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Gay Pride is political

“I’m queer, too, you stupid f**k,” screamed the Joburg Pride board chair, Tanya Harford, as she lunged at me. Her attack was in response to my colleagues and me telling her that we were part of the LGBT community. She was trying forcibly to remove us from the road where about 20 of us (almost all black and working class) had just attempted to stop Joburg Pride and demand one minute of silence to remember those who had been killed because of their sexual orientation and gender expression. Far from making her stop pushing us around, our claim to queerness appeared to enrage her further, to the point where she grabbed my neck and seemed keen to detach my head from it; three kicks later, one from a passer-by and two from my comrades, she released me.

If there had been any doubt in our minds it became clear then that queerness as identity cannot constitute a common political ground. If we had had any illusions that queerness, and the acquisition of formal LGBT rights, in South Africa had started to bridge racial and socioeconomic divides and that we were all part of the LGBT community (in the singular), here is incontrovertible evidence that we are dissected along class, race and gender lines now more than ever.

Joburg Pride organising committee claims that neither they nor Joburg Pride are “political animals” and that they merely provide a “platform”, create an “event” for others to display their politics; I would argue that any forum that claims to work on behalf of LGBT communities, which include black lesbians who are raped and murdered because of who they are and how they look, is in itself a loud and screaming political statement. Joburg Pride board does not have the right, let alone the magical skills, to distance Pride from its inherently political nature. Perhaps, then, in addition to saying that Pride has been de-politicised away from a vision of social justice, it is important to point out that Pride’s politics, as currently formulated, follow the money.

The commercialisation of Pride and the emphasis on fostering “gay tourism” and developing the “gay market”, which are evident in Joburg Pride’s current manifestation, necessarily rely on homogenising diverse communities and their needs and concealing the poverty and marginalisation faced by the majority of the black LGBT population in South Africa. This is from Joburg Pride’s website under a section titled “The Gay Market”: “Gays and lesbian [sic] like to be respected and spoken to as a community in their own right. This reflects acceptance of their lifestyle and a progressive approach; absolutely vital to being taken seriously by this group of trend-setting, astute and often affluent consumers.” It is not by accident that gays and lesbians are converted from “a community” to “consumers” in the space of two sentences. You can be forgiven for thinking that the Joburg Pride website is a portal for distributing advice to businesses who want to tap into this niche market of “trend-setting” consumers who just happen to be gay. After all, doesn’t equality mean equal rights to consume, just as freedom means the freedom to starve? That some gays consume “luxury items” while others cannot afford three meals a day is just a detail that does not rhyme well with “open happiness” (yes, Joburg Pride is “presented” by Coca-Cola, which relieves millions of poor people around the world of their fresh drinking water before flooding their corner shops and supermarkets with unhealthy drinks).

Proof that there’s more than one LGBT community was clear where the paraders and others ended up after marching to “Protect our Rights” (Joburg Pride’s 2012 theme that cannot help but sound ironic now; perhaps we should retrospectively re-title it “Prospect our Rights”). You would have seen the trend-setters inside the venue (which you cannot enter if you have your own food and beverages, including water, because Joburg Pride makes money from the sale of foodstuffs in it) and outside the venue, you would have seen thousands of mostly black lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people and their friends, consuming the food and drinks that they had brought with them and which they could afford. So much for Pride as a space for diversity and equality.

Is it a coincidence that the rise of Pride celebrations across the world has proceeded alongside the spread of neoliberalism, unfettered free-market global capitalist expansion and the systematic dismantling of social welfare structures? Is it a coincidence that all but one of us demanding one minute of silence at Joburg Pride were black, that all those who assaulted and intimidated us were white and that only black people were physically attacked? Is it a coincidence that this aggression towards demands for politicisation, so easy to surface and acted upon with such impunity and arrogance, comes to the fore at a time when the government seems to have handed over the running of the country to corporations and when millions of workers receive starvation wages?

If it is, it’s a planned coincidence. It is not news that capitalism is inherently opposed to diversity and equity, and that a politics based on identity seeks to flatten difference among us and erase those of us who are not gay in the approved way. It may come as news to Joburg Pride organisers that Pride belongs to all of us regardless of class, race, gender and sexual orientation. And it is old news that queers who are socioeconomically marginalised and who demand the re-politicisation of Pride must urgently make alliances with other working-class and unemployed people rather than seek the approval of those members of the LGBT community who tell them to go back to their lokshins (locations). As the poor (including the poor queers) in South Africa get poorer, it’s perhaps time to evaluate what we have to be proud of and which rights need protecting.