Love Letter to my queer family

In 1990 Dr. Bev Ditsie took part in the very first Pride March at the age of 17.

In 1990 Dr. Bev Ditsie took part in the very first Pride March at the age of 17.

My dearest family — across the entire queer spectrum

I am one of the founders of the first Pride March in 1990 and an alumnus of The Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) which was one of the first multiracial and multicultural lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, asexual (LGBTIQA) organisations on the continent.

This love letter is long overdue, I know.

I’ve been silently and not so silently watching and listening to the debates, the recriminations, denials and PR spin in relation to Pride, and silently bleeding while deflecting the annual obligatory requests for media interviews.

For the past 20 years or so, this time of the year has been a very painful time for me. This is the time where I am reminded of my failure as an activist and leader and our collective failure not just as LGBTIQA people, organisations and movements, but also as a country.
This is the time of the year when I mourn the loss of the dream that launched the first Pride March in 1990.

Allow me to be nostalgic. This is, after all, a love letter. The handful of us, inspired by the unbanning of all liberation movements and freedom fighters such as Nelson Mandela and our founder and leader Simon Nkoli were brimming with hope when this march was conceived.

We were from different backgrounds, different races, ages, genders, orientations, abilities, etcetera … and it didn’t matter. We were a mish-mash of diverse people unified by one goal — to be seen, heard and one day to be treated with the dignity and respect that is enjoyed by other human beings.

To this end visibility, particularly black visibility, would be key. Gay people had been relegated to living in the shadows, on the margins, living in shame and subjected to all sorts of abuses and injustices and we had had enough. Even further, the accepted notion from our black families and communities was (and still is) that we are un-African and trying to adopt some mindless, pointless Western existence — or even worse, an existence that intends to destroy Africa and Africanism.

Pride 1990 (Donne Rundle Collection, GALA Queer Archives)

READ MORE: A matter of pride

It was a preposterous idea considering that many of us actually love our traditions and cultures and are part of the fabric of this soil.

We understood that Pride was a political act, an act of protest at these injustices as well as a celebration of our existence.

We were no longer begging for our freedom. We were taking it.

To ensure the inclusivity that we generally didn’t feel in our every day lives, we decided that the entire event would be free. GLOW held fundraising events throughout the year and those who could also contributed an annual membership fee.

Accessibility to the event was another key factor. The city of Johannesburg has always attracted people from all corners of the country and the city centre was usually accessible by at least one mode of transport. Braamfontein was our starting point. It also made sense to go through Hillbrow. This suburb signified freedom for the young white folk, for the queer folk, as well as a new kind of freedom for the black person as it was one of the first suburbs to allow black people access to both housing and entertainment. And yes, that’s also where the gay bars were found.

Everyone at GLOW understood that we were fighting an intersectional fight. New word, I know, but we understood that we were waging a struggle that recognised all our struggles — across gender, race, social standing or economic status. Everyone had a vision of this freedom, even if we could not articulate it at the time.

A Pride 1990 poster (Donne Rundle Collection, GALA Queer Archives)

“Today, we are here to show the world that we here in SA have been oppressed for too long, and we are tired. We are here to show the world that we are proud of who we are,” I said on that podium.

Justice Edwin Cameron said: “Criminal law is for criminals. Gays and lesbians are not criminals”.

READ MORE: An open letter of thanks to Justice Edwin Cameron

Simon clinched it when he spoke about being black and gay and fighting for the liberation of his entire being: “I am black, I am gay, I cannot separate the two parts of myself into secondary or primary struggle. They are one.”

Donne Rundle read the manifesto of demands. It was a march after all. I don’t remember what Hendrik Pretorius said.

I do remember there was something that sounded like an apology to Simon. This created a buzz in the space. I was only 17 years old, and new to the politics, but I soon learned the significance of this almost-apology.

In the early 1980s when Simon was first arrested as a student [anti-apartheid] activist, he sought support from the only gay organsisation that existed at the time, the Gay Association of South Africa — GASA. It responded by saying that it did not support terrorists.

I was already reading and learning from warriors such Audre Lorde and was reminded of her saying: “Gay white men were not here to change the status quo, but to belong to it.” Why would they want to change anything? To be white, male and able-bodied is a position of power and privilege, especially in apartheid South Africa. So, of course, GASA was simply fighting to belong, whereas Simon and all of us wanted to topple the whole damn system.

That “apology” created a buzz because it acknowledged many things that usually remain unsaid. We marched that year, and every year after, in defiance, in celebration, in pride and in protest.

Simon Nkoli and Dr Bev Ditsie pictured at a gathering (Donne Rundle Collection, GALA Queer Archives)

And even after the new Constitution was adopted in 1996, ensuring our rights, the violence and intimidation continued unabated, especially for those of us in the townships, rural areas, in homophobic homes and communities. We marched to continue to reclaim our dignity and our rightful space in society.

READ MORE: Fear and violence still rule gay township life

So, you can imagine my shock sometime in the mid 1990s when the Pride committee, made up of mostly white men, started suggesting that the Pride March should be changed to Pride Parade. I don’t remember who else was there, but I remember distinctly Paul Stobbs, then chair of the committee, saying that queer people were now free and there was no longer a need to protest.

I remembered Lorde’s words and I remember saying: “You have always been free. But I am not.”

I am not sure if I said this out loud, or if I was even heard, but by the late 1990s, the Pride March became the Pride Parade, changing routes, charging entrance fees and changing the fundamental essence of what the first march stood for.

Gay white South Africa could finally openly celebrate their freedom without being encumbered by the rest of us and our struggles.

There were two occasions when there was an attempt at an alternative. One was in 1999 when Pride started and ended in Newtown. It was a heroic compromise that began when the inaugural International Lesbian and Gay Association Conference was held in Johannesburg. The next occasion was in 2004 when a different committee took over. This route started in Braamfontein, went through Hillbrow and ended back in Braamfontein, at a gay hub called Heartland. There was palpable fear during that parade, and not unjustified. There was a feeling of hostility in the air and this was exacerbated when someone threw a bottle at the revellers from a balcony. Someone was injured.

Some argued that that was the reason why the route had been changed to the relative safety of suburbia, with its high walls, whereas others argued that that was exactly why the route needed to stay.

Of course, the inevitable happened. The Rosebank route was loved by many but obviously missed the point. Zoo Lake, even after fighting the entrance fee, became another mess with its exclusionary policies — including choice of entertainment, expensive refreshments and, once again, the sense of hostility and exclusion. Our people rectified this very easily. We stopped “parading” and gathered on the other side of the fence from the main event. We were there, but on our own terms.

Annually, the violations, discrimination, gang rapes and murders in the townships continued unabated, while Pride continued to celebrate in suburbia.

READ MORE: Pride in the suburbs

Most of you probably know what happened in 2012, when the womxn’s organisation One-In-Nine disrupted Pride. By the time I arrived on Jan Smuts Avenue some of the womxn were already at the Rosebank Police Station. A few had been injured and were taken to hospital. The bruises were not just physical.

READ MORE: No cause to celebrate a racist Pride

What will stay with me for the rest of my life is not Tanya Harford — then chair and main organiser — screaming at my sisters from the driver’s seat of her convertible Jeep: “This is my Pride; this is my route,” but the white man next to her, pulling zap signs in the air and yelling at her to: “Drive over them, don’t stop, run them over.” This was before the fists started flying.

Later Harford said that she didn’t realise that the 12 or so black womxn standing on Jan Smuts Avenue were queer. She just saw black bodies and they spelled danger. She also insisted that there was no way to stop the momentum of the parade for a moment of silence.

Well, having been to marches and parades in many parts of the world, in hostile and friendly places, I can tell you that that is not true.

Also, the continuing insistence that Pride cannot be both political and celebratory is also a lie rooted in racist, elitist privilege and a refusal to even try.

She decided to cancel Pride the next year, despite the fact that it was never hers to cancel. Many of us didn’t really care. Well, I had at least convinced myself that I had stopped caring.

People’s Pride was established in 2013 and organised a few very political marches. It was awesome to see some of the people who had personally boycotted the Parade. But People’s Pride is struggling. Understandably, this is a labour of love and the politics takes everything out of you. It is commendable that Soweto Pride has tenaciously held on against so many odds.

READ MORE: Pride does justice proud

I’m sure you are wondering why I wrote this lengthy letter. It is because I keep thinking that I don’t care for the Johannesburg Pride Parade.

Yet, every single year, spring brings with it a fresh wave of anguish.

I refuse to do interviews, but when I do accept to talk to one person or another, I find myself saying the same thing over and over again. White, gay, middle-class queer people have everything to celebrate. Let them. I am personally not concerned with them.

I’m just sad for all the black queers who have not and might never experience the feeling of community, of belonging, the feeling of Pride to its fullest.

This is why I cannot call for or even support the boycott of Pride. I cannot in good conscience deprive anyone of the experience even if it is tainted with a sense of mistrust and hostility.

I have been sad for 20 years. This year I have decided to do something different.

I have decided to celebrate. 

Those of you going to the Johannesburg Pride Parade, enjoy yourselves. You know what this is about, and why you are there. Take up the space. Make it yours. After all, it belongs to you, whether you are from Alex or Camps Bay. 

Happy Pride!

I love you all so much. Please be safe. Yours always,

Dr Bev Palesa Ditsie (Hon, CGU, CAL, USA).

PS. To the Johannesburg Pride Parade organisers, please rectify the information on your pages. Johannesburg Pride Parade was not born in 1990 (September or October). The Lesbian and Gay Pride March was born in 1990 and this was not just an event, it was a movement, a philosophy born of an understanding of all our intersectional struggles.

The concept of the parade was established in 1994. This is an entirely different, depoliticised, elitist concept born of the ignorance and the lack of care for other less privileged members of this so-called community.

In claiming to be born in 1990, you are in essence erasing me, Simon Nkoli, Donne Rundle, Terry Myburg, Roy Shepherd, Edwin Cameron, Paul Mokgethi, Phybia Dlamini, Lesley Mtambo, Mark Gevisser, Andrew Lindsey, Gerry Davidson, Diane, Patience, Tshidi, Linda, Zaza and all the others who sacrificed themselves in all sorts of ways to make that first Pride March a possibility.

You have not consulted or interacted with us in any way while you make these claims.

So, while this rewriting of history makes for great PR, it is in fact an act of erasure. Please rectify it.

Bev Ditsie

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