Taking back Our Pride

By Gillian Schutte · 25 Apr 2013

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Picture: Joburg Pride 2010 courtesy la4ko/Flickr.
Picture: Joburg Pride 2010 courtesy la4ko/Flickr.
Joburg Pride has closed it doors, shut down, is no longer in business. They obliquely lay the blame at the feet of the One in Nine Campaign in what seems like a disingenuous bid to garner sympathy and demonise the campaigners, rather than shifting their focus to a more progressive and inclusionary agenda.  

Joburg Gay Pride Festival Company (JGPFC) released their statement of intent on April 3rd, the day after the One in Nine Campaign announced a public meeting, which they jointly called with the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW) to be held on Saturday, April 13th. The aim of the meeting was to “discuss strategy for rejecting the commercialisation and de-politicisation of Joburg Pride in recent years, by boycotting the translation of pride into a ‘Gay Parade’ and imagining ways forward for reclaiming our Pride”.

In its statement, the JGPFC insists that the One in Nine Campaign’s direct action at Joburg Pride in 2012  “shifted the event from a low-risk event into a high-risk category, which would negatively impact on our operational structures and budgets going forward”.

This direct action took place on 6 October 2012, when about 20 black lesbian, bisexual and gender non-conforming activists disrupted Joburg Pride and staged a “die-in” in the path of the parade. The activists carried life-sized “bodies” representing members of marginalised groups and held two banners that read “Dying for Justice” and “No Cause for Celebration”. The aim was to stop the parade and demand one minute of silence in memory of people who have been killed because of their sexual orientation and/or gender expression, the majority of whom are black, poor and live in townships.

The activists also wanted to draw attention to what they outline as the...

“commercialised and anti-poor agenda of Joburg Pride. From its inception as an event that celebrated political struggle and claimed space for all members of LGBT communities, Joburg Pride fast became a capitalist and consumerist gay parade that took place in a predominantly white and wealthy suburb, was sponsored by multinational corporations and businesses, and was an event that only the economically wealthy sections of LGBT and queer communities were able to fully participate in.”

What happened next was nothing less than a one-sided bully brawl - thankfully caught on camera - where non-black Pride organizers laid into the black protestors with fists and feet, joined by members of the parade who stepped over and sometimes on the activists bodies, some even kicking the ribs, arms and stomachs of the protestors who were on the ground. The rights of the One in Nine Campaign were totally ignored. Instead of being engaged with, they were physically assaulted and brutalized causing outrage as the assault went viral on global social media platforms.

What was clearly seen as a racial incident, did however, have a positive spin off for the greater good as it decisively ripped the hypocritical cloak off what had become a blatantly depoliticized and corporatized event awash with pink currency.

The term pink currency describes the mounting market that rich or middle class LGBT people can buy into - made up of lifestyle merchandises and events that seldom cater for the average working class or unemployed person. The problematic lies in the fact that this pink currency is often mistaken for liberation and this is exactly where the Johannesburg Gay Pride went wrong. It became a niche space that supported the excesses of a moneyed lifestyle rather than remaining a politicized space to raise the issues relevant to LGBT people across the economic and race spectrum, and mistook this for activism. 

An example of this, cited by the One in Nine Campaign and FEW in a press release, is the manner in which, in recent years, Joburg pride has been formulated in a way that reinforces the oppressive institutions, which the LGBT community seek freedom from. For instance, the route, which used to pass through Hillbrow, was changed to one through a wealthy, predominantly white suburb. Moreover, after the actual street parade, the division of the revellers’ recreational space into a largely white and wealthy section at the cordoned off Zoo Lake Sports Club and a predominantly black and resource-poor section on its fields was also a matter for concern. This set-up may have seemed innocent to attendees and revellers, but in fact relegated the majority of people to an outside area, which was the only place they could afford to be in. It literally banished largely black gay revellers to the “periphery” far from the “centre”, which remained predominantly white and wealthy.

Furthermore, the dominant cultural themes of Pride, such as the music and other entertainment, did not cater to all sectors of South Africa’s diverse society. This, they say, resulted in large number of the LGBT sector not attending the Gay Parade in defiance of this racially skewed and commercial event and many of the people who did attend were made to feel like second-class queers.

Yet JGPFC still believed its company to be a legitimate gay rights organization and argued as much. Evidently, JGPFC perceived no conflict in their mixing of corporatisation and human rights. For them merely providing a space for gay revelry, celebration and expression was adequate in terms of gay representation and social visibility.

But, say many progressive LGBT people, this is not enough and gay people around the world are switching on to the fact that they have become a marketable and exploitable product. That LGBT rights are being used to raise huge amounts of funding for what turns out to be an advertorial event in which their sexuality becomes commodified rather than humanized, is a trend that the progressive LGBT community is recognizing and increasingly balking against.

It is all too easy to become a commercial ‘activist’ events organizer these days as increasing numbers of protest movements are being corporatized under the guise of human rights. But look a bit closer and it becomes evident that in fact, it is often only the rights of the wealthy, largely white class that is being served.  Once the real issues have been used to raise the moola – the actual people that the real issues concern are often tossed aside. Their needs are not met at these exclusionary events that are ostensibly held on their behalf.

It is disingenuous to say the least. In South Africa many people smile their way through these pink-washed or whitewashed events, totally unaware of the problematic premise upon which they are built.

This is why society needs groups such as the One in Nine Campaign and FEW who do the work, see the issues and engage in civil disobedience to raise consciousness and fight for the rights of all – not just some. In a press release calling for a mass meeting to discuss a way forward for the LGBT community and justice they state: 

“We recognise that Joburg Pride is, in many ways, a mirror of our society. We live in a country with increasing levels of state violence against the most vulnerable sections of society, an increasing clampdown on political protest and dissidence, and a patriarchal and capitalist governance system in which perpetrators of all forms of violent crimes and corruption go unpunished as a matter of course. The de-politicisation of LGBT pride and the violent reaction to the activists is just one moment in a larger and deeper problem.”

One thing is clear, in a society such as ours queer politics need to prioritize social justice over a sexual identity, which is marketed by the pink economy and creates a false impression of liberation. We need to recognise that homophobia is intrinsic to the same system that puts issues of marketing and money before equal rights, equal recognition and liberation for all LGBTI people.

We need progressive LGBTI movements today that recognise that the pink economy has no momentous answers to issues such as the hate crimes perpetuated against LGBTI people in South African Townships and thus it is necessary to take direct action against a system that only benefits the wealthy elite in our society.

One in Nine and FEW are on the money when they argue:

“As we plan for public meetings to discuss the future of the annual Joburg Pride march, we remain committed to our vision of pride as a space for both celebration and defiance, for confronting racist, capitalist, and patriarchal power, and as a space that is reflective of our daily struggles and desires. The idea that the closure of JGPFC spells an end to a critical platform for queer people is misguided…Pride happened before JGPFC was formed and will happen after its dissolution. As long as there are streets, we will march; as long as we are activists, we will organise.”

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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