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Capitalising on Pride month: ‘Swiping on the rainbow’ while stepping on black queer bodies

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Thiyane Duda is a researcher at the Land and Accountability Research Centre at the University of Cape Town. His focus area of research is traditional governance and living customary law. His other research interest is the lives of the black LGBTQI+ community in South Africa, especially in relation to indigenous cultural practices.

The commercialisation of the struggles of the LGBTQI+ community is quite frankly immoral. For big brands to simply paste a rainbow on their merchandise while remaining silent about the violence perpetrated on particularly black working-class queer bodies is a prime example of the exploitative and perverse nature of capitalism.

As June — the month reserved for the observance of LGBTQI+ Pride — ends, it is important to reflect on its meaning in the South African context. Over the past few weeks, and months, preceding June, I have been struck by two contrasting phenomena that left me confused and infuriated.

On the one hand, the beginning of June was marked by a sudden inundation of social media platforms with a variety of brands aligning themselves with the struggle of the LGBTQI+ community by putting out collections with rainbow flag-inspired graphics and designs.

These include Converse SA, Ralph Lauren, New Balance, Puma SA, and others. Even Woolworths SA joined the rush to swipe on the rainbow and slapped a big rainbow across the entire façade of their Green Point store in Cape Town. One could not help but question whether this amounts to genuine support for the struggles of LGBTQI+ people, or if it was simply rainbow capitalism.

On the other hand, this month we have been confronted by an increased number of news reports about the brutal murders, or suicides, of LGBTQI+ people due to homophobia: Phelokazi Ndlwana, Robyn Montsumi, Motse Moeketsi, Aubrey Boshoga, Bonang Gaelae, Nonhlanhla Kunene, Sphamandla Khoza, Nathaniel “Spokgoane” Mbele, Andile “Lulu” Ntuthela, Lonwabo Jack and Lucky Kleinboy Motshabi are some of the people who have been murdered recently.  

This is not new. Perhaps more startlingly, the patterns of victimisation reflect a continuation of the gendered ways in which violence occurs throughout society. To quote Le Grand Ball’s recent post on Instagram, “what is even more tragic is that this has been happening within the community with our Lesbian sisters and the Trans community, and it’s only now that Gay men are being attacked that there seems to be more activism around the vocalisation of #JusticeforQueerSA.”

Important to highlight further is race and class as additional markers, as most violence has been particularly targeted at the black working-class section of the LGBTQI+ community.  

Many in the LGBTQI+ community have marched and used social media to create awareness and mobilise support in condemning these brutal murders and to seek justice. The government, however, has been silent. This despite the Constitution protecting all against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In the face of the continued violence what is most deceptive, disingenuous, insensitive and quite frankly immoral is the commercialisation of the struggles of the LGBTQI+ community. For big brands and corporations such as Woolworths, Converse SA, Puma SA, New Balance, and others to simply paste a rainbow on their merchandise and walls while remaining silent about the violence perpetrated on particularly black working-class queer bodies is a prime example of the exploitative, and perverse nature of capitalism.

What has been hyper-visible throughout Pride month has been these brands’ pride merchandise more than the outrage about the murders that have been taking place.

Puma SA, for example, has the rainbow flag as its profile picture on its Instagram account, yet there is no information anywhere else on its various platforms, including its website, about how it s supporting the LGBTQI+ community and how those who are in need of its support can access that support.

Woolworths too has shared no information on why the entire façade of its Green Point store has been rainbow flagged, and on what interventions the chain is engaged in to make a difference for the struggles of the LGBTIQ+ community.

Converse SA is the only one that had some information. It is on its sixth annual Pride collection, which explores the duality of struggle and joy along the journey to self-love. It was created by a group of LGBTQI+ “All-Stars” from around the world, working with Converse designers. The collection “proudly supports various LGBTQI+ charities across the world”.

While donations to LGBTQI+ charities are needed and make a difference, it is still problematic that Converse SA has remained silent about the murders taking place here in South Africa, while it has aligned itself with the struggle of the LGBTQI+ community.

This is even more so considering that the demographic being murdered are some of the biggest supporters of Converse. This makes its intentions with its charity donations questionable. Is donating to charity a means to an end?

The superficial nature of these brands’ support is also revealed by the fact that they are hyper-visible in spaces that are less in need of urgent interventions while turning a blind eye to where they are desperately needed, and where there is continued gruesome loss of life.

This is exactly what the “Pride wars” have been about — Pride, which started as a protest, being turned into a party enjoyed largely by white middle-class gay men, while black lesbians and transwomen are being murdered. 

A friend, reacting to the rainbow bombing of Green Point Woolworths, for example, stated that “… everyone knows Green Point is probably the safest space”. This is because Green Point is the location of Cape Town’s world-famous gay village and is largely home to white gay men. This is a demographic that is hardly in the news for being targeted for brutal homophobic violence.

In a country where race, class, gender, sexuality and violence share a complex relationship, the geographic exclusivity of the brands’ support reveals racial socioeconomic bias. It is the demographic that lives in places such as Green Point that often can afford both the money to buy the rainbow-flagged merchandise and the freedom to wear it openly without fear of homophobic backlash.

It is clear that even within the spaces and demographics targeted by these brands and corporates, the intention is not to build community. Rather, it is to “swipe on the rainbow”. The attraction to these spaces is fuelled by the perception that the LGBTQI+ community has disposable income. This is a clear hijacking and exploitation of the struggle of the LGBTQI+ community for profit, what has been called “rainbow capitalism”.

This explains why members of the LGBTQI+ community continues to suffer brutal murders even while we wear our rainbow-flagged New Balance and Converse sneakers. It is clear that a different form of activism and support is needed. While painting rainbows on merchandise and walls is important for the visibility of LGBTQI+ communities, this is not enough to confront homophobia.

The corporates that have shown allegiance through brand visibility have the economic and social capital that could save lives if they could just decide to direct their support and interventions to where they are needed: in the marginalised spaces.

If they are serious about supporting the life-threatening struggles of the LGBTQI+ community, they could go further than brand visibility and donating to charity, and begin to seek guidance from those who have been active on these issues for years, such as the Triangle Project in Cape Town and activists such as Funeka Soldaat, Yaya Mavundla, Prof Zethu Matebeni, Zanele Muholi and many others.

They could support social justice movements and join activists who ceaselessly campaign to end homophobia and to bring about justice.

They could join the LGBTQI+ community to petition President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene urgently to stop the brutal murders of queer bodies, especially those that are black and poor. DM

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