Through the lens of queer Indian South Africans

Queer Indians are largely invisible in South Africa's LGBT discourse. But representation is not enough, we need political transformation and multi-racial class solidarity.

Image © Maya Bhardwaj.

The weekend of October 29, 2022, marked the first in-person Pride march in Johannesburg, South Africa,  since 2019, and its arrival was fraught. Amidst the a terror warning from the US government, LGBTQIA+ marchers and revellers debated whether to join the festivities in Sandton, the city’s wealthy financial district. But the organizers were vehement, releasing a statement that appeared to emphasize that pride is protest.

On face, this could seem like a fierce affirmation of the radical and political roots of Pride, harking back to Simon Nkoli and GLOW’s assertion of the right of Black queer people in South Africa to exist and thrive in the public eye, and to the US-based Black and Latine drag queens, sex workers, and transwomen who led the Stonewall riots. (Nkoli was a prominent anti-apartheid, youth, and gay rights activist; GLOW, founded in 1988, rejected the pro-apartheid stance of white-dominated LGBTQ+ organizations at the time and agitated both for an end to apartheid and for queer liberation. It is thanks to the work of GLOW, a Black queer organization, that queer rights are enshrined in the South African Constitution.) The march was led by Black queer people adorned in rainbows and traditional regalia, who marched while singing struggle songs. The majority of the crowd in Sandton was Black. And the most public figure from the Johannesburg Pride organizing team was an Indian South African queer woman, Kaye Ally, who describes herself as a founder of Pride in Africa, the organization that helms the current iteration Johannesburg’s Pride march.

But these visuals of a rainbow nation belie the political tensions around Jozi’s Pride, and queer liberation in South Africa. Therein lies a story about the conflict between (neo)liberalism, leftism, and (non)racial politics, which reveals contestations about the future of South Africa, particularly through the lens of queer Indian South Africans.

There is little that’s been historically documented about queer Indian South African people, either in activism or more broadly. In 2017, Rumana Akoob wrote in the Daily Vox that an academic looking for stories of queer Indian South Africans found “no research on the experiences of Indian South Africans. When Indian people were mentioned in studies, there was a lot of conflation of race and religion.” Suntosh Pillay, a researcher quoted by Akoob, recently released a 2022 article outlining the results of a study in follow-up to Akoob’s article. Pillay writes, “Despite a substantial body of research on Indian sub-culture in South Africa, few studies have explored its intersection with sexual and gender diversity. Similarly, despite growing research on the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in South Africa, there are few studies exploring its intersection with local Indian sub-groups.”

As a queer Indian activist who grew up in the diaspora—now focusing on writing a PhD that explores diasporic South Asian and Indian South African activism and queernesses—I  have also had difficulty finding evidence of queer Indian South African presence and activism in the archive. While this is true in other South Asian and Indian diasporas, there are usually select exceptions, especially from the 1960s onwards in the cases of, for example, the US and the UK. I was sure that LGBTQIA+ Indian South Africans must have a footprint, but from historical footage from GLOW meetings, to beauty salons in District 6, the central Cape Town district razed by apartheid, to footage of protests and drag shows, finding evidence of their presence has been occluded. My research has led me to search out these stories beyond the accessible archive, through conversations with academics, cultural workers, and activists. When I’ve asked scholars of Indian South African history and Indian South African movement elders about this, many have confirmed that queer Indian South Africans were certainly present in anti-apartheid movement history. Yet, while their queerness was known, it was not talked about.

The increasing visibility of queer Indian South African visibility is notable. From Kaye Ally’s role as the chairperson of Pride in Africa, to gallery shows focusing on queer Indian South African aesthetics and lived experiences, to public figures and celebrities such as Imraan Vagar claiming their queerness in interviews about their work and life, LGBTQ+ South Africans are emerging on South African public and political scenes in new ways.

But visibility is not always the same as shared politics.

In a statement released by Johannesburg Pride and Pride of Africa on social media, organizers referred to the roots of Pride as “a protest action” and “a defiant campaign,” invoking Jozi Pride’s militant and radical roots. But, at the same time, the statement includes the assertion that “all lives matter,” a phrase whose history as a racist response to Black Lives Matter protests seems at best a non sequitur, and at worst an insidious political statement within the context of a majority-Black Pride in a majority-Black South Africa where police violence runs rampant.

When speaking to their vision of Pride in 2022, the Johannesburg Pride organizers were explicit. In an interview with Bongani Bingwa of 702, Ally and others in leadership of Pride in Jozi said that “I think that if we had to call on hardcore protests, hardcore riots, we would not appeal to the new generation.” Later on, organizers described how they “went back to the drawing board many times with Johannesburg Pride to keep it relevant,” favoring a more “celebratory tone” for the 2022 celebrations.

Many raised questions about who had cause for celebration and for whom exactly Pride was designed to be relevant. Devon Thomas wrote in EWN that “Pride is now, above all else, a normative celebration of vaguely accepted identities and no longer meant to be a transgressive political statement.” Contestations about the meaning of Pride have been raised by many in previous years, most notably by 1 in 9 when a contingent of queer Black feminist activists shut down the 2012 Pride Parade in protest of the corporatization of Pride and the continued murders of working-class Black LGBTQIA+ individuals. In 2012, their banner blocking the march read “no cause for celebration.” With such murders of Black queer people continuing today, the message still resonates with some who feel the march has been transformed into a party accessible only for the lucky few.

The 2022 Pride revealed not only disagreements about the meaning of Pride, but also splits between queer Indian South African activists who believe that representation is sufficient, and those who consider the modern march to be a co-optation of Pride and have hopes for greater political and social transformations. Lara Reddy, an Indian South African educator and anarchist activist with Food not Bombs, held up a sign that said, “Whose Pride?” She argued that Pride’s location in Sandton favored rich and white queers over the working-class Black queer communities that Jozi Pride originated within. Reddy argues that “Pride today is a corporate, money-making, capitalist event for privileged queers.” She described the 2022 events as disconnected from her hopes for queer liberation and her memories of the revolutionary spirit of the first Jozi Pride. Instead, Reddy described local community activism and mutual aid as true pathways towards queer liberation and systems change. Speaking of the work of her comrades for worker justice, gender justice, and queer liberation, she said, “We have a lot of neoliberal feminists and queer people that live far removed from any sort of movement or space…it feels racialized and culturalist. But a lot of my friends, a lot of Black and Indian working-class activists actually, somehow are queer. But we don’t wear it on our sleeve.” She said that this was not only because of concerns about safety in majority-white spaces and in home environments, but also because of desires to centre multiple racial, class, and ideological struggles alongside queer liberation. Reddy’s juxtaposition of neoliberal queer and feminist activists with working-class Black and Brown queer activists clearly rejects representational politics in favor of class struggle and systems transformation.

Raees Noorbhai, a queer Indian South African socialist activist and student, has raised similar qualms about representational politics. He emphasizes the inseparability of queer liberation and the overthrow of capitalism, arguing that we must “link the struggle against queerphobia with other struggles.” In a blog entry critiquing queerphobic violence, Raees writes that “when we march for queer liberation, we must be militant” and decried the violence of “a capitalist order which manufactures homelessness.” He also explicitly indicts Israeli claims to gay pride, writing that “queer Palestinians are not somehow exempt from the indiscriminate racist violence of the Israeli state” and that the “settler-colonial apartheid state pinkwashes its image—instrumentalising queer people to divert attention away from its crimes against Humanity.” Noorbhai, like Reddy, indicts pinkwashing, or the manipulation of queer politics to cover up other violences, both within the apartheid Israeli regime as well as within capitalist spaces, such as the Pride paradet.

Neither Noorbhai nor Reddy’s visions of queer liberation hinge on the representation of queer Indian South Africans. Their articulations of what it means for queer people—including queer Indian South Africans—to be free are centred on creating a world where all queer people can thrive, regardless of their access to financial capital, racial privilege, or nation-states. The Kutti Collective, a collective of queer Indian South African practicing artists across various visual, performance, and written mediums, have issued parallel statements. While they note the importance of “seeing ourselves,” the artists also emphasized the importance of “queering everything,” from organizing against gendered violence to disrupting racist systems of coloniality in the academic and art worlds. A queer Indian South African prison and police abolition activist also told me how she was politicized by queerness into anti-racist struggle in ways that rejected “liberal questions of assimilation to viewing decolonization and abolition through a radical lens.”

These debates about visibility, representation, and politics aren’t limited to queer Indian South Africans: they’re being heard across the South Asian diaspora. With Rishi Sunak’s appointment as the new Prime Minister of the UK and the de facto head of the British Conservative (Tory) Party, some British Indians have celebrated his leadership as a win. But others, like British-Bangladeshi activist group Nijjor Manush, British Asian feminist magazine Burnt Roti, and leftist journalist Ash Sarkar, have decried Sunak as “brownwashing,” “one-dimensional and dehumanizing—kissing the behinds of white supremacy,” and “not a victory for anti-racism—RIP the politics of representation, the evil you have done is enough.” In the US too, South Asian Americans like Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, Ajit Pai, Sundar Pichai, and Indra Nooyi hold prominent roles in politics and in global corporations such as Pepsi and Google. But leftist South Asian American organizing groups Equality Labs, DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), and SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) have described these figures as visibility without representative politics at best, lifting up the class, caste, faith, and political divisions between South Asian Americans who profit from capitalism and right-wing politics and those who suffer its brunt.

Scholars such as Sangay Mishra—and my own work—have described South Asians or Desis as politically “divided,” particularly in ways that correlate with lived experience related to class, caste, migration, and faith lines. South Asian American splits around affirmative action hammer home these divisions, especially in wake of a recent case helmed by Asian Americans (one that has been panned as playing into the model minority myth) that might deeply erode working-class Black and Latine access to quality university education. Even more dangerously, some visible Indian South African and diasporic South Asian figures manipulate representational politics by creating cover for themselves by using radical and activist language, while actually undermining Black and Brown communities and political gains.

Of course, these splits don’t come out of nowhere. They can be linked to what Dolar Vasani, a lesbian Indian-Ugandan activist and writer based in South Africa, describes as the “apartheid or colonial sandwich,” where some Indians profit from proximity to white supremacist structures, while others toil without seeing the fruits of their labor. Representational race politics flattens these differences, and allows those who wield it to make plays towards liberalism and aspirational whiteness while pretending to be oriented towards justice. Within the context of heightened racial tensions in South Africa, representational and visibility politics are especially insidious. As some wealthy Indian South Africans (and Indians with little ties to South Africa beyond the financial, like the Guptas) profit from exploiting the Black working class, others who might otherwise lean into working-class solidarity with Black neighbours and comrades can be further politicized into anti-Blackness and racist violence by statements that tell them to “go back” or that that they “came here on a fucking boat.” And it is the ruling-class that profits from these divisions. The long legacy of Black and Indian violence, including the 2021 unrest in KwaZulu-Natal, has often been stoked by white capital. Thus, while representational race and queer politics offers gains to the few who have access, it leaves behind large swaths of working class, queer, and other Indian South Africans who hope for a more transformative realization of struggle goals.

The responses of leftist Indian South Africans, especially queer Indian activists, shows that there’s hope for politics that emphasizes class solidarity and political transformation rather than neoliberal representation. The activists who carried out the “Whose Pride?” art intervention at Jozi Pride, highlighted the importance of mutual aid, grassroots organizing, and systems change and the desire for more radical new worlds. Similarly, the presence of queer activists, including queer Indian South Africans, in transformative struggles such as Fees Must Fall hold light to the freedom dreams of queer Indian South Africans and Black South Africans alike. While queer liberation must include celebration, we can’t have roses without bread. Protest and radical organizing, not fancy rainbow-themed outfits and gay elites, are at the centre of Pride for queer Black and Brown activists moving towards new worlds.

Further Reading

Navigating queer utopia

A new book presents an empirical challenge to the myth of South Africa as the “pink capital” of Africa and contributes to building an archive of queer, African, and religious narratives.