Refusing to fade in obscurity: On Black lesbians making histories

It has been two months since our only outspoken lesbian soccer team, the Chosen Few, came back from winning bronze at the International Gay & Lesbian Football Association (IGLFA) tournament in London. This was the team’s second bronze medal after winning at the Gay Games Chicago in 2006. Chosen Few is making African herstory for all of us.

Fast forward now to last Wednesday, October 22, when the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) held their annual international meeting in Africa’s pinkest city: Cape Town, South Africa. The meeting, which was organized at the Ritz Hotel in Sea Point, took place one day after the 2006 brutal murder of Zoliswa Nkonyana finally went to court in Khayelitsha township, the same place where the 19-year-old lesbian was stabbed, stoned and beaten to death by a group of men for being a female homosexual. Attending both the court hearing in Khayelitsha and the FGG meeting in Sea Point, the racialized and classed dichotomy between grassroots community organizing and international queer membership strikes me yet again. At the Khayelitsha Magistrate Court, it was our black sisters who took the risk of outing themselves to violent homophobes by protesting against hate crimes and the murder of a young lesbian. But these very same women who continue the struggle for social justice and human rights in South Africa were conspicuously absent from the FGG guest and participant list.

Of course, the closed meeting in Sea Point made reference to the need for gender parity and community development of lesbian and gay issues. However, it is still elite queers with important biographies and expert English who get the right to talk about developing and empowering township Africans while feasting on catered, sponsored food. Excluded from the agenda are the majority of gay sports men and women in this country who speak Afrikaans, Zulu, Venda or Xhosa in our daily communication with the world, and who are prevented from participating in many international coordinating events by their joblessness, poverty, and lack of formal and extended education. These are our issues as lesbian, gay, trans and intersex black people.

Judge Edwin Cameron opened the meeting with a well prepared speech for our guests on South Africa’s queer histories and struggles. For the closing memorial ceremony which was conducted by Laura Moore, one of the organisation’s board members — FGG’s Memorial Moment (which started in 1997) – there are many young and old LGBTI/queer people from around the world who have made a difference by putting their lives on line were remembered. From the list read were amongst others Peg Grey, Busi Sigasa, Peter Todd, Simon Nkoli, Buhle Msibi, Phil Ainsworth, Nomsa Nosizwe Bizana, John Basile, Zoliswa Nkonyana, Luleka Makiwane and many more.

But it was a young black woman named Puleng Mahlati of the newly formed community organization Lulekisizwe in Gugulethu who made sure that a group of black lesbians from the Kaapstad townships were organized to gatecrash the meeting, hear the speeches, sing for the delegates, and share the same table so to speak. I believe this is the kind of courageous action that veteran Bev Ditsie spoke about during a recent interview when she stated that we lesbians must “refuse to fade into obscurity!” Mahlati organizes Lulekisizwe with Nondumiso ‘Ndumi’ Funda so that the Gugulethu lesbians have a safe and local space to meet, share, agitate and activate.

Another highlight of the meeting was that Viola May accepted the nomination to serve on the FGG Board, also nominated and voted for in absentia was Phumla Masuku, but the vote went to May who has experience in social development and organizing. Masuku alongside a former colleague was a driving force to get the Chosen FEW to Chicago Gay Games in 2006. May took a leave of absence from her job at the Premiere’s government office in order to make her voice known. She was invited by an acquaintance, and she came to accept the nomination because —as she puts it in her own words..

“FGG board is for one to make a difference, to stop always complaining about white people are always doing something. So I thought if I want to stop always complaining, I have to do something. I’m a doer, but I’m doing so many things. I don’t have any specific portfolio, but my passion is development and empowerment. My vision for black lesbians or I would say the LGBT(I) community to restore our dignity and pride for this country. I have a background of culture, education, social development.”

May demonstrated that all our black LGBTI communities need is young leadership that will be creative and willing to take initiative at spaces like these, without waiting for special invitation and validation.

I believe it is ultimately only our culture of silence that will continue to be the reason for our absentia at both small and large workshops, symposium, and conventions held in South Africa. With powerful and gutsy young leaders like Mahlati, May, Funda, and Masuku, we will not be silenced, but we can be organized and active participants in international bodies.

Gender parity is indeed an important point of discussion for any international federation that claims to represent queer athletes globally. But before gender parity is discussed, we need to know whose faces, what shades of colour, and which knowledges are allowed expression at the discussion table. And I wondered what it means for our struggle for liberation when young black township lesbians with no formal expertise close the ceremony and yet they were unimagined in the first place?

Part of the proceedings was the Pink Ball on Friday night (24 October 2008) held at the same hotel. In attendance —introduced by Ian McMahon the newly appointed External Relations person for the FGG – were the likes of Zackie Achmat who made a keynote address, where he highly praised the important work of the LGBTI sector and however, lamented the sector for being voiceless when xenophobia took place in this country. He is looking forward to the day when he can participate in the Gay Games in South Africa. The special evening was aimed at raising funds (auction style) for Cape Town Pride and FGG.

Saturday, 25 October 2008 at Hamilton — Sea Point (SA’s Oldest Rugby Football Club) we witnessed a soccer match played by two women soccer teams (Simunye FC, Worcester and Sizwe FC, Guguletu) and the score was 0-0. For many players celebrating their participation was a forward in preparation for both 2009 World Outgames, Copenhagen, Denmark and 2010 Cologne Gay Games. However for our undersourced teams especially black lesbian hopefuls, this would not materialize/ realized without sponsorships.

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Zanele Muholi is an independent visual activist/photographer. She is the co-founder of the Forum for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), a black lesbian organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa, prior to that Muholi worked for Behind the Mask as a reporter and photographer. Currently pursuing MFA: Documentary Media at Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.

Muholi continues to photograph positive images of black queers (LGBTI). Zanele also trains basic photography skills to women and young black lesbians from the townships of Joburg and Cape Town.

For her work please visit: Michael Stevenson Galleries

© Zanele Muholi – 27 October 2008: Cape Town, South Africa

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