Maverick Citizen: Pride March

A love letter to my queer family

By Bev Ditsie 24 October 2019

(Photo: Sharon McCutcheon / Unsplash)

Long-time queer activist Bev Ditsie has written an open letter to ‘My Dearest Family – across the entire queer spectrum’, paying tribute to those who gave birth to this wonderful human rights movement, but also taking to task those who wish for it to be a celebration, forgetting the very real struggles that many still have every day.

My Dearest Family – across the entire queer spectrum

My name is Bev Ditsie.

I am one of the founders of the first Pride March in 1990, and an alumni of one of the first multiracial/multicultural LGBTIQA organisations on the continent, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand, GLOW.

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/movements, but also as a country.

This is the time of the year where I mourn the loss of the dream that began 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 like 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 etc. 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 all other human beings.

To this end, visibility, particularly black visibility, would be key. Gay people had been relegated to living in the shadows, in 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 unAfrican and trying to adopt some mindless, pointless Western existence – or even worse, an existence whose intention is to destroy Africa and Africanism – a preposterous idea considering many of us 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 everyday life, we decided the entire event would be free. GLOW held fundraising events throughout the year and those members 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 centre of Johannesburg was normally 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 we were fighting an intersectional fight. New word, I know, but we understood 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.

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.

Edwin Cameron (now a retired Constitutional Court judge) said: “Criminal law is for criminals. Gays and lesbians are not criminals”.

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 remember there was something that sounded like an apology to Simon (Nkoli). 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 activist, he sought support from the only gay organisation that existed at the time, the Gay Association of South Africa – Gasa.

Gasa responded by saying it does not support terrorists.

I was already reading and learning from warriors like Audre Lorde, and was reminded of her saying that: “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 was (and still is) a position of power and privilege, especially in apartheid South Africa, so of course, Gasa was simply fighting to belong, while Simon and all of us, wanted to topple the whole damn system.

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

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.

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 march should be changed from Pride March 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 Audre Lorde’s words:

I remember even 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.

By the late 1990s, the Pride March became the Pride Parade, changing routes, charging entrance fees, changing the fundamental essence of what the first Pride 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 then called Heartland. There was real 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.

While some argued that that was the exact reason why the route had been changed to the relative safety of suburbia, with its high walls, others argued that that’s 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.

Most of you probably know what happened in 2012 when the One in nine campaign 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.

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 driving seat of her convertible Jeep: “This is my Pride, this is my route”, but the white man next to her, zap signs in the air, yelling at her to: “Drive over them, don’t stop, run them over.” This is before the fists started flying.

Later, Tanya Harford said 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 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 is a lie.

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. Besides the fact that it was never hers to cancel, many of us didn’t really care. Well, at least, I had convinced myself that I had stopped caring.

The 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 also personally boycotted the Parade. But the people’s pride is struggling. Understandably, this is a labour of love, and the politics take everything out of you. It is commendable that Soweto Pride has tenaciously held on, against so many odds.

So I’m sure you are asking why I wrote this lengthy letter. That’s 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 and 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 that have not, and might never experience the feeling of community, of belonging, the feeling of Pride in its fullness.

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.

So this year I have decided to do something different.

I have decided to celebrate.

My friends and I will be having a picnic at Zoo Lake to commemorate this day. We will have our cooler boxes, our little fireplaces and I actually intend to enjoy this day.

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.

Those of you who would like to celebrate with us, you’re welcome.

Happy Pride

I love you all so much. Please be safe.

Yours Always

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

P.S 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, de-­‐politicized, elitist concept born of the ignorance and 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 those who sacrificed themselves in all sorts of ways to make that first Pride March a possibility, people you have not consulted with or interacted with 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. MC

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