest modern LGBTQ+ hate crimes, such as corrective rape. There is some variety of Pride that takes place in every province annually, but the Johannesburg Pride is currently one of the largest pride events in Africa. This year the Johannesburg pride is celebrating ‘The Pride of Africa’. According to the Johannesburg Pride website they are debuting a new flag inspired by the 54 countries in Africa as well as a new statement that “there are no borders here- Pride is proudly African and authentically you”. If you are interested in attending the Johannesburg pride this year it is taking place on 26 October, departing from Sandton City at 14:00 going through the Sandton CBD. The event is free, although an RSVP to the Facebook event is necessary. For Pride celebrations a little closer to home UP has an annual Pride Week hosted by UP&Out and Just Leaders. Pride Week was hosted from 14 to 18 October this year.

Why pride is still important

Pride week began as a protest to the discrimination LGBTQ+ people experienced It then progressed into a celebration of queer identities. These queer identities still exist and have been expanded on in recent years to include other sexualities. PDBY sat down with Professor Catherine Burns, an Associate Professor of History, who said “we cannot forget the many aspects of our country’s history where we have […] people coming together against the status quo, […] we need to appreciate and celebrate these, hence the word ‘pride’ ”. As much as the world has progressed in recent years a safe space, the opportunity to celebrate identity is still important. In 2019 the LGBTQ+ community still struggles with daily discriminations and homophobic beliefs which makes the celebration as relevant as it ever was. According to Thiruna Naidoo from the Centre of Human Rights at UP “the average LGBTQ+ person has full rights in the eye of the law but that is not the case in their lived reality […] as many hate cases go unresolved with no perpetrators being identified or held accountable”. Additionally, there are countries where LGBTQ+ people still have no rights; queer identities are not celebrated.

During Pride people are encouraged to dress the way they want to and express their authentic selves. Jaco Bothma, a part-time lecturer at the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies said, “pride week is important in an attempt to understand how issues of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community relates and intersects with other issues […] such as Gender Based Violence.” Pride celebrations make LGBTQ+ identities extremely visible, this is, according to Bothma, “especially potent in a world where many would prefer members of the LGBTQ+ community to be invisible and silent”. Pride is also seen by many as an important opportunity for allies of the LGBTQ+ community to show their support and solidarity. Naidoo also stated that “Pride is an important event for mobilizing the queer community both nationally and internationally. [It is] about creating a safe space where we can come together and celebrate the beauty of being queer and celebrate diverse identities and expressions of love.”

Image: Cletus Mulaudi

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