Awards celebrating gay and lesbian community leaders with Pride

Date: January 1, 1970
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As part of Johannesburg Pride celebrations, the gay and lesbian community honoured community leaders across South Africa at the second annual LGBTI Activism Awards, held Thursday 28 September in Johannesburg.

Rarely are the achievements of our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community leaders honoured.
Indeed, when do we hear about LGBTI people at all, beyond images of flamboyant drag queens, reports of hate crimes or homophobic stories of ‘immoral’ behaviour?
The LGBTI Activism Awards is one woman’s attempt to not only acknowledge and celebrate the achievements of those who have dedicated their lives to LGBTI rights, but also to increase the visibility of these important role models.
Tumi Ndweni, director of Dream the Impossible Dream (DID) Entertainment, says she started the awards, “because there are people out there who fought for my well-being. They have tried to make me feel like I belong. These people needed to be thanked.”
Perdita Bokeer, one of the judges whose daunting task was to decide which of the nominees from each category would receive awards, added that it was very important to recognise the work that people in the LGBTI community are doing because it can be quickly forgotten.
“To be at the coal face of that kind of activism must be recognised because it can be thankless. Great work done today can be easily forgotten tomorrow, It’s giving someone a sense of self other than hate. It’s love manifest, and must be awarded.”
These visible role models are important as many, especially young people, search for their own identity, often amid stigma and discrimination.
Though the night was about celebrating our leaders and heroes, inside the banquet hall, however, the atmosphere was not quite what I had expected.
Attendance was down from last year, with only between 40 and 50 people present. Tumi speculated that it could be because there was a cost to buy tickets this year. She receives no financial support for the event, and paying for the various costs comes largely from her own pocket.
Many echoed this sense of a general lack of support from the community.
Gary Bath, who has been organising Pride since 1996, and has also been the main thrust behind South Africa’s bid for the 2010 Gay Games, said he received recognition from the international community first, long before our own South African community. On Thursday, he won the award for activism in sport and recreation.
Yusoof Abdullah, who won the lifetime achievement award for his long time dedication to the struggle for LGBTI rights, cited these divisions in the community as part of the reason why LGBTI people are still treated as second-class citizens and relegated to a gay ‘ghetto.’
He said, “After 17 years why do we still feel we need to be in the ghetto? We need to be first class citizens.”
The LGBTI community in South Africa, though bigger and more much visible than in other African countries, is not large enough to withstand so much division.
Speaking on this lack of cohesion, Ndweni said, “We tend to be separated, the whites with the whites, blacks with blacks, lesbians with lesbians, gays with gays, forgetting that the community is very small. We need to show the wider community that we are united. We give the heterosexual community power because we are not united.”
How can we afford to have such a fragmented community during such a crucial time for LGBTI rights in South Africa? We are now in the midst of a crucial debate on the proposed Civil Union Bill. Former deputy president Jacob Zuma – who still garners a great deal of support in this country – recently made homophobic remarks, knowing it will not cost him support.
Is it not just as much a time for unity as when the community was fighting for initial recognition 17 years ago? If we are forgetting to recognise each other, how then will we be able to achieve recognition within the broader community?
This is especially important during Pride, when the only media images we will see are those stereotypical images of men wearing make-up and cascades of silk and feathers.
While these images are just as much a part of the community as any other, it is crucial that we also reinforce that there is substance behind the technicolour rainbow of the Pride Parade. We need to remember why we are marching – and who is responsible for transforming that march into the joyful spectacle it is today.
We need the LGBTI Activism awards in order to remember the leaders who came before us and to recognise those in our midst who do not get the media attention, but who give weight and substance to our celebrations.
Despite the mixed feelings of many of the people attending Thursday’s ceremonies, there was an overwhelming feeling of pride and sincere appreciation for award winners and the often-thankless work our community leaders engage in so the rest of us can live our lives a little easier.
Tonya Graham works in the media for development sector in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her primary interest is in using theatre and radio to encourage marginalised groups to access the media and to increase the visibility of marginalised groups within existing media. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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