Queerness is the ability to imagine something radical and new. To reject the here and now and insist upon possibilities for a new world. These ideas, put forward by queer scholar José Esteban Muñoz, find expression in a tradition of radical queer resistance to brutality and repression. A tradition, defiantly persistent, in a culture hellbent on forgetting and erasing queer resistance.
South Africa stands in many instances, as a symbol of overcoming. But to overcome something is to bypass it without destroying it. We have inherited an affinity for celebrating hollow victories, and along with it, the brutal legacy of erasure.
Bev Ditsie is one of South Africa’s most influential queer leaders and the executor of many firsts. Born and raised in Soweto, she was the first Black child actor on television to play the role of a boy (as a girl). Later, she would be part of the collective, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), that organised South Africa’s first Pride March in 1990. At the fourth and final UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, she would become the first African lesbian to address the United Nations. Here, Ditsie spoke about the importance of including lesbian rights in discussions about women’s rights. Ironically, any recordings of this monumental occasion are now amongst some of the most difficult pieces of history to find in international archives.
The UN World Conference on Women was first held in Mexico City in 1975. It would be convened again on three more occasions, meeting at five year intervals in Copenhagan, Nairobi and finally, Beijing where the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action was agreed upon. It has subsequently been adopted by 189 countries and according to the UN, “is an agenda for women’s empowerment and considered the key global policy document on gender equality. It sets strategic objectives and actions for the advancement of women and the achievement of gender equality”.
“In Vienna, in 1993, there was a big human rights conference, and in that women’s human rights conference, there are clips of all the different women from around the world who spoke, except for Rebecca Sevilla from Peru who was speaking about being a lesbian and the discrimination against lesbians. That does not exist,” Ditsie recalls multiple acts of erasure that lesbian woman have been subjected to. “Then you go to the very first time ever that a woman, Laurie Bebbington, who identified as a lesbian spoke at the 1975 UN conference in Mexico, and that does not exist. The shock for me is understanding that the act of erasure is not accidental.”
To combat the forgetting, Ditsie has found purpose in documenting the experiences of those like her through film. This is also the subject of a film she is currently in the process of making. As a way of recommitting to them memory, the film follows Julie Dorf, Gloria Carega, Rebecca Sevilla, Charlotte Bunch, Lepa Mladjenovic, Gro Lindstad, Rachel E. Rosenbloom, Anjana Suvarnanand, Nicky McIntire, Dylan Scholinski, Kagendo Murungi and Xiaopei He – the lesbian women who participated in the 1995 Beijing conference.
When we think about the ways in which we commemorate history, both the weighty parts and the seemingly insignificant ones, should we not consider who and what has fallen to amnesia? How we choose the moments we actively remember is directly linked and dependent on our investments in forgetting others. Erasure is deliberate.
Bev Ditsie should have a guaranteed place in our memories, but more significantly, in our daily activism. Questioned, accused and rejected, she knows the deep loss so many Black, Queer women have experienced at the hands of the movements they birthed. As the daughter of singer Eaglette Ditsie, whose impact as a vocalist for The Beaters is barely spoken about, a pattern of inherited erasure begins to emerge.
“The way our history continues to be told today, is to the detriment of all of us, because it is not just the individuals that are erased, it is the events. If we are not there to record and share our memories, they become non-existent. And those who document, become the ones who tell the stories and therefore it is their stories that get told,” she says.
Lucky, by her own account, Ditsie has always been affirmed in her queerness. She remembers fondly how her great-great-grandmother rejected the notion that queer people were un-African, upending one of history’s greatest lies.
“My great-great grandmother was still alive until I was in my late teens; she passed away when she was 95 years old… She said ‘I don’t understand when people say there is a problem with you and this is un-African, where do they get that?’ This is someone who was born in 1899, whose mom was born in the 1820s, whose grandma was born in 1750s, whose great grandmom was born in the early 1700s. So, these are people who remember colonisation, just from her own oral history. She says to me, ‘we’ve always had people like you until the colonisers arrived and gave us a bible and told us that you should not exist. So don’t let them tell you anything,’” she recalls with conviction.
If commemoration is to ascribe meaning, then what of the lives we intentionally forget. This year we commemorate June 16th, as a public holiday, for the 26th time. Also commemorated in June, the Stonewall riots that inspired queer resistance movements and subsequently, Pride marches globally.
In South Africa, our own tradition of organised queer resistance dates back to 1990. When remembering these events, it is still important to remember the people who originated them. Leaders of resistance offer us ideas which must be used to further the inconclusive struggles we have inherited from them. We must hold onto the names, faces and bodies of the people behind our resistance, failing which we run the risk of separating our struggles from their reasons for existence.
It is not accidental that the people with the most radical ideas slowly fade into obscurity behind movements aimed at systemic change. There is no guaranteed place in history for radical change. Memory is not self-sustaining and certainly does not dictate its own lifespan. Remembering is a choice that we must make, daily.
About being honoured with a Doctorate of Humane Letters, for her work in fighting against discrimination and championing human rights across the world, Bev says it is difficult, when her own country has not yet recognised her contributions:
“To be validated by a white American was painful. To be told ‘the things that you did actually matter’ and it’s not my own people who are saying it…”
We have much to evaluate when today, one of the people responsible for the recognition of queer rights in South Africa struggles to get invited to participate in queer discourse. To have access to the ideas that started our resistance should be our greatest honour. We cannot let this, too, succumb to forgetting. We cannot commit our histories to the custody of establishment where power will always serve itself.
People like Bev Ditsie, the ones who dare to stand up, are always at risk of being deliberately forgotten because the things that one would have to remember them for are uncomfortable. The fact of their existence disturbs establishments and people. It would be irresponsible to leave their remembrance to chance. We have a responsibility to fight for their memories.