/ 26 September 1997

A matter of pride

Charl Blignaut

As last years Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade wound its way through Johannesburgs grimy inner city, a rumour began to circulate amongst the marchers. The organisers, it was said, were planning to move the 1997 event north to upper-class Sandton or Rosebank away from its roots and even further from Soweto.

To more than a handful of the 10 000-odd marchers this was a worrying sign and not the only one to present itself that year. Artist and activist Steven Cohen carried a large banner reading: Give us your children; what we cant fuck we eat. He intended it to be read as a send-up of the fear of the child-molesting fag. But few understood and many were unamused. One official tried to have the banner removed; the artist demanded his right to the freedom of expression that South Africas gay and lesbian community had fought so hard to achieve.

That year also witnessed the first audible rumblings of discontent from a portion of the non-racial but mainly black Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (Glow). Under the presidency of South Africas foremost moffie, Simon Nkoli, Glow was increasingly unhappy with what it regarded as the sidelining of the black brothers and sisters who had initiated the event in pre-election 1990, then more a protest march than parade. Toil and trouble in Fairyland or inevitable growing pains of an increasingly diverse post-liberation gay community?

A year later, on the eve of the 1997 parade and its afterparty, these issues continue to provide fertile ground for debate.

Firstly, Cohens banner seems to have taken on a life of its own. For months after the event, those 10 words were vigorously discussed. Cohen was roundly condemned for painting a negative image of the gay community. A year later, feelings still run high. A cross-section of high-profile gay figures was approached for comment this week and almost everyone said that they could not appreciate the work. But most added that they would not attempt to censor Cohen if he pulled a similar move this year.

But the banner has had a bizarre spin-off: the 1997 parade committee put out a call to the marchers to bring gifts and donations to a variety of child-abuse funds, orphanages and the counselling service Childline. Gary Bath, co-chair of the committee, this week said this was because of that controversial banner. We want to say were not really that bad.

Its a sentiment that has stunned some gay leaders. Are we going to compromise our homosexuality so much that we forget our own kind? Im not going to buy a toy for a child when there are gay people with HIV unattended, said Nkoli this week. Cohen agrees: Im trying to buy us out of the disappearance into heterosexual culture.

The whole banner issue points to what many refer to the sanitising of the event. The committee is looking to redeem its black sheep by proving just how normal we all actually are. Acceptance of diversity within the gay and lesbian community, says Exit editor Gavin Haywood, is at stake.

The small matter of the route also points to a larger debate. The parade committee seems intent on moving the march northward, even though a survey among marchers last year showed the crowd wanted to stay in town and even though the initiative was outvoted at a recent parade meeting. Bath says:Were still considering it. Complainants must come forward.

The current route takes marchers past noted early gay and lesbian dives; through Hillbrow and the citys most famous (and only racially mixed) gay bars. How do the majority of black marchers get north without money? asked one regular marcher. The sponsors, too, dont want any confrontational issues raised.

Haywood points out that most queers are actually fairly suburban and normal and by and large theyre accepted in society. White queers, perhaps, but it is not always so with black gays and lesbians.

Which is the problem that Nkoli and parade committee member Peter Mohlahledi have with the afterparty. Most black gays and lesbians simply cannot afford the minimum R55 ticket to the huge Mother Productions party at Johannesburgs South Station organised by Peter White. At any rate, no rave attracts more than a small handful of black people. Mohlahledi also points out that the posters to the afterparty give no clear sign that its a gay and lesbian event. Some people fear that White will be using the platform to stage just another Mother party.

And not everyone agrees with the current agenda, or the way the march presents itself. Nkoli feels its too soon and far too easy to be calling the event truly African. Nomfundo Luphondwana, one of the executive of South Africas national gay and lesbian coalition, hopes that, before the end of the century, the lesbian contingent will take a stronger lead in the event. She agrees that the elite must be challenged but not from the sidelines. Individuals, she says, must take ownership of the event.

And thats the thing. Its very easy for the gay and lesbian community to criticise. But what are they doing about the slippage between black and white, queer and gay, gay and lesbian, march and parade?

Although we have race, gender and class differences, we welcome the unity, says Luphondwana. And thats the other thing. Whatever the debates, everyone approached for comment this week said that they would be there, marching.

After all, the Minister of Justice is to oppose the demand for the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual relations. And everyone approached was far angrier about that than any other issue.