Gay Shame in Johannesburg

The confrontation at Johannesburg Pride between white organizers and a group of black activists demanding Pride honor those killed, mostly black, for their sexuality, in South Africa.

Image Credit: Babak Fakhamzadeh (via Flickr CC).

Dear Tanya Harford and Jenny Green: At 3am in my hotel room last night, jetlagged and sleepless, I was dawdling online and read about the confrontation at Johannesburg Pride between you and a group of black lesbians and feminists who were forcing the march to halt, and demanding a mere 1 minute of silence for all of those who have been raped and killed across South Africa for their sexual orientation or gender expression. I then clicked on the accompanying video and saw one of you revving your car and threatening to drive over the women blocking the way with their banners and their bodies. I saw another of you hurl your white self at one of the black protesters and begin to fight. And as one of the other marchers yelled, ‘go back to the location’, my body turned hot and cold and I started to cry. Not only cry. I sobbed.

I sobbed for the memory of those heady days in the early 90s when we went to the first Gay and Lesbian film festivals. When the likes of Judge Albie Sachs came and spoke at the opening nights and we turned to one another and said, ‘would you ever have imagined?’ When we went to see everything, no matter how bad and experimental, just because it felt so great to see others like us up on the screen.

I sobbed for the memory of the Pride marches I had been on. When it started in downtown Johannesburg and wound through Hillbrow, and the residents of the high rises came down and lined the street as we walked past. Some people shouting encouragement, others yelling abuse. Not because of our race but because of who we slept with. The clusters of mean-faced Christians with their banners yelling ‘God Hates Fags’ and ‘Turn or Burn’. One year we had a piece of the Rainbow Flag from the Pride parade in New York. It was as wide as the road and about 100m long. We held on to it as it billowed in waves, feeling a thrill of connection with that fabled parade across the Atlantic.

I sobbed for the pride we felt when discrimination was outlawed in the Constitution. When we won immigration rights for same-sex partners. When our marriages were legalized.

I sobbed for the women and men I’ve met over the past few years who have still not felt the benefit of all these wonders. Women who cannot bear children because a doctor thought they should be forcibly sterilized simply for being HIV positive. Women and men and trans-people who have shown me the marks and scars on their bodies from fists and knives and ropes and God knows what. The most amazing woman I met early this year, who carries her passport as her most treasured possession – because it means that if she is killed, somebody will know who she is and be able to tell her children what happened to her. All the incredible, truly courageous people across our country for whom you could not spare a minute of silence. Sixty seconds out of 1440 available that day.

Dear Tanya and Jenny, watching what you did on Saturday, my tears surprised me. I’ve seen much worse. Your action was not a crime and a tragedy on the scale of Marikana. It was not even startling and unusual. We’ve always known that racism and bigotry is as rampant in the LGBTI community as it is in the rest of South Africa. What you did was mundane and nasty and mean.

My sobs startled me. You didn’t violate any legacy of mine. I’m no great struggle hero. I’ve been to my share of marches and protests and parades but I haven’t been jailed or beaten or sacrificed terribly much.

Nevertheless, what you did on Saturday, dear Tanya, Jenny and company, robbed me of something sacred. You spat on all of those who have marched before you. You severed any semblance of a connection with a proud legacy. All that pride I’d learned and nurtured and expressed over the years, you took it away. And you replaced it with shame.

Shame on you.

Shame on you.

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