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Pride and prejudice: The parallels between the LGBTQ st...

Defend Truth

Opinionista

Pride and prejudice – the parallels between the LGBTQ struggle histories of the US and SA

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Mpho Buntse is a Queer activist currently serving as national head of communication for Embrace Diversity Movement and leader of the ANCWL LGBTIQ+ Desk. He is a fellow of the Young Diplomats Forum, Mandela Washington Fellowship and Victory Institute. He is the co-founder of the annual Simon Nkoli Memorial Lecture.

As in the case of the US, the first Pride on the African continent took place out of a moment of resistance against a system that oppressed not only black people, but also pathologised same-sex love and desiring.

June is set aside globally to observe and commemorate Pride in the United States (and beyond) and, to this end, there have been myriad events to mark this month worldwide. 

Beyond the remarkable visibility the commemorative events have generated, there is also an important history that remains central in how the month came to be celebrated.

Although not part of our Struggle history as South Africa, these events culminated in what we know as Pride Month today, but also how the two histories – South Africa and the US – intersect. 

Pride Month commemoration is largely attributed to the 1969 Stonewall uprising and the resulting riots in other parts of the world.

In conceptualising the importance of the day through a contemporary lens, we ought to understand the origins of this history and how it came to be. Perhaps the starting point is the precise watershed moment in the history of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movement in the US and beyond.

The story begins in June 1969 (well, at least for the US – for SA, similar events had occurred three years earlier) when revellers and regulars of what is now deemed America’s monument and symbol of resistance, the Stonewall Inn in New York City, staged an uprising in protest against the harassment and persecution by police of LGBT people. 

The uprising marked the commencement of a movement to outlaw laws and practices that discriminated against LGBT Americans.

Although these sporadic uprisings were to later influence other movements across the globe, in South Africa there had been an event much like the Stonewall riots regarding the raiding of queer social spaces.

The Forest Town raid was a 1966 police raid that targeted LGBT people in Forest Town, Johannesburg. The raid prompted the then government to pass anti-homosexuality laws, with the 1969 amendment of the Immorality Act prohibiting men from engaging in any form of erotic demeanour when there were more than two people present.

For both the US and South Africa, the two events were to be the tipping point for LGBT organising and uprising against the state. 

In 1970, both countries saw some great developments pertaining to the visibility and representation of the LGBT struggle, with the US hosting the first gay Pride, the Christopher Street Liberation Day, on 28 June.

In South Africa, the gay rights movement formed later that year, with gay rights organisations forming coalitions. Although the movement was divided along racial lines, the period still marked some show of resistance against a government that was anti-homosexuality. The movement developed, despite the government’s opposition.

The following years have largely been characterised by developments and some impediments to the LGBT movement in both the US and SA. The period between 1979 through to 1994 had seen almost all US states banning same-sex marriage, reversing the efforts by members of the Gay Activists Alliance to demand marriage rights for same-sex couples at New York City’s Marriage License Bureau in 1971. This victory had earlier led to the first same-sex marriage licence issued by the bureau on 4 June 1971.

South Africa, on the other hand, has a young history of same-sex marriage recognition compared with its counterpart, the US. It was not until 2006 when Parliament – through former Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Nqcuka – signed into law the Civil Union Act.

The act became central in setting the scene to allow same-sex marriages the same marital privileges as prescribed by the law of South Africa. In a landmark decision of the Constitutional Court (Minister of Home Affairs v Fourie) on 1 December 2005, Parliament was given one year to rectify the inequality in the marriage statutes and signed the amended law just a day before the Constitutional Court’s deadline.

This effort was a culmination of the lobbying by the LGBTQ movement – a movement that has over the years asserted its position and struggle for equality, representation, visibility, access to justice and erotic freedom. This became apparent when LGBT activists in South Africa organised the first Pride on 13 October 1990.

Activists including Bev Ditsie, Simon Nkoli and Edwin Cameron pioneered this first Pride march as both a celebration and a political statement. Over the years, Pride in South Africa has taken many shapes and forms, with many other smaller Pride events and activities happening in and outside the month of October.

We cannot devalue the eruption of these forms of Pride and protest, simply because they are what define our contemporary struggle as the LGBTQ, while dedicating the month of October is an act of reflection and highlight of the history of the origins of our very own Pride. This remains central to preserving the legacy of this struggle as well as immortalising those who died for this recognition.

As in the case of the US, the first Pride on the African continent took place out of a moment of resistance against a system that oppressed not only black people, but also pathologised same-sex love and desiring. It is because of these negative perceptions that societies through their conservative stances erased the histories that positioned the realities of the LGBTQ on the continent at the forefront of our collective struggle for equality.

This erasure, coupled with resulting violations and victimisation, has seen countries declare harsher laws as a deterrent and penal approach to oppress homosexuality. 

Although the situation has changed drastically for the queer communities in both the US and South Africa, the LGBTQ is still confronted with many societal challenges carried by the legacy of this oppression against the community throughout history.

We therefore observe Pride Month as a symbol of resistance and solidarity not just for the two countries, but for the many voiceless queer persons across the globe. 

So, next time you see and hear us exclaiming and chanting “Happy Pride Month”, know that we are celebrating an intersectional history of Pride, prejudice and protest – not just a seven-colour spectacle. DM

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