Marching to Pretoria: Adventures in Queer South Africa–SF Frontiers, January 18, 1996

I rediscovered this article I wrote in 1996 and sadly enough, its last paragraph is true again. 

“No person shall be unfairly discriminated against, directly or indirectly, and without derogating from the generality of this provision, on one or more of the following grounds in particular: race, gender, sex, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture or language.”

Question  1: The  above  quote  comes  from:  a)  San Francisco Human Rights Ordinance, b) Apple Computer’s corporate policy, or c) South Africa’s interim constitution.

Question 2: You can find a nationally celebrated drag performer interviewing politicians with her own television show on: a) SciFi Channel, b) Australian Broadcasting System, or c) M-NET South Africa.

Question 3: What is going on down there anyway?

Shedding its racist, puritanical past, the New South Africa is changing daily, in a process that is as amazing to outsiders as it is bewildering to those who live there. 1nmy fourth trip to South Africa over the last four years, and in my first trip since the first democratic elections last year brought in Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity, I experienced a South Africa that was only dreamed about a few years ago. South Africa is now looking to the future, a future that among other things, is queer. The dream and reality of the New South Africa can be seen in the city most connected with its past, Pretoria

The White Bread City

As the home to white Afrikaner bureaucrats, Pretoria had the distinction of being the world’s most boring city. ‘Blacks could not live within the city limits and were forced to leave in the evening. And so did pretty much everyone else.  Stores closed early  and  the  streets were  generally deserted after 6 p.m. Only at brightly lit malls, painted in pink and turquoise, could you find some cinema-goers in the evening. Movies were highly censored, eliminating sex and controversial issues. No films were shown on Sundays, the day of rest.

The gay bars of Pretoria were quiet affairs, hidden away and discrete except for weekends when things picked up a bit. But it was generally agreed that all of the action was in Johannesburg. This time, entering Pretoria I was aware that even here change was happening.  There were blacks on the streets,  all  over the city, day and night.  And even more surprising to me, my “gaydar” started working for the first time ever in my several South African travels. Previously, it always seemed to be on the blink, never registering any like kinds, often not even in the gay bars. This time it started beeping before I had even pulled into the Holiday Inn.

The Holiday Inn had changed a bit, but not much..My shock  came,  however, one evening while I was waiting for a friend. A handsome young black man entered the hotel and ran up the escalator, not before giving me a big smile. A few minutes later he ran down outside, giving me another smile. We started to talk and within minutes we were making plans to ditch our friends, when my ride showed up. Waving good bye, it dawned on me that I had been cruised by a black man in the Holiday Inn in Pretoria Perhaps not a startling occurrence elsewhere, but a world shattering occurrence in Pretoria. I decided to find out more.

Drag in the State Theater

Standing blocky and imposing, the State Theater complex in Pretoria was built as a monument to white straight culture. It regularly serves up “The Sound of Music” and other hits, while also presenting the Symphony and Opera. Gay sensibility has never made a big showing here… that is until now. On my second night in the city, I went to see a performance of Pieter Dirk Uys, a well known South African satirist. Seeing Uys at the State Theater is the equivalent of seeing our Joan Jett Black at the Kennedy Center. Uys is best known for his drag persona Evita Bezedenhuit, the ambassadress of the New South Africa

Last year, Evita had her own hour-long television show where she interviewed prominent South African politicians. Typically, Evita managed to set her interviewee at ease, as she was graciously escorted around their home or, sometimes, office. Often arm in arm with her host, she would lob off-the-cuff but on-target questions about the issues of the day. On one show, Jay Naidoo, one of Mandela’s cabinet ministers, mentioned an interest in learning to dance.  On a whim, the pair rushed off to a local dance studio, where they learned the rumba—all on  film. After it was over, Naidoo exclaimed to Evita, “I’ve never Latin danced before,” to which Evita replied, “Jay, I doubt if you have ever danced with a man in drag before!” Nonplussed, Naidoo agreed that that was true.

Uys reported that he as now seen Nelson Mandela four times, each time in drag. The last time, Mandela gave Evita a big hug to which she replied, “Nelson, we have got to stop meeting this way.”

Other South African leaders, like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, complained to Uys that they were not satirized in his show. So now Uys sports a frock and a grey wig to portray Tutu in his State Theater show.

The Church

For the most part, Afrikanerdom is associated with the Church. And there is only one church, the Afrikaans Reformed Church. The Church has helped form the theological connections to apartheid as well as to the general Victorianism that was part and parcel of the old South Africa. In fact, today the only political party opposed to the sexual orientation provision in the Constitution is the African Christian Democratic Party,  a small church-affiliated group. But once again, a revolution is brewing in Pretoria.

I sat talking to a gay Afrikaner couple in their mid-30s one evening. One spoke fluent English, but his partner stumbled a bit more. He explained that he had few chances to speak English with anyone, so I must excuse him, not an uncommon remark in the tightly closed Afrikaner community. The conversation turned to religion and they mentioned that they both were very active in their church. When I asked how they could be, given the Church’s stand on homosexuality, they laughed. Their minister, they explained, just got back from the U.S., where he was exploring affiliation with h t h e Metropolitan Community Church. The shocked look on my face encouraged them to continue. Their several-year-old church has weekly services in Afrikaans for gays and lesbians that are deeply spiritual as well as affirming. Ina few short years under their dynamic minister, the church grew from 15 or so members to over 500, much larger than a similar church in the more progressive Johannesburg.  The church has performed several marriages and was gradually moving out in the wider community.

The Bar and the Constitution

On Friday and Saturday nights, Steamers, is the place to be in Pretoria. Parking in the railway station lot across the street, you can hear the music and see the hoards of men and women making their way over to the club. Unlike many South African gay bars, this one is not content to hide away behind some anonymous door. Instead, the patrons spill out into the veranda and the parking lot, greeting friends, flirting and generally making a scene. You know it is gay long before you actually approach the door.

Steamers gets going a bit early compared to “Joburg” bars, which are more attuned to international gay time. By 9:30 p.m. the dance floor is filling up and by 10:30 p.m. it is packed. And it seems for the first time in my experience, local men are cruising. This statement may sound absurd, but previously, I have discovered that the only men who were interested in talking or dancing invariably turned out to be foreigners. Afrikaner men, especially, were known to be aloof. Men of color operate differently, but they are still scarce in the Pretoria bar scene.

An Afrikaner in a white T-shirt and black leather vest approaches me. He’s surprised to meet an American and feels like he’s made some type of a catch. We chat a bit and then head to the dance floor. The music is good and there is a nice mix of gay men and lesbians packing the floor. After a bit, he takes me back upstairs to meet some of his friends.

His group is composed of standard Afrikaner bureaucratic-class types with lower level jobs in the government. They come down to the bar about every other week and stay until closing. We talk of the U.S. and comparisons to South Africa. They are keenly interested in how the world is looking at them now. One talked of going to Amsterdam a few years ago and being spit upon when he introduced himself as South African.

Despite their Afrikaner background, they were wildly pro-Mandela and were even warming to his party, the ANC. In addition to Mandela’s leadership skills that  are unifying  the  country, the main reason that brought this group to enthusiastically support him was the changes in the constitution’s equality clause.  “Before the Interim Constitution took effect, this place was dead and gays were pretty quiet. Now look at it…Once the final Constitution is put into effect, you can expect more and more gays and lesbians to come out. We have nothing to fear now.”

The gay community has been actively lobbying the constitutional commission and the movement to endorse the equality clause of the Constitution has gotten support from most public officials throughout the country. Most recently, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has declared his support for the inclusion of sexual orientation. The rationale for support is quite simple: after years of oppression based on color, those in power do not want to see politically based oppression of any type. While attitudes may take some time to change, the Constitution is unambiguous and clear: equality before the law is to be cherished.

On the Streets

A gay presence in Pretoria is even starting to become evident on the streets. Sunnyside, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown, is emerging as Pretoria’s place to be. There are a number of restaurants, catering to a wide choice of tastes. The local bookstore has a wide selection of books and magazines and an interesting gay section. Some light porn is even available now.

As everywhere in Pretoria, the local mall dominates Sunnyside. During the evening, gay couples and cruising single men can be seen riding the escalators to the shops and restaurants and movie house. And while a Castro habitué may not notice much difference, the fact that any gay presence exists is a new miracle.

Night life is still low key and, at best, circumscribed. There are not that many places to go in Pretoria. One new gay-friendly coffeehouse opened on the historic Church Square in the heart of the downtown. Owned by two women, Cafe Riche offers a friendly and intimate venue that is rare in the mallified architecture of the city. With the original marble counters and wood paneling from its 1905 predecessor still in place, a mixed inter-racial crowd of hip younger folks and gays and lesbians patronize the cafe.

Not all of gay life is dependent on constitutional protections.  Gays and lesbians have long been around and quietly out in Pretoria. I met several couples who have been together for 10 and 15 years, living their lives in privacy that most Afrikaner’s cherish. However, a new opening and tolerance is also apparent. I saw a number of bed and breakfasts that advertised in straight publications, listing their hosts as Jack and Alex or Pieter and Jan and gay movies, such as “The Sum of Us,” playing at multiplex theaters.

Pretoria still holds true to certain patterns. I only noticed one interracial couple, conspicuous in the general whiteness of the Pretoria gay and lesbian scene. People of color are generally missing from the bar scene in Pretoria, belaying the fact that 80 percent of the country’s population is black. And among many of the Afrikaner men that I met on this trip, racism is still a part of their lives and outlook. In fact, they often thought that my observations of Pretoria were amusing, at best. Where I saw a night life developing, they saw more blacks on the streets at night. Where I saw a wonderful diversity, they saw more blacks on the streets. Where I saw… Well, you get the picture.

Coming back to the U.S. after each of my trips to South Africa has always given me cause for reflection. In the past, I was aware of the way our two countries were similar—institutionalized racism being part and parcel of the experience in both countries. Before, I had the sense—perhaps chauvinistically—that we were at least attempting to deal with our problems, while South Africa was creating new ones. However, this time my return home was different. South Africa has gone from being a pariah to a country promoting the greatest respect for universal human rights in the world. Here at home, however, our political debate is about closing our doors on diversity and equality, as politicians seek to identify scapegoats for problems-immigrants, welfare mothers, anyone of color, and gays.

I never imagined that I would come home from South Africa thinking that they offered us a model. But as the right wing dominates the dialogue in the United States, I find myself looking for our own version of Nelson Mandela, someone so secure in his understanding of oppression that he believes no one else should endure the suffering that he and his people have experienced. Despite the preeminence of U.S. gay culture around the world, we indeed have much we can learn.

This article was originally published in S.F. Frontiers Newsmagazine on January 18, 1996. Unfortunately it is not available in any on-line archives.

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