‘As artists and activists the only thing we can do is keep on telling our stories' says activist and film maker Beverley Palesa Ditsie in an interview after being awarded an honorary doctorate by the Claremont Graduate University in California.
Together with the legendary activist Simon Nkoli and openly-gay Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, Ditsie created the first Pride march in Africa almost two decades ago and has lived a life of activism ever since.
The honorary doctorate was to acknowledge this dedication and hard work in the fight for LGBTI equality. “Finding myself standing there, being awarded this big degree, I don’t think anybody can expect something like that,” Ditsie told City Press.
In her cool shades and casual attire, the outspoken and energetic activist recalls that first Lesbian and Gay Pride march, held in Johannesburg on October 13 1990. It was organised by the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwaterstrand. “It was the first time that a lot of queer people realised that there is a legitimate fight; that our existence is legitimate, it cannot be erased or shamed away.”
The struggle for equality in Africa continues. In January, Angola legalised queers, in February Kenya refused to do the same. Then this week Botswana joined the African nations that have dropped the penal code in the name of equality.
“I think a lot of African countries and activists around, especially in repressed states, looked at those kinds of occasions as inspiration just as we looked at the Stonewall riots in New York,” she says.
Distsie became the first African lesbian to address gay and lesbian rights at the UN, during the fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, 1995. “We already had a president that supported us, so it was easy for me to volunteer to make the speech,” she says, referring to Nelson Mandela’s role in the struggle.
“The group I was with, then called The International Gay and Lesbian Rights Commission, and a group of other organisations from around the world, were told we could have five minutes to try to convince the plenary that, ‘lesbian rights are women’s right and women’s rights are human rights’. If the world conference on women is to address the concerns of all women, it must similarly recognise that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a violation of basic human rights,” she says.
Being beamed across the planet’s TV screens evoked a largely positive response – unlike what happened after the first Pride march in Joburg.
The support of her family and the men in her community of Orlando West, Soweto, still means everything to her.
“It was the first time people were coming out and celebrating their sexual orientation in front of TV cameras.” But they were met with a lot of hostility, especially from the religious right. Distsie and her family received threats.
“For a long time I regretted doing it, not for me but for my mother and grandmother,” she says in hindsight. “Today we have the strength in numbers.”
Ditsie didn’t know many queer women like herself at the time. Asked how she feels about where the LGBTI community in South Africa is today, she says: “I am hopeful because there are so many of us making inroads in different industries where we are able to also just live our lives. But the reality is there are pressing issues like unemployment of qualified and talented people in the community, that leads to things like depression and drugs and alcohol abuse. I don’t see how we can get out of this when we are led by a patriarchy that is callous in their approach to everything.”
Ditsie makes films and documentaries. Her classic 2002 doccie Simon and I tells the story of her relationship with former Delmas Treason Trialist Nkoli, an epic and complicated testament to her fellow activist and the man who, it is said, convinced Mandela to pursue queer equality in the Constitution.
Today, Ditsie works on some of the biggest shows in South African reality TV. True to form, she has issues with it.
“We’ve got poverty porn and violence porn all over. There’s no self-love. But I have been very proud to work on formats like Mzansi Magic’s Project Runway. We are showcasing talent, our own heritage and history – that’s been a joy for me.”
Before doctor Bev hurries off, she says: “No one has the authority, moral or otherwise, to discriminate or to harm anybody based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Once we connect to this, we can begin our journey of self love that will allow ourselves to then express love to each other.”
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