A Hilbrow mixtape: The history of Skyline, SA's longest running gay bar

Like a glitch on a CD, Hillbrow rebels against itself. Even the graffiti isn’t safe – old iterations are scratched out, new words are painted in a brighter hue. The posters and flyers grow in thick layers on street corners – each iteration a new story, each layer an updated purpose.

Sitting quietly at the corner of Twist and Pretoria streets is the Harrison Reef Hotel – my favourite example of city space palimpsest. If you stroll by the hotel today, on the ground floor you’ll find a Chesa Nyama serving grilled meat and fries, a cellphone repair shop and a store selling affordable mattresses – all squeezed on to the corner.

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If you don’t look closely, you’ll miss it ... a faded red sign, 'SKYLINE BAR THE PLACE TO BE', above a darkened staircase nestled among vegetable vendors and working-class families shuffling towards their daily chores. A relic that hints at the Harrison Reef Hotel’s important history is Skyline Bar, one of South Africa’s longest-running gay bars.

This is also where the city’s first church that affirmed the black lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) community was situated.

skyline bar building

Skyline Bar. (Photo: Google Maps)

skyline bar building

Skyline Bar. (Photo: Google Maps)

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*Rewinds cassette*

Skyline, like Hillbrow, was remarkably different in the 70s. The bar opened in the early 70s with a different name and vastly different clientele. The Butterfly Bar, as it was called, was a whites-only establishment, catering to the growing white gay community.

The cheap and small flats in Hillbrow encouraged young gays and lesbians to move away from their family homes and live independently. On the edge of the inner city of Johannesburg, the suburb became a home for those on the margins.

Like Butterfly, the bars that sprang up in Hillbrow in the 70s created a home for gay and lesbian people in a city that shunned them. However, this home wasn’t welcoming to all; it was only in 1985 that the bar started to serve black gay men.

At the time, Hillbrow and The Butterfly Bar were not welcoming spaces for black gays and lesbians.

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*Fast-forward cassette*

In 1987, Butterfly moved upstairs and changed its name to Skyline Bar. In the late 80s, it was a meeting place for gay activists, drag queens, rent boys (male prostitutes) and regular middle-aged men. It was in the mid-80s that black South Africans began moving to Hillbrow, defying the Group Areas Act.

At that time, Skyline was one of the few places in the city where gay men of different races could meet or hook-up. Patrons described Skyline as freedom; a place where gay men could be free to express themselves, away from the discrimination they experienced in their homes, communities and places of worship.

It should be noted that lesbians were only allowed into Skyline in 1994; even in this home on the margins, inequality asserted itself.

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*Flips cassette*

In 1994, Nokuthula Dhladhla and Paul Mokgethi founded the Hope Unity Metropolitan Community Church on the top floor of the hotel. After all this partying, we need a little prayer!

people outside of skyline bar

People standing outside of Skyline Bar during a queer tour in 2004. (Photo: Gay & Lesbian Memory in Action)

The church emerged in a context where same-sex sexuality and gender diversity were viewed as unAfrican and unChristian. The church created a spiritual home for black LGBTIQ people, a place where being black, lesbian or Christian was not a contradiction; rather, all these parts were affirmed.

The story goes that the pastors would go there in the early hours of a Sunday to invite patrons of Skyline to pray after their late-night partying.

To mark this rich history, at the Pride March in 1999, the City of Johannesburg named the corner of Twist and Pretoria streets after Simon Nkoli an anti-apartheid and queer rights activist who helped to dispel the myth that same-sex sexuality and gender diversity were unAfrican.

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He also connected the gay and lesbian movement to the anti-apartheid movement in visible ways. The sign acknowledging this, like the queer associations with the corner of Twist and Pretoria streets, has long since been eroded.

With the migration of the middle class out of the city towards the northern suburbs, icons such as Skyline Bar have slowly been abandoned by the LGBTIQ clientele they once served.

Some describe Hillbrow as a site of urban decay, a ghetto, a fallen space; using the fear-laden language of overcrowding, crime, drugs or homelessness. I disagree. Walking up Pretoria Street, I find it queer in new ways: a home for working-class families, for African migrants, for sex-workers (some of whom are LGBTIQ); it is still a home to those who live marginal lives.

Like a glitch on a CD, Hillbrow repeats itself. Accumulating stories, adapting to new purposes, writing over itself in new colours.

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  • The story draws on the documentation of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), author Mark Gevisser, sociologist Zethu Matebeni and psychologist Hugo Canham

A moffie walks in a bar...

(by Charl Blignaut)

When you grow up as camp as Baden-Powell in the home of a sports-loving born-again Christian with a sjambok, you tend to choose new fathers.

I met one of these poor unsuspecting men at a bar in Hillbrow when I was still in matric in Pretoria and had taken to fleeing to Joburg for weekends of partying at The Dungeon and at Mrs Henderson’s.

Skyline wasn’t like any bar I’d been in before and, frankly, since. There was an incredible mix of men. All we really had in common was that we were illegal. We could be gay, but we couldn’t have sex. We were a secret and like any secret our closets were susceptible to infection. But a miracle happened when you walked along Pretoria Street and into Skyline.

You felt like you were legal. In Hillbrow I was free. I could go and browse the “gay literature” in Estoril Books, a famous cruising space right near the Mini Cine that showed banned films like Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Across the road was the infamous 58 with its drag cabarets and, later, dark rooms. But down the strip, past Highpoint, you got to the Harrison Reef Hotel and went up the stairs to Skyline and it was a parallel universe, where “normal” gay men could hang out without the display culture of the other joints on the street.

man, simon tseko nkoli, smiling

Simon Tseko Nkoli. (Photo: Gay & Lesbian Memory in Action)

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My honorary father’s name was Simon Nkoli. At first he flirted, and then he proceeded to school me. Later when I began working in Joburg I would record Simon in Sebokeng, at Miss Glow Vaal, at pride, at the various township men’s sexual health projects he worked at, spreading the word about condoms and self-care as the academic hit with force.

gay condom poster

Men's sexual health awareness poster. (Photo: Gay & Lesbian Memory in Action)

simon tseko nkoli tshirt

Tshirt of activist Nkoli. (Photo: Gay & Lesbian Memory in Action)

Simon taught an ignorant white boy about life in the township, about intersectionality and resistance: “In Sebokeng, the drag queens, the most visible of us, learnt to hit hardest until people got too scared to harass them,” he said.

He taught me that my sexuality was political and that until we were all free, none of us was free.

A pioneer, Simon helped convince the ANC to adopt the queer-friendly legislation and Constitution many of us enjoy today.

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After Simon passed and the corner was named after him, pride stopped to pay tribute. Performance artist Steven Cohen unfurled a giant banner from a nearby building with the words “Simon Nkoli” reaching across storeys.

He set off sea rescue flares at the top of the building and nearly got arrested ’cos you can only use those at sea.

Passers-by never knew who he was and had never heard of Skyline, but to us he was more than just an activist and Skyline more than just a building.

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