Guest Column

What SA must learn from the Orlando massacre

2016-06-19 07:00

Sieraaj Ahmed

One of the key moments that transformed my relationship with my country occurred in the wake of the bombing of a gay nightclub. It was August 2000, and a group of religious vigilantes was waging a campaign of terror across Cape Town against businesses they perceived as being "American". A splinter group, furious at the protection (or, more accurately: basic equality) afforded gay and lesbian South Africans in our 1996 Constitution, splintered their hate toward the LGBTI community and targeted Bronx, Cape Town's then most popular gay nightspot. Five people were injured by a bomb placed in a car outside the club.

I was in my early twenties, and had just come out and started finding gay friends the year before. My gang and I usually danced the weekend away at Bronx, but by some small miracle we weren’t in the club that night.

The weekend after the bombing, we were scared but decided we had to go back to Bronx. No terrorists would scare us into hiding away for one minute, ever again. In the early hours of the morning, standing outside the club, I noted the extra tension in the air among everyone chatting on the pavement – right on the corner where the bomb had been placed. But it wasn't just us standing there: A row of police officers stood guarding the perimeter of the club. These officers – who just a few years earlier might have arrested these homosexuals of mixed races on various grounds – were now standing there to protect us, turning our then four-year-old Constitution from words on paper into a reality for the scared and grateful men and women who came out that night.

Right there, at 02:00 on a Saturday morning in August 2000, just six years into our democratic story, I was struck dizzy by the reality of how rapidly my country was changing around me.

Sixteen years later, I happened to be in Los Angeles when America woke to news of the massacre in an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub that has left 49 dead so far. A friend had pointed out to me the night before that I was in LA over Gay Pride Weekend, but I had decided to skip Pride festivities, reasoning LA Pride did not need my attendance to make its statement.

Festive, emotional, angry

But as the full horror of Orlando hit me, I decided LA Pride would see me after all. Once again, in the face of unspeakable violence aimed at a minority community, it became important to respond to hatred with an assurance that fear will not win.

LA Pride on that Sunday morning reminded me of Bronx in Cape Town the week after those terrorists tried their luck. The crowd was festive, emotional, angry. Just like in Cape Town 16 years earlier, the city police now stepped in to protect its own. A large contingent of officers led the march, followed further down by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The crowd cheered the officers – and with every cry of "We are Orlando!" a roar went up and the spark of unity swept the long street.

Further down, I heard a booming voice yell, "You gays are WICKED!" and I laughed, assuming one of the drag queens was being ironic. But no. Six men had a space cordoned off, holding signs including "HOMO SEX IS A SIN!" and JESUS SAVES FROM HELL!". One of them held a megaphone and taunted The Gays: "You deserve HIV! You deserve syphilis!" My blood boiled and I wanted to race over, give them the finger and find a guy I could kiss right in front of them. I had done this at Cape Town Pride 2010, grabbing my friend Andre and kissing him directly in front of two of our much more civilised rabid bigots holding their "GOD HATES GAYS" signs. The drag queen behind me had the best response, though: She looked those hate-filled men up and down before yelling, "Oh, honey, no. God hates those SHOES!"

Intolerance, bigotry and hatred are the same

The gays of LA reacted similarly, taunting these men pretending to be Christians, waving their banners of pride and love, dancing, blowing kisses and, yes, pausing to make out directly in front of them (the perfect reminder, in my opinion, that #lovewillalwayswin over such displays of hatred).

Those men screaming their hate in Los Angeles on Sunday pretended to speak in the name of Christianity. The man who ruthlessly massacred 49 people simply out to have a dance and maybe a kiss pretended to be a Muslim. The vigilantes who waged a campaign of terror in Cape Town 16 years ago pretended to speak for Muslims.

Just like love is the same no matter who it comes from or whom it moves toward, distrust, intolerance, bigotry and hatred are the same, whether it's coming from someone pretending to be a Christian in Los Angeles or someone wrapping himself in a twisted version of Islam in Cape Town.

What South Africa can learn from Orlando is that we must never be satisfied. Those of us who remember the years before 1994 have seen our country change rapidly, by some definitions literally overnight, from one of the most oppressive societies to one of the most open. But the South Africa that supports and protects its LGBTI citizens is nearly solely the South Africa of the middle and upper classes – those of us who might be reading this on our smartphones or tablets.

Not enough to be 'tolerant'

Many of us are rightly proud of the strides we've made in creating the dream country envisioned in our Constitution. But we still live in a country where a gay couple can hold hands and kiss in our major cities, but a gay man or lesbian woman in a township area risks rape or death if he or she dares to show public affection to the person they love.

This “Two Nations” South Africa – a (racially mixed) middle class that can, a poor (and usually black) majority that cannot – can’t be sustained for much longer. We cannot allow it to and we cannot be complacent. We have a traditionalist president who's let his real views on “unqingili” [homosexuals] show, but thankfully we can spy the post-Zuma era on the horizon. And not even Zuma and his wrecking ball have been able to undo the heroic work done by the largely ANC-aligned activists of the late 1980s and early 1990s who campaigned so hard to get those magic words "sexual orientation" into our Constitution.

The fact that Zuma was forced to apologise for his derogatory 2006 statement on gays, and the fact that our three largest parties (the ANC, the DA and the EFF, who together hold 91% of parliamentary seats) all explicitly mention the protection of gay rights in their election manifestos, is one of the rather major miracles that we South Africans like to be so proud of. And we deserve to be. But we must never think it good enough.

It's no longer enough to be "tolerant". There was a time for that, but it was always a bridge and now we've crossed it. I grew up in a moderately religious Muslim family, but the many people I love grew up in homes that were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, non-religious and everything between. What I’ve learned over and over from friends gay and straight is that not only is love the same no matter what, but when people of any race cloak themselves in fundamentalist religious beliefs, the homophobia that can result usually looks the same, no matter what the religion.

Wrestle your demons

So I say “Down with tolerance.” It's time to move beyond, wrestle with your remaining religious demons, and find the way to do what Jesus and Muhammad ultimately always did: Just love. If you're still saying, "I love my gay friend, but..." then you are helping to prolong a status quo which signals to people like the Orlando killer that his hatred can be justified in some small way.

Homophobia – in the developed world and many developing countries including South Africa – is now firmly moving into our rearview mirror alongside such abominations as slavery and apartheid. And you risk being on the very wrong side of history if you’re still sitting on a fence, clinging to some religious interpretation force-fed to you as a child. There are millions of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Whoevers, who turn to their holy books and find words that preach love and acceptance over “ifs” and “buts”. This means you can do it, too. It’s time to pick a side and climb off your fence.

Make it clear that homophobic jokes are not OK. Most of us grew up hearing “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” This is a lie. Words like “k****r” and “moffie” lead to hate, and hate leads to murder. If you or your kids still say “That’s so gay” like it’s 2005, stop it now. Instead, teach your kids to be curious and learn about all types of people, without passing on the prejudices that were handed down to you. Eliminate any remaining "buts" from your words and thoughts when it comes to your gay friends. Just love.

- Sieraaj Ahmed is a South African journalist who has written for many of the country’s leading magazines and is a recent graduate of Columbia University in New York City, where he completed a Master’s degree in politics and global affairs at the Columbia Journalism School. He is a shy extrovert who’s known to work for junk food and talk about pop music a lot. He occasionally tweets from @SieraajAhmed.


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