Local Government Elections are tomorrow but according to members of the of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersexual (LGBTI) community their voices are not there.
Thato Pule is a firm activist for the rights of those in the LGBTI community.
“Our bodies are political … and we can use them to protect ourselves … our bodies are vulnerable and therefore are targets,” says Thato Pule a third year Actuarial Science student from the University of Cape Town (UCT).
Pule is transgender woman and she is proud of who she is. When Wits Vuvuzela spoke to her, she was confident and assertive. She wore a stylish multi-colour dress (yellow, white and brown) paired with a black coat. Her hair was tied up and her make-up was on fleek. She spoke with such a command that one could not help but pay attention.
When Pule is asked about her experiences as a young, black and gifted transgender woman, she responds “I have no say in what happens to my daily experience because it is at the hands of those who benefit from my subjugation.”
So many times, it has been said that the youth of today are lazy and have no mission. However for the likes of Pule, there is a greater mission for young people in this era.
Earlier this year, the #rhodesmustfall movement was started by UCT students. The movement was sparked by students demanding transformation at UCT, particularly the removal of the statue of colonialist Cecil John Rhodes.
Pule said #rhodesmustfall was a starting point for her own thinking and caused her to think about the inclusion on campus of “queer bodies”.
Pule was a member of the UCT SRC, the chairperson of transformation and social responsiveness, at the time. However, she later resigned from her position after controversial comments were made about the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex (LGBTI) community UCT SRC deputy president Zizipho Pae.
“We are institutionalising and normalising sin. God have mercy on us” Pae wrote after gay marriage was legalised in all American states.
These comments led to Pule posting to Facebook a picture that had tongues wagging. It showed the half-naked bodies of Pule and women in solidarity with her, standing in the UCT SRC president’s office. It was captioned “She invaded our personal space as queer bodies and now we are invading hers.”
She also criticises UCT as a whole for their lack of interest when it comes to issues relating to the LGBTI community. “UCT operates on the assumption that someone is either male or female,” she explains. Pule places emphasison residences, because she feels as though there is no consideration for people of all sexual orientations.
She is an activist with the newly formed Black Resolutions Movement which focuses on what she calls “black queerness.” Pule believes that the fact that she is black changes the entire sphere of being transgender.
“Activism is not an option, it’s a way of life” Pule says.
Transgendered people have been in the news, with reality television star Caitlyn Jenner, formerly a man, revealing to the world her identity as a woman. She went through medical treatments to look like a woman before changing her name. While criticised by many, including some who claimed it was a publicity stunt, Jenner was also praised and received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award earlier this month.
Pule praises Jenner’s journey because she believes that it has helped to “introduce transgender people into mainstream homes.” However she still believes that is still much work to be done in Africa for people of all sexual orientations to be understood and accepted.
Walking onto the eerily silent ramp that leads to the new exhibition at the Wits Art Museum, one is met by death. Small mounds of sand stand,holding up colourful wooden crosses that have dates of birth and death written on them.These graves that lie in glass containers are in the Zanele Muholi’s Mo(u)rning section of the exhibition.
The next piece of the collection, Faces and Faces catches the eye immediately as a wall of black and white portraits look one in the eye. There are some gaps between some of the photographs by Muholi which speak to the nameless but dated graves.
“The spaces were left there to show that they could have been a part of this section of the exhibition if they weren’t killed for being gay and lesbian,” explained facilitator Ace Kekana, whose face appears in one of Muholi’s portraits. Queer and Trans Art-iculations: Collaborative Art for Social Change is a collaborative exhibition by visual artists, Muholi and Gabrielle le Roux. [pullquote align=”right”]”…men who gang rape women, who murder lesbians, who beat their wives – they walk the streets as free men.”[/pullquote]
Muholi’s work is on the ground floor of the museum with a focus on the LGBTI community in South Africa – their beauty, their struggle, their murders and more. Muholi is not only a photographer, so her work varies and in this exhibit includes some of her bead work and a documentary film.
The most elaborate display in Muholi’s section are rosaries that hang from the ceiling. The beads in the rosaries are tennis balls and kitchen utensils. The vertical end of the cross at the end of the rosary is made from a knife which represents the violent killings of members of the LGBTI community experience, and the horizontal end from braai forks to represent the supposed hell killers think they’ve sent their victims to, or perhaps the lived hell victims endure.
“When people kill based on gender they like to say it’s for religious reasons, these crosses represent how dangerous that kind of thinking can be,” said Kekana.
The most moving part of Muholi’s exhibited work is a wall with a number of written messages from victims and their family members about their experiences. One of the messages read: “Here in South Africa you have judges sending women to jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed her baby, but men who gang rape women, who murder lesbians, who beat their wives – they walk the streets as free men.”
In contrast to the quiet reception on entering Muholi’s floor of the exhibition, walking down the ramp into the basement area, sounds from the television screens set up with short documentaries by Le Roux lure attendees with their mixed up buzz.
Le Roux’s collection, Proudly African & Transgender and Proudly Trans in Turkey looks at the experiences “trans and intersex people in Turkey and Africa,” said Kekana. Another facilitator, Thekwane Mpisholo is in one of the portraits put on display by Le Roux.
The painted portraits are inclusive of their “subjects” and this can be seen in the quotes the artist let them scribble on their actual portraits.
The newly launched Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, helped to find the funding for this project. “They’re the ones who helped us with the planning and funding because they (Diversity Studies) study things that aren’t ordinarily studied by other faculties – that’s how they came on board,” said Mpisholo.
There is a lot to read, watch and see at this exhibition and people can do so until March 30 2014 at the Wits Art Museum.
- Wits Vuvuzela. WITH GALLERY: The 1913 Land Act realised through photos. August 24, 2013.
Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron raised concerns about the scourge of corrective rape in South Africa and the need to celebrate differences and diversity. He was speaking at the FNB Building on Wednesday about transformation policies for marginalised groups including women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. Cameron is often celebrated as Africa’s highest ranking openly-gay public official. He said: “[Being gay] is not a preference or a choice. We should be proud of the way we are.”
A TALK about the “Safe Zones” campaign launched by the transformation office was given today by Prof Tommaso Milani in Umthombo 11.
Milani who is an associate professor of linguistics in the School of Language, Literature and Media (SLLM), spoke about the safe zones project, which is a Wits transformation initiative funded by the Carnegie Corporation in New York.
Milani said the safe zones project is an anti-homophobic practice which addresses issues around gender, sexuality and the making of a public space for the Wits community to be comfortable to speak out about their sexual preference.
The initiatives trains ‘allies’ [allies are academics, staff and students of the university] on issues around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people (LGBTI) and the problems they face. Safe Zones seeks to increase understanding and awareness of LGBTI on campus and alleviate rising rates of homophobia (from the Wits safe zones Proposal 2011).
“You should never be ashamed of your sexuality – never”, said Milani. He went on to explain that sexual behaviour and sexual harassment need to be addressed more often in the university and in the country. “Sexual harassment happens because of silence” he said.
The “queer” in the title of the talk refers to “an act of defiance”, and “queer” supports the LGBTI theory, said Milani.
We need to think academically about the meaning of queer and critically understand how [sexual] identity categories are used and for what purpose said Milani.
Milani said, “I am a gay man and a queer scholar” and “academics do research about who we are and what we are passionate about,” Milani said this was why he was passionate about the project. “Sexuality will never be an act of surrender,” he added.
Milani also stressed the difference between homosexuality and being gay. “Gay is an identity and homosexuality is a practice”, said Milani.
Safe Zones is a Wits initiative and Wits University is the only university in the country which does not only host a gay pride festival but also sponsors it.
“It degrades human dignity, it’s unnatural, and there is no question ever of allowing these people [homosexuals] to behave worse than dogs and pigs.”
Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe, made this shocking declaration a few years ago and said gays and lesbians should be handed over to the police. Even in these times he is not a lonely voice.
Africa is the continent with the least liberal laws regarding Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) rights. Over 30 countries criminalise homosexuality, and there are many cases of state-sponsored homophobia.
In most countries where homosexuality is illegal the law establishes penalties that range from a fine to years in prison – life imprisonment in Uganda.
In Mauritania, Sudan and northern Nigeria, the punishment is the death penalty.
In most African countries there is not even anti-discrimination legislation on sexual orientation or gender identity basis specifically, and South Africa is the exception.
Homosexuality on the African continent has often been blamed on colonialism. The notion that homosexuality is not African is widely spread.
“[That] is just a defence tactic and a prejudice driving tool,” says third year LLB student Motlatsi Motseoile, who is gay. He claims people usually base their “lack of knowledge and understanding on tradition and ‘Africanness’”.
Motseoile adds: “You know certain things are not of African origin by whether there is an African term for it, and there is one in Zulu [for homosexuality].”
He says he has read a lot on the subject, and the readings suggest “same-sex sexual relations have been around on the African continent for ages. They just have not been widely recorded… and perhaps not as spread or understood in its current form”.
Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) archivist Gabriel Khan says: “GALA is the best place to stop on campus if one is interested in both the history and contemporary experience of LGBTI people in South Africa and also Africa.”
The core of the organisation is a unique archive of LGBTI materials. According to Khan, GALA also offers programmes and activities that aim to educate the public, create dialogue and inspire action.
Even though the legal system ensures equality, social acceptance is still a concern in South Africa.