Ladies and gents, the cake is here
In this edited extract, author and anthropologist Graeme Reid shares his field notes about a Miss Gay Ten Years of Democracy beauty pageant, held in Ermelo in 2004.
When Thulani announced that he was dropping out as an organiser of the pageant, just hours before the doors of the Wesselton Hall were due to open, he left Bhuti to take care of all the arrangements. And most of them still needed taking care of.
For one thing, the hall was locked and, we were told, the caretaker who held the keys was in a shebeen adjacent to the taxi rank in town. Furthermore, the event had been advertised for a different venue. Although the fine print on the receipt read “Wesselton Hall”, Bhuti was under the impression that he had booked the Gert Sibande Hall. “Gert Sibande” was printed on all the posters and everyone would need to be redirected.
Thulani said that he was too stressed. Boyfriend trouble, he explained. He had tried to be respectful, but things had gone horribly wrong. When his handsome boyfriend, Vusi, told Thulani that he would be travelling from Vosloorus to Ermelo for the weekend, Thulani
had carefully removed all evidence of his current Ermelo boyfriend, Phumlani, from his room. By the time Vusi arrived, his framed photograph was back in its place at Thulani’s bedside, while all photographs of Phumlani, together with two pairs of his underwear and a couple of other personal effects were in a shoebox, under the driver’s seat of Thulani’s car.
But shortly after he arrived in Ermelo, Vusi, a passenger in Thulani’s car, had found the shoebox and he was furious. He beat Thulani and Thulani cried out “Don’t do it! No, Phumlani!” calling out the wrong name in his pain, fear and panic, which led to more beating and arguing.
He told me that things had calmed down and they had made passionate love that night and the next morning. Vusi told Thulani that he would give him something that would stop any other man looking at him for the whole weekend and, indeed, Thulani sported an unmistakable love bite on his neck. But all this had left Thulani drained and exhausted and he was in no mood to help with the pageant.
So Bhuti and I drove around looking for the caretaker, who was not in the shebeen. Meanwhile, a small bakkie had arrived with the scaffolding for the stage. There was shopping to do for the meal at the afterparty, which would take place at the Back of the Moon nightclub, owned by lawyer Roy Ledwaba. The nightclub prided itself on its cosmopolitan clientele and it was frequented by gays in Wesselton.
So Bhuti popped R5 for the man who was cleaning cars outside the hall and asked him to get the keys from the caretaker, if he saw him, while we went shopping. At the vegetable shop, the white woman behind the till asked Bhuti what he needed all the vegetables for. He told her that it was for a gay beauty pageant. She was curious to know where it would be held and if it was for everyone. “Will white gays also participate?” she asked. “We don’t even know one white gay here in Ermelo,” Bhuti told her. That was a shame, the cashier said.
By the time we had dropped off the groceries with the cooks, who would have to prepare the food using small pots borrowed from Bhuti’s kitchen, the hall was open. But it was a mess, empty bottles everywhere and it was already 5.30pm, half an hour after the official opening time. So Sizwe, one of the gents who were to act as bouncers and sell tickets, was roped into cleaning the hall. He saw an opportunity in the urgency and negotiated a fee of R50. But there was no choice, so Bhuti agreed and Sizwe got cleaning. The gents, boyfriends of the gay ladies, were the DJs and the bouncers and the ladies were organisers, contestants and cooks.
By 10.30pm, five and a half hours after the scheduled start, the event was in full swing. The ladies were on stage, parading in casual wear, then traditional wear and, finally, formal wear. The judges, from Pietermaritzburg and Johannesburg, were having a hard time because the identifying numbers pinned to the contestants had been written with a borrowed pen on small scraps of paper and were almost illegible. Bhuti, who had not had time to style his hair, was wearing a headscarf and doing a lip-sync impersonation of Brenda Fassie, as part of a series of tributes made to “Ma-Brrr”, “Madonna of the townships” and gay icon, who had died three months previously, in May.
The main DJ was a boyfriend of one of the contestants. He was assisted by two other gents: Vusi, Thulani’s lover from Vosloorus, and Mandla, Bhuti’s boyfriend. The beers were flowing and the sound system kept crackling and then screeching into silence, while the contestants waited patiently for the show to resume. When Tsepo took to the stage in the all-important formal wear, the sound system broke down again. There he stood, poised in limbo between backstage and the catwalk, too late to retreat and in no position to promenade into a room that was filled with the cheering of the audience, but had no music. He stood there for several minutes while the gents tried to fix the sound system. He smiled at the responsive audience and gave short impatient glances at the gents, as if to say, “What can you expect?” It turned into a mini-pantomime, as Tsepo devised a way of rising above circumstances, retaining his poise and sustaining a moment of glamour amid the unfolding chaos of the pageant. It seemed to me that it was at that moment that he clinched the title of Miss Gay Ten Years of Democracy.
Before the event, Bhuti told me that they were looking for someone to work as an ambassador for gay people in Mpumalanga. In recent years, Tsepo had taken part in another pageant, Miss Ithafa High School, where he competed against the young women in his class, but intense rivalry among the contestants’ supporters meant that the pageant was foreshortened and the results were never announced. Hairstylist Nathi had participated in several pageants and was bitterly disappointed not to be chosen in this pageant, even as a princess. After all, he had won Miss Dube by Night in 1998 and had been placed as first princess in the two subsequent pageants at the same nightclub.
This pageant, Bhuti told me, was different because it was organised by gays in a community venue, rather than by the proprietor of a shebeen for commercial purposes.
Nathi had also competed alongside women in other pageants in Ermelo and was rumoured to have been prevented from rising above the top five when someone informed the judges that she was in fact he. Nathi told me that, as he had feared all along, the judges at Miss Gay Ten Years of Democracy were obviously not looking for a real lady at all. They admired something else altogether, someone with male features who could impersonate a woman, whereas Nathi saw himself as feminine enough to compete against other women.
When Bhuti collected the cake at the bakery section of the Spar supermarket and paid the R70, he was disappointed. His vision of the cake was as follows: it would be a rainbow cake, symbolising the rainbow nation, as well as alluding to the international gay rainbow symbol. On the one side would be an image of banner-waving people, marching and protesting against apartheid. The cake would be divided in the middle by the new South African flag. And on the other side of the flag would be scenes of joyous celebration, images of emancipated individuals.
What was produced by the confectioner was much more modest. The icing was multicoloured and there were generous sprinklings of hundreds and thousands that suggested a rainbow. On the cake itself, emblazoned in icing, was the legend “Happy Ten Years of Gay Democracy”.
It was a large cake and it formed the centrepiece of the gathering the following morning that took place in front of Bhuti’s rooms, where the more serious business of the weekend took place. There were speeches. Martin, who had been sent as a representative of the Hope and Unity Metropolitan Community Church, led the small group in song. Norman from the Johannesburg-based gay and lesbian information website Behind the Mask said: “You are the first township to have celebrated 10 years of democracy in style. I know in KwaThema, where I come [from], it has a gay history, but Ermelo has outdone us ... We never even thought of that.” Two young men hovered around. One declared his love to one of the judges from Durban and asked to share his plate of food, echoing Martin’s caricature of the straight men of Ermelo. He said that, based on his experience of the party the previous night, their favourite saying was “I love you, buy me a beer”.
Bhuti, still wearing his party gear from the night before, concluded his speech: “Today we are celebrating 10 years of democracy, as the rainbow nation and as a diverse culture. Don’t ever set limits for yourself because you are gay. No. uNkulunkulu [God] created you for a purpose and a nice purpose. You are an apple and don’t ever pretend to be a banana, because you will be a second-rate banana.”
Thulani could not make it. Vusi had left town and made off with his cellphone and several items from his wardrobe.
Bhuti’s concept of the cake captured many of the issues that I have grappled with in this book. Should it represent a rainbow flag or a South African flag, he wondered. Ultimately, it was both — the backdrop was rainbow, the specifics were South African and the divider down the middle was the end of apartheid and the realisation of democracy.
Although it failed in the detail, the modest confectionary of the cake and the context in which it was served alluded to the interrelationships between global gay identity politics, the influence of the anti-apartheid struggle (and gay activism within and alongside that broader struggle), the foundational influence of constitutional democracy, and the role
of glamour and style — this was, after all, the cake for a gay beauty pageant. And yet, despite all these new elements, the local obsession with gender in same-sex relations remained very present.
To view a slideshow go to mg.co.za/countrygays