Fracturing Pink Unity – thoughts on Pride and challenging the centre

On the eve of Cape Town Pride, I sat in conversation with a group of queers at a reception honouring a woman who works with lesbian survivors of sexual violence. Set around a quaint table overlooking the lush landscaped garden of the stately residence in Newlands we had been invited to, we discussed the “divisions” in the Cape Town LGBTI “community”. These tensions had recently manifested themselves in the reported battle between the Cape Town Pride board and a grouping of largely Black, queer township-dwelling women ostensibly led by Free Gender’s Funeka Soldaat.

Earlier that week, Soldaat had branded the Cape Town Pride establishment as racist and sexist, describing it as meaningless festival that only served the specific interests of largely rich white gay men. Cape Town Pride’s Director, Matthew Van As, rejected this characterization as a self-imposed perception, particularly in light of the lengths at which the Pride organisation went to bus “community organisations” in and out of Green Point so they too could participate in the event.

While we sat quaffing glassfuls of champagne and scoffing one intricately dressed canapé after another, I listened as an attractive, ostensibly well-positioned man who had identified himself as a Cape Town Pride organizer told us the story. He appeared genuinely helpless. Helpless that “some people” with “big egos” were trying to destroy Cape Town Pride in the same way “the lesbians” did Jo’burg Pride in 2012. Helpless that corporate sponsorship to the event was waning – largely because Cape Town Pride wasn’t sufficiently corporatised. Helpless that anyone could reject the uniting of the cultures of Cape Town under one rainbow flag.

Throughout the narrative, little was said about the historical origins of Pride, its contested meanings or whether it remained something around which queers could unite. Nor was there much honest engagement with the privileged positions of those bodies which held the centre of Pride in relation to those who were pushed out to its periphery. Try as I could to distance myself from the shifting fault lines in Cape Town Pride, I couldn’t. I recognized Soldaat’s critique, because it was my own.

Turning the Cape Town narrative in my mind, it was apparent to me that there was something more the matter that caused the fragmentation – more than an obstinate refusal to come to the party for any apparent reason. It seemed to me, as it was the case with “those lesbians in Jo’burg,” that this might be a resistance to a forced collective identity organized around the experiences and interests of a few privileged bodies, to the exclusion of the many. It lay in the rejection of the refusal to acknowledge exclusion, inequality and availability to violence as being ordered along the axes of race, class and gender. It lay in pointing out that simply marching under the rainbow couldn’t erase that reality, or our own role in enabling it.

I had, all too many times, read the artfully crafted copy punting a united pink nation of a rainbow of races committed to celebrating diversity consistently paired with images that identified it with blonde muscle-bound white boys in tight briefs and sailor caps. I had paraded with the pink nation through leafy suburbs with high walls and picturesque promenades, the colourful messages scripted on the placards around me bearing little to no resemblance to what I was most concerned about in the township I had been bussed in from on the farthest outskirt of town.

Like Soldaat, I couldn’t buy the promise of a pink nation marching under a unifying rainbow flag. Not when those defining this nation prided themselves in organizing mass boycotts of Russian vodka and staged kiss-ins outside embassies to protest the “barbaric” onslaught on gay rights, yet shied away from naming and engaging the many manifestations of violence experienced by queer bodies that looked like mine in townships on the other side of the mountain because it might dampen the celebratory mood of the festivities.

As I sipped on my last bit of champagne, marvelling still at how the right side of the mountain lived, I took solace in the possibility that I was, perhaps, not alone so far out on the fringe. That in the face of thousands, even we few on the periphery were challenging the centre and building many new ones. I was encouraged by the emergence of movements that refused to mask over the patent inequalities between and concerning queers under the guise of shared sexual freedoms. Movements that located the queer body squarely in all struggles because they all are its own, reclaiming Pride from capitalist power and returning it back to the people. That these movements were not just limited to Cape Town or Johannesburg, but had presence in San FranciscoTel AvivLondon and the other myriad spaces across the globe where queer bodies are used, like pink paint, to wash over the violence articulated on poor, female, disabled and Black bodies which only also happen to be queer everyday. Perhaps here I could find a nation, with the many others who, like me, are over the rainbow.

This piece was first published on Platform Online on 12 March 2013.

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