Celebrating queer voices

brenda fassie  PHOTO: city press
brenda fassie PHOTO: city press

It is of utmost importance, in fact it should be non-negotiable, for every one of us working in media to constantly interrogate and unpack what we are doing when we choose to celebrate a collection of individuals from an oppressed group, such as the queer community, which continues to live through an intersection of violent oppressions: racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia and more.

Celebrating high-profile organisations and individuals is vital and must continue, but in putting together a curated list, we must always be aware of not thinking that some queer lives are more valuable than others, that only some queer deaths and murders are worthy of attention and national grief. In fact, all queer lives are important and worthy of attention.

This Saturday’s Johannesburg People’s Pride march is particularly important to us in highlighting “normal” queer lives. We know that there can be no normal in the lives we live.

We have included only openly queer individuals on these pages, but we must guard against thinking that only out queers are good queers. Apart from it being none of our business, there is a personal cost to coming out that can lead to further brutalisation.

Furthermore, the language of bravery is also one to be careful of. When we call those who elect to come out “brave”, we must be very cautious not to suggest that those who do not come out (which is well within their rights) are not. The same applies to survivors of rape and sexual violence who elect not to speak out.

There is a huge responsibility on all of us to be mindful of continuing the line of expecting oppressed bodies to be “exceptional”, and by this I mean that not only must oppressed individuals overcome oppression, but they must be “great” or “special” and identify as activists too. No. To live in this society, and be queer and/or poor and/or a woman and/or trans and/or disabled is already a massive act of radicalism, and we cannot for a moment forget or diminish that.

But we also feel we need to highlight the voices on these pages for trying to bring social justice in an unjust world. - Gugulethu Mhlungu


Simon Tseko Nkoli was a youth activist and Delmas treason trialist. His coming out had a profound impact on the ANC’s LGBTQI policies. After prison, he founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand and, with Bev Ditsie, organised the first pride parade in Africa, Johannesburg Pride, in 1990. He lobbied Nelson Mandela to legalise homosexuality and enshrine queer rights. Before he died of an Aids-related illness in 1998, he had become a global figure in the fight against HIV/Aids and discrimination.

It was only really after her death in 2004 that “bad girl” and pop superstar Brenda Fassie has come to be recognised as a lesbian icon. She was the first big-name local pop star to openly live her bisexuality and refuse to bow to the social norms of her time – a role model to future generations.

We will always remember the women in South Africa who have been raped and murdered for living as lesbians. The 777 Campaign Against Hate Crimes was launched by the Positive Women’s Network to commemorate the deaths of Sizakele Sigasa and her friend Salome Masooa, who were raped and murdered in Soweto on July 7 2007. Both were activists and organisers. Sigasa was prominent in helping to formulate a national plan to fight HIV and Aids.

Banyana Banyana star and football coach Eudy Simelane was a prominent figure in KwaThema, a sporting celebrity and openly lesbian woman who was raped and murdered in 2008 after a night out with friends. These are just some of the deaths that have galvanised the fight against the rape and murder of lesbians.


There are a growing number of leading academics contributing to gender studies and queer discourse, not least Dr Kelly Gillespie and PhD education student Leigh-Ann Naidoo at Wits. Dr Zethu Matebeni at UCT is the convener of the Queer in Africa symposium and festival. Her growing body of published work focuses on queer issues, sexuality, gender, race and HIV/Aids and is accompanied by her work as an activist and documentary film maker, art curator and book editor. More power to her and the deputy dean of the UCT law faculty, constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos. He is a leading contributor on queer issues, race and the law, not least on his popular blog Constitutionally Speaking. He also serves on queer advocacy bodies.


There is a new wave of gender-blurring, genre-bending queer art emerging countrywide. Hardly a month goes by without experimental, in-your-face new releases from the likes of dancers/ choreographers/fashionistas/artists V.I.N.T.A.G.E Cru, musician and artist Angel-Ho, transformative rapper and singer Umlilo (Siya Ngcobo), performance duo FAKA (Fela Gucci and Desire Marea), et al. The focus of the work is increasingly the lived black experience and the politics of the black queer body.

Of course, the new school comes from a long line of queer protest and resistance work. Legends such as satirist, playwright and drag superstar Pieter-Dirk Uys (AKA Tannie Evita) took on apartheid and sent up censorship, and is still performing up a storm at 70. Performance artist Steven Cohen put his white, queer Jewish body in the public line of fire and continues to do so, making global headlines (and attracting mutterings of criticism about his only collaborative body of work, with Nomsa Dhlamini).

Celebrities such as choreographer and performer Somizi Mhlongo have been loudly, outly present on the A-list for as long as anyone can remember, watching the queers go from vilified to oh-so-fashionable.

The new established queer artists are finding an international voice and coming into their own.

Dean Hutton, a former photojournalist, is producing an increasingly valuable body of queer photography – now also using her own body as a focus, with her public art Goldendean series. Her work is rooted in social grittiness but projects the art of transitioning, with performance as an act of love.

Athi-Patra Ruga has meshed fashion with drag spectacle, along with queer and Xhosa politics, to offer a series of confrontational but sumptuous public personae, as well as a body of radical tapestries.

While the late novelist Sello Duiker offered a gay male protagonist in his work, the new generation, including Nakhane Touré has taken the narrative further. His debut novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues, plays out sexual identity within traditional and contemporary Xhosa culture. But it’s for his searing, lyrically rich debut album and follow-up EP that Touré has become famous. His narrative journey has essentially been one of coming out of the closet and claiming his gayness, bringing his growing body of fans with him.

Of all the post-apartheid queer artists, it is probably Zanele Muholi who has gathered the most respect of late. While here there are mutterings about her practice – questions about whether she is using the bodies she documents for commercial gain – internationally she has brought considerable awareness to transgender and lesbian identities and the crisis around the rape and murder of lesbians. She mounts huge walls of portraits, her subjects given the power of an army as they gaze dispassionately, defiantly at gallery visitors. Muholi is as much activist as artist, working tirelessly to document black queer lives and assist in times of crisis. Her blog, inkanyiso.org, is testimony to a recording of lesbian love, marriage and death.


There are numerous groups doing important and intersectional work, foregrounding and lobbying for the acknowledgment that all queer lives matter. Joburg People’s Pride (JPP) reclaimed the pride movement and refocused it on the realities of disadvantaged, disenfranchised, poor, black bodies, who had felt excluded from suburban pride events. The movement aims to be built by all, not just those with money and power. The 2015 JPP takes place this Saturday, November 21. The One in Nine Campaign, having started Silent Protests in Grahamstown in 2007, has used this to offer visibility and a voice to rape survivors all over the country. Although there are valuable criticisms of One in Nine’s trans politics, in 2015 Silent Protests were confirmed in Jamaica and Guatemala. The Trans Collective does critical work in a cisgendered heteropatriarchal society like South Africa’s by “confronting toxic gender constructs as indispensable to the decolonisation project”. Other notable organisations are Gender DynamiX, the first African-based organisation focusing solely on the transgender community, and the Forum for the Empowerment of Women.


There are many activists working tirelessly in the service of emancipating queer lives. This is not an exhaustive list, but the likes of ARV-treatment fighter Zachie Achmat; Iranti-org founder Jabu Pereira; activist and feminist Vanessa Ludwig; and Dawn Cavanagh, director of the Coalition of African Lesbians, are among those who have been leading the charge for years. Cavanagh frames her political standpoint as a woman and a lesbian and hopes for a world where there’s freedom, including from gender constraints. She has been pivotal in working on issues of access to health, HIV/Aids, women’s rights and sexual and reproductive rights. Another brilliant young feminist and activist is Kwezilomso Mbandazayo, who has worked tirelessly in the space as One in Nine’s project officer, as a member of the United Front, and as an organiser of Johannesburg People’s Pride. She has committed her work to disrupting patriarchal power and has spoken and been a part of panels in different parts of South Africa and the world. Among other places, she told her story at the Intergenerational Dialogue organised by UN Women earlier this year. Another notable activist is feminist, healthcare lobbyist and writer Makhosana Xaba who has written extensively on health-systems management, gender and health, and women’s health policies.


In 2001, an openly lesbian judge called Kathleen Satchwell lobbied for the right for her partner to get the same benefits as the straight spouses of married judges. Not only did she win the case, but the verdict is widely seen as one of five key decisions that established a new legal status for same-sex couples before the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2006. Since then, this Gauteng high court judge has been fighting stigmatisation within the legal fraternity, including a 2009 complaint that her sexuality made her an unsuitable candidate for the Constitutional Court. And of course, no list of power queers would be complete without Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron. The openly gay legal boffin has not only won major battles for gay rights but also for the rights of HIV-infected individuals. His autobiographies have spoken frankly about being queer and living with HIV.


Arguably the most important South African film to date is also one of the most complex queer documents out there. Young film maker Oliver HermanusSkoonheid is about a conservative Afrikaans man battling with his attraction to men. Hermanus expertly captured the toxicity of patriarchy, homophobia and violent masculinity in South Africa. The film won the Queer Palm Award at Cannes and unlocked his international career. Another pivotal voice in film is Shelley Barry’s. Working from a wheelchair after being caught in a taxi shooting, her anti-gun lobbying and activism for disabled and women’s rights has included seminal work on the sexuality of her disabled lesbian body. She is notable as an educationalist, pioneering a documentary film school through her twospinningwheels productions, which embraces LGBTQI voices.


Without going into the dynamics of their parties, several politicians in South Africa are proudly queer. These include the ANC’s Lynne Brown, the first openly lesbian Cabinet minister. Also out and about are several current and former MPs from the DA: Zakhele Mbhele, Mike Waters, Ian Ollis and Marius Redelinghuys.


Twitter could never have anticipated it would become such a powerful tool for counternarratives that demand that movements be intersectional and include all queer lives, or be treated as bull. There are numerous young queer activists, feminists and voices using their platforms to agitate and disrupt the status quo. One such is Wits student Thabiso Bhengu, one of many voices who told the story of #FeesMustFall. He is a scholar in Fanonian violence and gender blurring, and offers a much-needed voice to the debate. Sivi Siwisa, founder of Ikasi Pride, is also a necessary voice on Twitter. Mambaonline.com has served the community for years, bringing the news, albeit skewed towards white gay news. Moshe Ndiki, South Africa’s breakout YouTube sensation in 2015, is another important young black queer voice and face online, offering much-needed light relief. – Gugulethu Mhlungu, Charl Blignaut, Grethe Koen and Garreth van Niekerk

Who have we missed? Who would you like to see in the next Queer Power edition? SMS the keyword QUEER and your thoughts to 35697. You can also email us at trending@citypress.co.za. SMSes cost R1.50. Please include your name and province

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