Browse Tag: South Africa

Gay Pride Jozi

A Gay Zulu Wedding and the Danger of a Single LGBT African Story

Male and Married: The Gay Zulu Wedding and the Danger of a Single LGBT African Story

In case you missed it, a few weeks ago, two gay black South African men tied the knot at their 200-guest traditional wedding in KwaDukuza, the first of its kind in the old Zulu capital.

Gay Zulu Wedding LGBT AfricaLove birds Tshepo Modisane and Thoba Sithole, both proudly Zulu and Tswana, have made their union a part of South Africa’s history by deciding to go public with their gay African traditional wedding ceremony, with a few twists:

In place of the customary lobolo (bride price or dowry), via which the husband customarily offer’s the wife’s family money and/or gifts, they’ve decided to opt for gender parity and, instead,  offer gifts to each of their families in thanks for raising them. They also plan to use the hyphenated version of both their last names, Sithole-Modisane, and are planning to start a family soon using a surrogate (though this report says they’ll be adopting.)

In the video report (below), the couple shares, “It’s against this idea that being gay is unAfrican… Being gay is as African as being black. We are a part of our culture. Thoba is Zulu and I’m Tswana. We’re rooted in our culture and very excited about it.”

On paper, South Africa boasts the friendliest constitution, which protects its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) citizens from discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Yet, the country’s struggle to shift cultural attitudes towards acceptance for this marginalized group of people, especially in rural areas and townships, remains.

According to this Human Rights Watch report, “Black lesbians and transgender men in South African townships and rural areas face an overwhelming climate of discrimination and violence despite protections promised them in the country’s constitution.” It’s no wonder, then, that the mere optics of the “first gay traditional African wedding,” warrant its celebration as a historical milestone for gay Africans everywhere.

Denis Nzioka, founder and editor of Identity Kenya, a news organization covering sexual and gender minorities in Kenya, remarked in an interview, “The gay Zulu wedding was epic, if not pioneering. Having seen the video and photos and customs I was amazed at how the two mixed their love and celebrated it in an ‘African’ way.” And in response to what’s become a slogan amongst anti-gay African leaders, “Homophobia is unAfrican,” Nzioka insists that “the fact that two African men can fall in love and wed, despite a homophobic society that frowns on same-sex relationships counters what many Africans [have been] saying’.”

The Danger of a Single LGBT African (Male, Middle-Class, and Marriage-Focused) Story

The Danger of a Single Gay African LGBT StoryChimamanda Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian writer said in her famous TEDTalk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

Hence, as the media continues to hail this single occurrence as a milestone, it becomes critical that supporters of the LGBTI African movement for equality consider this single narrative exists within the context of many others.

For instance, the video report states that the two gay black men are based in the metropolitan city of Johannesburg and are working professionals in the fields of financial services and IT. That’s not to imply they’ve been in any way exempt from experiencing the debilitating impact of societal discrimination–far from it; the effects of homophobia (compounded with racism, as the couple is black) on the livelihood of people presumed to be LGBTI can result in workplace discrimination, prejudice in health care, not to mention depression, anxiety, even suicide.

Still, there’s a huge difference between the experience of being a “regular looking” cisgender male employee, at a “Big Four” financial consulting firm, in a  fairly liberal city that boasts the largest gay pride in the country, versus the harsh reality of a trying to make ends meet in a poor township, while also fearing rape for being a lesbian, or murder for being an effeminate gay man.

In a piece written for a South African LGBT publication last year, the author shared comments from a young, black, gay-identified male, who disagreed with South Africa’s reputation as a progressive state (emphasis in bold added by me):

“When you have money, it’s quite easy to set yourself free from discrimination and danger,” Junior says. “Many of the white gay and lesbian people here can afford to reside in a safe and progressive area, but the majority of us live in townships. In openly embracing your sexuality there, you run the risk of getting abused, raped or murdered.” Junior’s statement emphasizes that gay and lesbian equality in South Africa is strongly mediated by race and class, and that sexual freedom is often available to those who have the racial and literal capital to afford them.

In light of the struggles of LGBTI Africans, the desire to celebrate any kind of progress – especially when it comes in the form of a gleeful Zulu wedding – is understandable; the vibrant ceremony presented a sharp contrast to the media’s grim and, at times, gruesome depiction of violent homophobia on the African continent. However, it is dangerous to assign wide-sweeping gains to all LGBTI Africans based on the perceived victory of a few. 

What of gay Africans who view marriage as the least of their problems – young people, for instance, who have been disowned by their families and, above all, seek a stable alternative to homelessness? What about transgender women who experience rejection (and violence) from both gay and straight communities alike? And lesbians–forced to live in fear of so-called “corrective rape”–will marriage mean social acceptance for them, too?

If we’ve learned anything from criticism of the same sex marriage equality movement in the U.S., it’s that too much emphasis on marriage as a pathway to acceptance could only end up benefiting a small segment of the LGBTI community (e.g. gay men, or members of the middle class–while the groups most at-risk e.g. women, youth, transgender people, etc.–are likely to go unheard, and even unfunded.

A Nigerian lesbian activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) remarked on the unwillingness of many global human rights funders to support ‘less popular’ LGBTI programs:

“If you’re not doing HIV/AIDS work, forget it. Funders are mainly interested in gay men because of that. With women, we are not seen as much as being affected by these issues. And there is no research on Nigerian gay women to suggest otherwise, so we are at a disadvantage. Our organization provides a safe haven for lesbians and bisexual women to be out, be themselves, meet other women. We organize social events, movie nights, you name it. I know it is saving lives. But the funders don’t seem to feel that way because we are not in the news.”

Nigeria’s recent move to further criminalize homosexuality has no doubt sent even more LGBTI Nigerians back into the closest, making the need for safe social spaces even more critical. In this country, a publicly staged wedding is punishable by imprisonment for up to 14 years, and in the north, death. Hence, before the media declares the gay Zulu wedding as progress for the LGBTI African movement, it must ask itself, “What does progress for LGBTI people in other African countries (or even different groups of Africans within South Africa) look like?”

LGBTI African Activists Propose a Multi-Country, Multi-Issue Approach to Advocacy

Florence Xhaxas, founder and director of the gender justice organization, Young Feminist Movement, Namibia, warns against zero-ing in on the struggles – and progress – of a single African country at the expense of others:

“As much as I feel [the wedding video] is great for South Africans, the feeling isn’t shared by all LGBT people across the continent. The truth is that [South Africans] have mastered the art of amplifying their voices and documenting cases.”

To Xhaxas’ point, while stories from South Africa and Uganda continue to shape western media’s narrative about the LGBTI African movement, other countries experiencing their own share of hardships and progress go unnoticed. For instance, the murder of Ugandan LGBT rights activist David Kato sparked global outrage while the brutal torture and slaying of a gay Tanzanian community organizer, Maurice Mjomba barely received attention. Similarly, while South African women are perpetually victimized via “corrective rape” coverage, uprisings by lesbians in other countries, such as Namibia, and Malawi, aren’t likely to make headlines.

Says Xhaxas, “How can we improve documentation [in other countries]? How can we make sure that media hype is created for all the struggles we go through? And hold other states in the lime light of the global community’s responsibility to protect all citizens?”

To be sure, the cultural significance of the gay Zulu wedding video — the power of media, itself–cannot be ignored; LGBTI Africans all over the world were able to see their relationships affirmed in the media – a rarity. Denis Nzioka puts it best when he says, “Greater positive media portrayal of LGBT Africans has been proven to change people’s perception. As one of my close friend lesbian friend once quipped ‘Kenya’s often mild acceptance of homosexuality can be attributed, in some small way, to two persons – Will & Grace.’”

Given the impact a single video has had on recent conversations about homosexuality in Africa, among Africans at that, it goes without saying that proponents of LGBTI equality on the African continent, should more intentionally support LGBTI African media advocacy organizations and initiatives – the writers, journalists, digital media producers, and artists that risk backlash for daring to critique the world as it is, while imagining and inspiring the future as it could be.

Jabu Pereira, founder and executive of director of Iranti, a media advocacy organization based in South Africa emphasizes the importance (and threat) of LGBTI Africans using media to influence change:

“We must end the ongoing ignorance of states who continue to encourage systemic violence, we simply can’t afford this. We must not stop documenting the human rights violations we experience as LGBTI persons in Africa.. even when we are threatened…”

The media frenzy around this milestone should in no way serve as a distraction from supporting less visible, less “newsworthy” forms of activism. It should, in fact, galvanize allies to support more LGBT African organizations across the continent – not just South Africa or Uganda – that work on behalf of constituencies who fight for the most at-risk of their communities, and whose victories and milestones comprise the mundane of daily survival.

 Watch the Video Below:

GlobalGiving South Africa

Africans for Africa: Press Coverage of GlobalGiving Social Media and Online Fundraising Workshop in Johannesburg

I just received a scanned image of an article that was printed in a local Johannesburg paper about my Social Media and Online Fundraising training for African NGOs!

In case you didn’t know, GlobalGiving is an online fundraising platform that brings donors and non-profits together in an online marketplace i.e. they connect the people who are leading innovative social impact projects to the people who would like to donate money to support them.

They have partner non-profits all over the world, including about over a hundred in Southern Africa, who have been helping me reach out to other NGOs who were interested in learning more about social media and online fundraising. It’s been a great opportunity to volunteer for an amazing foundation in an area I’m so passionate about (new media for social impact) — and get encouraging feedback in return.

Since I myself raised over $15,000 in 30 days to fund this project, I’ve been able to use myself as a case study, which I feel has really resonated (and been helpful) for my participants; I have a whole bag of personal anecdotes, lessons, tips, tricks, and strategies inspired by a real life successful case study to pull from. Thank you all so much for that — your support of my campaign has really contributed to my success here.

Here’s what some attendees had to say about the Johannesburg Social Media & Online Fundraising workshop:

“The workshop was wonderfully presented, fresh, exciting and to the point! Well rounded presentation to give a kick-start to online funding and using social media.” — Keep the Dream

“I found the group discussions and advice from Spectra resulting from the discussion feedback most useful.” — Cresset House

“The workshop gave insight and opened our minds to the endless possibilities of on-line fundraising! I left excited and somewhat anxious to get moving on the Social networks!” — Joburg Child Welfare

The feedback I’ve received from workshop participants in three cities — Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, has been overwhelmingly positive. I couldn’t have imagined being any more satisfied with the way things went in South Africa. This press coverage from a local community paper is more icing on the cake!

Here’s the full article, transcribed below:

Various charities in and around Johannesburg will add impetus to their fundraising drive if Spectra has anything to do with it. Representatives of different charities gathered at Craighall Park’s Reea Foundation for Global Giving’s online fundraising and social media workshop led by Asala.

“The most important hing to teach NGO’s about social media is that online work is not that different ofoffline relationship-building,” Asala told representatives from various organizations. These included Horses Helping People, Khulumani support Group, Cotlands, Keep the Dream, Leseding Community Development Projects, Youthworx Development Association, Cresset House, Cabsa, Dona’s Mates, and the Papillon Foundation.

“I point out tools available to the organizations, like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, and e explore different steps they can take to raise awareness, engage with people online, and solicit donations.”

According to Asala, charitable donations received through social media increased by 29% last year; an impressive figure considering the funding crisis currently experienced by charities around the world.

“While online giving is growing, it does not replace offline fundraising. It’s an alternative source of funding, and relationships must be established and maintained. It might be digital technology you’re working with, but your’e still speaking to people,” said Asala.

According to the media-savvy Asala, the foundatino of the workshops is getting people to understand the value of social media as a business tool.

“I find people often don’t realize how much they actually know about social media or just how easy it is to use. Workshops like this often make people say, “I can do this,” she said.

Dtetails: www.globalgiving.org or www.spectraspeaks.com

I’m so grateful to the REEA Foundation for hosting the Johannesburg workshop (even supplying cake for the attendees!) and being all-round accommodating of this crazy activist’s on-the-fly / last minute arrangements due to a constantly changing itinerary. It was a really fun day, a wonderful trip, and an encouraging kick-off to my trip.

Next up: Namibia and Bostwana!

Ibhabhathane Community Centre

[VIDEO] Africans for Africa Update: A Day at The Ibhabhathane Community Centre

This post is part of my Africans for Africa project updates: I’m traveling through Southern Africa for 6-months offering free social media, online fundraising, and organizational development strategy workshops to African women, LGBTI, and youth grassroots groups. I publish stories, reflections, lessons learned, and interviews from along the way.

Never Doubt a Small Group of Dedicated Women…

I recently visited the Ibhabhathane Community Centre, the only pre-school available in Rieebeck East, a small farm village with a population of about 700 people. Needless to say, providing good quality education (much less early childhood development) is a challenge. But a small group of dedicated women are making a difference.

An elderly black South African woman (she’s serving food in an apron in the video) reached out to Yolande, a white afrikaans woman, then a new resident to the small town, asking for her assistance in setting up a small center to care for toddlers; many of the young children were left idle / unattended, without sufficient social stimulation, and were growing up with developmental challenges, further impeding their success at the local primary school.

Yolande, a teacher by training, worked with the local community to open the first creche (pre-school) in an abandoned wooden shack. A few local women volunteer to teach and play with the children every day in their native language, Xhosa. And, over time, they remodeled the shack into a warmer, more colorful space. The roof needs to be fixed, and the floor needs to be re-tiled, so fundraising is top priority for them as they hope to grow and implement higher quality programming (in a more conducive environment) for their children.

A few of their goals include building a comprehensive library of children’s books, acquiring funding for more teachers, and a bigger space so they can take in more children, who, without the centre, would remain idle in the village, as the unemployment (and alcoholism) rate is very high.

Rieebeck East, My New Favorite Getaway

During my visit, I stayed with Yolande, the project leader, and her husband, Marc (a talented visual artist and photographer) in their charming Bohemian style mud house, located just outside the township. The interior was painted aqua blue, and they had beautiful art they’d collected from over the years hanging on the walls. Yolande, who comes from a family of mosaicists, has tiled the counter tops, floors, and walls in a simple, yet accentuating masonry of pastel yellow, silver, grey, and black tiles and pebble stones.

On the night I arrived, they happened to be entertaining friends from  out of town, so we all built a fire for a brai (South African barbequeue), and spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and conversing passionately about the arts, apartheid, and the media’s spin on the murder of 36 protesting mine workers. Nothing like spending an evening outdoors, by a fire among fellow artivists; it was the most fun I’d had in several weeks.

My remaining two days there were a lot quieter, a much-needed oasis of nature, peace, and serenity, especially after spending nearly three weeks in the cold city of Cape Town. I woke up each morning to the sound of their fives dogs, three cats, and a whole lot of chickens, then watched the sun ascend from the horizon (which one can see for miles and miles around), as I sipped Rooibos tea. The landscape was breathtaking, and the warmth with which I was tended to, moving. It reminded me that as a traveler, there’s only one way to find home away from home; don’t search for it whole; find snippets, bits & pieces wrapped in small acts of kindness.

When I left, I felt refreshed, rejuvenated, and with two new friends whom I can’t wait to visit again. Maybe next year.

A Bit of Kindness, Returned

Ibhabhathane Community Centre is currently trying to raise about R8000 (~$1000) to get high speed internet installed. Currently, there is no connection in the very small town, and Yolande needs to drive about 45K up a dirt road to the nearest university to use the internet (her mobile data modem is much too slow for anything more than checking email). Getting the infrastructure installed will make it easier for her to improve communications with potential donors (and the outside world in general), and also, increase Ibhabhathane’s social media engagement, which they’d like to use for fundraising.

I made this video for them because I was moved by how much they’ve accomplished with so little, and also, how kind everyone was to me, a total stranger, just passing through. I’ve visited about 20 NGOs since I arrived in South Africa in July, and this is the one with the idea — and the people — that have touched me the most.

So, here’s the short video I made — a snapshot of “A Day at the Ibhabhathane Community Centre”. I hope you enjoy it, and consider supporting them as well. You can donate to their project here.

 

not-just-uganda-lgbt-pride-celebration-spectra

Celebrate LGBTI Africa’s Pride Everyday (and Everywhere, Not Just Uganda)

Uganda’s first gay pride has been hailed as a milestone of achievement for LGBT Africa. 

We often hear about African LGBTI people being persecuted by their governments, and in addition, being raped, murdered, and socially-ostracized from their communities. Their infantalization in the media is evident via the plethora of news reports that have essentially chronicled the queer African movement as mainly a series of violent acts, political debates, and perceivably (at least to the west) rare moments of triumph.

But is there ever triumph without steadfast resistance? More importantly, what exactly is triumph to queer African people whose lives and humanity exist in the every day, and not just within the 5 minute scan of the latest sensationalized news story?

How often do we hear stories about two African lesbians falling in love, not as part of a political debate, but as idle banter over fish and chips? When was the last time we heard about a group of LGBT Africans partying just because — and not necessarily tied to a social cause?

When people think about queer African people, how often do they imagine them as happy, empowered, and even ordinary? Can we really only picture their liberation as a photo of a scantily clad African man wearing a fusion of traditional garb and rainbow colors, an imported western symbol of gay pride?

Given the viral sharing of the photo of gay Africans participating in their first gay pride in Uganda (a country described by BBC as “the worst place to be gay”), my guess is that the west has succeeded in painting the faces of LGBT Africans as sad, helpless victims by default, rendering testaments to the opposite surprising, an exception that warrants mass (international) celebration.

Make no mistake. I am thrilled beyond words for my brothers and sisters in Uganda. Given all what they have faced these past few years — from that dreadful “Kill Bill” to the loss of an endeared community leader and activist, David Kato, and even amidst their pride celebration, harassment and arrests by the police – the images of Uganda hosting their first pride backed by a group of happy kuchus is undeniably a powerful symbol of hope.

As Sokari Eine writes on her blog, “If Ugandan Kuchus could march through the streets then so could we all – Nigerians, Liberians, Cameroonians and well the whole continent.” No matter the politics of pride (or even the looming threat of US imperialism through the western foundations that support them), big acts such as the Uganda pride festival are an important part of Queer African history, and thus, worth documenting.

However, during my short time in Cape Town, South Africa, which I’ve spent almost exclusively with individuals from the LGBT community, I’ve seen other remarkable acts worth celebrating.

Nearly every day, I have been reminded of the power of the mundane acts we each take towards our own fulfillment: discussions about family and coming out with my Zimbabwean host, invoking both tears and laughter over Buchu tea; an eruption of giggles by an aspiring human rights lawyer after her girlfriend whispers something in her ear; the silence of a crowd of black South African lesbians as a passionate feminist poet spits truth about the impact of corrective rape on young girls.

I have witnessed the daily grind of empowerment of black South African lesbians, watched them sink and wade through the cultural stigma that surrounds them like a mist, clouding the world’s perception of their lives as ordinarily human. Thus, I have come to re-affirm my belief that we must also celebrate our proud perseverance, our steady survival, just as fervently as we do big, bold acts of bravery. 

For those of us who have chosen media as our battlefield, it can be easy to forget that LGBTI Africans don’t just live online, or on the streets, for that matter, holding up cardboard signs in perpetual protest; they occupy small apartments with leaky faucets, the residence halls of liberal arts colleges where they hope to launch their careers, and small bungalows in the impoverished rural townships.

Their “pride” may not come in bright rainbow colors, but in the dull pastels of pink and blue collared shirts that call them “lady” when they wish to be “sir”, the dusty brown of their sneakers after practice with teammates that call each other “fag” in jest. Their “pride” will not be heard in the deafening blow of a bullhorn, nor from a platform or podium, but in the awkward silence that follows when they reveal themselves to the people they love, and amidst the painful sighs they let out when they are alone.

I have come to deeply appreciate activists who often have no time to engage in sensationalized international discourse, because they are too busy doing the heavy lifting that comes with supporting LGBTI Africans living in rural townships. I  have come to honor the “others” who don’t call themselves activists–the every day queer African with financial commitments, awkward first dates, the pursuit of lucrative careers to sustain their families, and who despite all odds, wake up every day and renew their determination to keep living.

Unfortunately, many of these small, every day “triumphs” hardly ever get the attention they deserve. Perhaps part of this has to do with the tendency of western countries like the U.S. (who are operating from a different cultural and legislative framework) to re-tell and shape our stories and, in so doing, suggest which parts are worthy of global applause. Or, perhaps many of us are too deep in the trenches to reflect upon our work (and our lives) long enough to view them as achievements in the larger context. In any case, I believe it is time LGBTI Africans begin chronicling our failures and successes as we define them, and more importantly, fill in the spaces in between the bigger milestones, with our voices, our stories, our personal anecdotes.

So, as we celebrate Uganda’s first pride, consider these ten milestones – both big and small, personal and political – that are also part of the Queer African movement and history. These brave and remarkable acts provide me with daily inspiration to celebrate LGBTI African pride everyday, and everywhere, not just in Uganda:

5 Political Milestones

1) Health: The opening of an LGBT clinic Kampala, a milestone that would mean year-round care for LGBT Ugandans (vs. a single day-long festival) is worth celebrating, which is why QWOC Media Wire covered it: This is What Africa’s Resistance Looks Like

2) Entertainment: Miss Sahara, a Nigerian Igbo woman, competed in the Miss International Queen pageant for transgender women, and came in second!

She became Nigeria’s first openly transgender celebrity. Her visibility (and success) at the pageant, incited many conversations about what it means to be a trans person from Africa.

My name is Miss Sahara, and I’m from Nigeria …I just want to make a statement that because I’m a Nigerian doesn’t mean I can’t be a transgender woman… I would like to believe that I am beautiful. I’m here to make a statement.

3) Politics: Joyce Banda, president of Malawi, released a statement asserting she will support LGBT rights and protections, making her the second African woman president (after Liberia’s president Sirleaf) to come out in support of LGBTI African people, sort of.

4) MediaPambuzuka Press recently announced the release of the Queer African Reader, a collection of writings, analysis and artistic work (intended primarily for an African audience).

The anthology, edited by activists, Sokari Eine and Hakima Abbas, focuses on intersectionality while including experiences from a variety of contexts including rural communities, from exile, from conflict and post-conflict situations as well as diverse religious and cultural contexts.

5) Community: Amidst the racism and xenophobia in Cape Town’s male- and white-dominated gay scene, HOLAA (Hub of Lesbian Action for Africans), a new Black South African queer community-building organization and group blog hosted their first event, Poetic Just-Us. Simply put, it was beautiful.

5 Personal (And, Yes, Also Political) Milestones

6) The Power of Community: My Africans for Africa fundraising campaign to offer free social media and online fundraising training to African women and LGBT organizations surpassed its goal of $7.5K and raised well over $10K! Over 160 individuals contributed to the idea that LGBT African people can and should speak for themselves; the support I’ve received via this project has re-affirmed my belief in the statement, “It takes a village…”

7) The Power of Friendships: My best friend, who I nearly lost due to a clash between her religious views and my sexuality, came full circle after nearly five years apart and wrote a guest post for my blog, “Homophobia is UnChristian.”

8) The Power of Words: A queer Nigerian reader and supporter sent me a message recently letting me know that my writing had inspired her to come out to her own parents!

“Just wanted to say, thank you for all that you do… Your bravery and humongous heart have inspired me to come out to my Nigerian parents as well as ignited a passion to aid LGBTQ Africans, especially Nigerians in our fight to be visible.”

What I love about this milestone it’s that it’s actually not one, but two; it is mine, certainly, for knowing that my words are meaningful, but it is also my dear friend’s, for taking the big leap and sharing her whole self with the people she loves.

9) The Power of New Media: As a wonderful addition to my Curve Magazine feature, “This is What an African Lesbian Looks Like”I was featured in Ms. Magazine as an African feminist blogger to watch.

Not only was I the only queer-identified one (which is important to note as LGBT Africans often experience silence in feminist spaces), but renowned black feminist scholar and NBC show host, Melissa Harris Perry, shared on Twitter that my interview was one of her favorite reads.

 

10) The Power of Love: I recently made the “the ultimate commitment” to my partner :) In a world in which queer Africans are persecuted simply for loving, the bold, boastful, boundless love I have for my partner (and that she has for me) is absolutely an act of rebellion, or healing, of liberation, worth celebrating.

 

What other remarkable acts should the LGBT African community be sharing? What acts or milestones often go unnoticed? Why do you think that is? How can we be mindful of sensationalism and the hierarchy of achievement it perpetuates in our movements?

LGBT Film Festival, Out in Africa in South Africa

Racism and LGBT Rights: Where are the African Films in the South African LGBT Film Festival?

Originally posted at Gender Across Borders.

Today marks the 19th Out in Africa film festival, a South-African Gay and Lesbian film festival launched to celebrate the inclusion of the clause prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the South African constitution.

Headlining the festival is triple Oscar nominee Albert Nobbs, a film about a woman passing as a man in order to work and survive in 19th century Ireland. Additionally, A Marine Story, an award-winning drama about the US military’s invidious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy told through the eyes of a white American female soldier, and Kyss Mig (Kiss Me), a lekker lesbofliek which was named Best Breakthrough Film by the American Film Institute last year, will make their African film festival debuts.

There is, obviously, no shortage of films about women in the festival — an achievement worthy of note given how often the LGBT community is depicted as male. Yet, within the context of Africa, the LGBT community is also frequently perceived (and depicted) as white and western. So, the question is: where are all the black South African films in this African LGBT festival?

Out in Africa — which runs from March 23rd to April 1st, 2012 — states that its mission is to address the lack of visibility of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex individuals (LGBTIs) in South African social and cultural life in order to counter negative images of LGBTIs that prevail in traditional and religious communities after decades of apartheid repression i.e. segregation by skin color. Given the historical context of their mission statement, it’s hard not to wonder about the lack of racial diversity in the feature films.

Out of 9 feature films, just one of them is based on a black South African narrative: The Secret, a film about a married man in denial about his sexuality. This feature film is being paired with Paving Forward, a 16-minute short about the evolution of gay rights through the eyes of a lesbian love story. The pickings are slim for black South Africans eager to see their experiences reflected on film, but to be fair, these selections are part of just the first installment of the festival’s three-part format.

Last year,  rather than showcase new films in one long weekend (as is typical for many film festivals), Out in Africa implemented a new format of hosting three mini-festivals spread out over the course of the year in different parts of the country in order to optimize their outreach efforts (perhaps also to include more racial and class diversity?).  The 2012 second edition is planned from 27 July-5 August, with the third edition scheduled for 17-28 October 2012. So there’s still a chance that future installments will showcase narratives from South Africa’s black community, which faces marginalization not just along the lines of sexual orientation and gender identity, but race and class as well.

The task of depicting LGBTI Africans in a manner that presents multiple and intersecting facets of their experiences is far from easy. But Out in Africa was the only LGBTI film festival shouldering this burden until Kenya made its debut with its OUT Film Festival in Nairobi last year. Originally meant to cater to just 60 people, the Kenyan festival ended up having to turn people away after over 200 people showed up, proving that there is a thirst for Africans (straight and LGBT alike) to see the lives of LGBT Africans reflected on screen.

However, film festivals can’t meet this need alone; the world needs more filmmakers to brave the relatively uncharted territory of producing films for and about LGBT Africa, a sure challenge given that many African countries have outlawed homosexuality, not just reinforcing the subject as taboo but threatening the lives of those who dare to even broach the subject with imprisonment and even the death penalty.

Hence, documentary films like Call Me Kuchu (about David Kato, the prominent Ugandan LGBT activist who was murdered last year), along with other South African films such as The Sisterhood (which follows transgender women farmers competing in a beauty pageant) and Waiting For (which explores the controversial issue of white lesbian couples adopting black children) are rare gems, which we should never take for granted; the filmmakers have taken huge risks in order to give LGBT Africans — whose identities are too often silenced and erased  — a chance to feel seen, a chance to feel hope.

From across the ocean in the US, a country with a deep-rooted history with racism and thus similar in context to South Africa, an African-American actress comments on the importance of seeing one’s identity reflected on screen:

The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself, because I don’t get to see enough of myself, and I don’t get to like myself enough…. But if I get to see myself on screen, then I know that I exist.

To follow, Africans — perhaps even the ones who claim that “homosexuality is unAfrican” — will know that LGBT Africans exist if they see their lives represented more frequently on screen. Thus, beyond empowerment for the individual, the potential for cultural shifts brought about by nuanced LGBT films makes pushing for greater inclusion of African and Diaspora LGBT films in film festivals absolutely critical, especially if they’re taking place in Africa.

For its constitutional protections based on sexual orientation, South Africa is often hailed as the leader of gay rights in Africa. But it’s deep-rooted issues with racism and segregation, including the continued marginalization of black South Africans (LGBT or not), warrants that LGBT activists and filmmakers go the extra mile to ensure black South Africans are included in this post-apartheid’s picture of freedom.

Check out the Synopsis of The Secret and Paving Forward (the two black South African films featured): 

The Secret (Imfhilo): The closet was never fashionable, but living the DL is super trendy. Down Low means living under the radar as a straight man having gay sex, or having two separate lives. In Fanney Tsimong’s soap opera-like story of a gay man’s affair with a closeted married man, it gets neatly transported across the Atlantic from the US into aspirant township life. Generations actor Sipho “C-ga” Masebe’s plays Mandla, openly gay, good looking and searching for love. He bumps into old college buddy Thoriso at a birthday party. Thoriso is married to the controlling Thuli, bent on nothing so much as getting ahead in the upwardly mobile world of the BEE nouveau riche. As Mandla chases Thoriso, worlds and assumptions are overturned and lives altered forever. The climax of the film is a credit to the writer – there’s no preachy quick-fix, rather a reality check of what’s really going on out there. Intriguing contemporary South African cinema. (Dir: Fanney Tsimong SA / 2011 / 45min)

Paving ForwardMosiuoa Lekota is hardly the man you’d expect to be headlining Lembethe’s snapshot of where black gay rights are today. But, keeping it real is Nosipho Mahola with a tale of lesbian love that has torn her family apart. (Dir: Mthokozisi Lembethe SA / 2011 / 16min)

For more information about the Out in Africa film festival, visit www.oia.co.za

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