South Africa: Women and the gay rights movement

Date: August 30, 2012
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Johannesburg, 30 August: South Africa has celebrated Women’s Month this year in a political climate that is lurching increasingly rightward and threatening to become repressive and authoritarian.

The month commemorates the 1956 march on the Union Buildings against the pass laws, and it reminds the country and the world of the pivotal role that women played in this country’s political change. There is a direct line that runs from the women’s march to the end of apartheid in 1994 and the adoption of the post-apartheid constitution. The securing of the equal rights of sexual minorities is to this date groundbreaking, and is as yet globally unmatched.

If women’s contribution to political change has been remembered, although downplayed, the role of women in the fight for gay rights has been wiped from official stories, including the histories that are told within the country’s gay rights movement. Gone are the facts of working class mobilisation, popular struggle and women’s participation and leadership, and in its place is the mythography of heroic, singular men challenging apartheid and legislative homophobia.

The huge implications of South Africa’s constitutional equality provision cannot be underestimated, even years after coming into being. Up to that time, few had imagined the possibility of giving full human rights to gay people without the structure of society collapsing.

It’s important to remember the achievement, because it is likely only a matter of time before Jacob Zuma and the African National Congress (ANC) attempt to dismantle gay rights in the country.

Consistent work by anti-apartheid gay activists, including black women resulted in the realisation of gay rights. Black sexual minorities have always lived within township communities in South Africa. Documentation by Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) stalwart Barney Desai has given us photographic evidence of a visible gay presence within township communities.

During the 1980s, under the United Democratic Front (UDF), gay rights activists became consciously political in the public and national sphere. Progressive lesbians and bisexual women (including black women) stood up where they were: in the UDF as well as in the smaller socialist and Africanist organisations. There were black lesbians in Umkhonto we Sizwe and in other armed resistance movements.

The povo (the poor, the proletariat) in the townships formed the rank-and-file of that struggle. What the history on gay rights often misses is the role that township communities – and particularly women – played in supporting the movement, particularly as gay rights activists were also prominent anti-apartheid fighters. Our grandmothers, mothers, aunts and sisters shielded activists, rooted for them and kept bodies and spirits together under the threats of torture, detention and murder.

At the early gay Pride marches in Johannesburg, our township mothers and aunts cooked the food, provided transport and houses for us to sleep over when we came in from other cities.

But the visibility of women – and black women – must not be limited to supporting roles. Lesbians and bisexual women were visible in the leadership and the structures of the gay rights movement. Their work had global resonance, culminating in Bev Palesa Ditsie being the first “openly” gay person to address a UN conference in 1995. Ditsie had been instrumental in organising gay rights in Johannesburg and including it as part of a national liberation agenda.

None of this denies the role of activists like Delmas Treason Trial’s Simon Nkoli, nor of Ivan Toms and his work in the townships and in the anti-conscription movement.

Then, homophobia and threats to safety were deeply entrenched in our townships as they are today. In addition, gay white liberals were not welcoming of black gay people.

Furthermore, in my life, a number of prominent activists would have the courage to stand up to torture, detention and long-term imprisonment (and even the risk of death), but they would never have the courage to come out and identify as gay.

The ANC’s recent threatened shift to the right is a fundamental misreading of what has always constituted political culture in this country. This is not unsurprising in a movement that carried out its activism in exile for decades. While the ANC shaped the form of resistance, the daily practice of democracy, anti-authoritarianism, anti-patriarchy and the value of putting equality into practice is something that perhaps is not fully understood by a movement which for decades didn’t first-hand experience the lively reality of nation-wide mass democracy.

It’s not just occasional comments from leadership figures where this is apparent. In recent moves around polygamy, media repression, the use of religion and morality to support oppression, and the re-consignment of rural African women to apartheid-era provisions, there is the sense that our leaders have missed out on more than 30 years of these conversations taking place within the country. And when the tide turns on gay rights, will it be presented as a way to “rid the country of un-African influences?” when in fact this discussion has already been underway for decades?

The erasure of women from gay history is also because gay spaces are not free from oppression, whether this is patriarchy, domestic violence or racism. Politically active lesbians and bisexual women are often suspicious of working with gay men on struggles, knowing that they are always short-changed in the men’s patriarchal practices, with women expected to support men, but that support seldom being reciprocated.

Acknowledging the role of women and black women in gay equality is more than a gendered correction of history. Black women’s agency has often been presented as folksy and personally self-sacrificing.

It’s important to remember that before we were black diamonds, we were the povo. And, as a new generation of young gay people in the townships start their own struggle, the older generation need to remember the urban povo who made our lives possible: the mineworkers, black streetwalkers, hustlers and crooks who made space for us in their bars and clubs because we had nowhere else to go; the transvestite sisters turning tricks who put their arms around our shoulders; and our aunties, our mothers and our grandmothers who said that we were human.

And not to forget the women who were righteous: Sheila and Julia, fierce, Jewish and running the gay rights stalls at early UDF rallies; Bev; Meganthrie; Tanya who told the socialists they needed to walk the talk; sister-soldier Funeka; Medi and Theresa who opened their home; Tracy who loved nothing more than causing a riot in a police van; and also that righteous 14-year old self who said I’m woman, I’m black, and I’m here.

Karen Williams is a journalist who works across Africa and Asia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


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