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Zanele Muholi

The Pride Shelter

by Dela Gwala / Images by Zanele Muholi / 19.05.2011

This is a Poop Scoop Area, white letters shriek NOTICE from the green signpost. Twin sets of furry paws are followed by after-hours tracksuit pants. Tennis court fences hold back the scuffle of matching shorts. The police here are on horseback; the authority to keep the grass clean. The houses claim the title of “old Victorian” but what’s parked in front of the garage speaks of brand new. The gates here are locked – except for one. Number 1 Molteno Close, Oranjezicht: a street corner on the frontline of the global agenda. The Pride Shelter Trust: Africa’s last refuge for open sexuality.

Don’t talk to the neighbours, that’s one of the rules here. Suburbia doesn’t appreciate it when a home for the desperate crops up next to its tennis courts. Jammed between a reservoir and upper middle class indifference, this is a safe house for gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex people. It’s this continent’s first – it’s this continent’s only. On the gate, the red of a duct-taped buzzer is the only declarative sign. Just past the welcome mat, they’re hoisting up a multi-coloured banner. Two men each hold a corner in one hand and a nail in the other. The matron tells them to move it a little to the left. The Gay SA flag is hammered to the brick wall. It’s a here and now version of Modern Family– the Family Portrait episode.

The rooms upstairs open up to rows of empty bunk beds. This place is not a forever. You are either here to work or find work. Either way, you only have a month. No weapons, no drugs, no alcohol, no sex – the sacred code to finding a way out. Temporary situation: two words the founder of this shelter believes in. The admission policy stands on the word “crisis”. Glenn de Swardt created this home as a stand-in for religious organizations. Charity has always been the preserve of the church but there are some questions the faithful can’t deal with. If you label someone a man and they identify as a woman then who gets to be right? Which bathroom do you let them use? In this shelter, those answers belong to that human being. Men, women or both – sexual preference is not a name tag. It’s why straight people are allowed to stay here. “There’s no blood test” as Glenn says. He’s right; sexual orientation is not a disease.

“These are people’s lives”, a sentence most African governments seem to struggle to understand. It’s spoken as a mother’s plea to be good to her boys. It’s the matron’s way of pointing out that they’ve been through enough. At night, she bangs on a pot to signal that it’s time to eat. This is a dinner table of how did we get here stories. Next to the matron sits a married couple from Durban. Shelters would put the phone down on them for being a “Mr and Mr”. It also got them fired and left them with nothing. The young couple sitting next to them used to “provide a service” to men who could afford it – upper class rent boys. They lived with a suburban prostitute and her kids. A drug raid got them thrown out – even though the police never found what they were looking for. The two men sitting across the table are not from here. They’re refugees from the DRC – they had to run.

Zanele Muholi
Ms Le Sishi II, Umlazi township, Durban, Jan. 2010, Image size: 50.5 x 76.5cm, Paper size: 60.5 x 86.5cm, C-Print, Edition of 8 + 2AP.

“I didn’t want to die alone in my lonely closet.” A risk you face when raised in a conservative Congolese family. His parents believed in only one thing – the bible. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has meant the collapse of this man’s life. In the DRC, homosexuality is colonialism; an evil brought from the West. No one seems to ask where Christianity came from. As a kid, he wouldn’t play soccer with the other boys and his only friends were girls. His parents knew that he was “different”. His aunt convinced them that it was the work of a demon – the mermaid spirit. She smeared oil on him to exorcise what was making him half man, half woman. She then declared him cured – he knew better. He came out to his parents over Facebook – his mother is still pleading with him to choose heaven.

His Congolese compatriot laughs in understanding. He remembers not being able to leave church services against homosexuality because they would say that Satan has claimed another victim. When he was a child, they would light candles for him then burn him with the wax. As he got older his sexuality became even more of a threat. At university, lecturers would start their classes with a lesson on the sin of the gays. One day on campus he heard a scream; someone had caught a man kissing another man. They dragged one of the offenders onto the university courtyard and threw stones at him. That guy survived but some don’t. He knows of another gay man whose brother injected him with petrol in order to kill him. He did it to protect their family’s honour. Nothing is done about these crimes. The law and the police only protect you if you’re interested in members of the opposite sex.

Both men had to give up their education in favour of their lives. They miss home but would rather fight their cases with the South African officials than go back. This shelter in Cape Town is home for now. For them, this country is their only chance but Africa’s only human rights enclave has its flaws too. Last year, a student society at UCT publicly displayed a pink closet which detailed the denial of gay and lesbian rights around Africa. This closet was burnt down. Wreaths were thrown in the place where it used to stand – it was the death of common sense. Uganda may be the headline right now but we can’t pretend that it’s the only nation with a problem.

Gay Rights Africa

*Opening image credit: Zanele Muholi, Miss D’vine 1, 2007, Lambda print, Image size: 76.5 x 76.5cm, Paper size: 86.5 x 86.5cm, Edition of 5 + 2AP.

**Zanele Muholi images courtesy Michael Stevenson.

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  1. Le girl says:

    Good article. I have no idea what to do about this very pressing human right issue on this continent. What makes it worse is that it is an unattractive fight to take up. Straight people are largely uninterested in standing up for this cause (generalisation I know but I haven’t seen many straight people at the marches against homophobia and corrective rape that I have attended this year). It just hasn’t seemed to translate into a cause that everyone can fight for such as with issues of race. But this fight cannot be fought by this LGTBI community alone. And the fact that homosexuality is seen as ‘unafrican’ is so damaging it breaks my heart. The authors point about christianity hits the nail on the head. Just look at Uganda, the entire reason they have such issues with homophobia is because of the systematic colonial christian indoctrination which occurred there. What would homophobia look like today in those countries without the Christian influence. People need to read some history books. People have been gay forever. For. Ever. All over the world. It’s becoming a cliche now but I have to say it: homosexuality has been found in 450 species, homophobia has been found in only one.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    Hey LeGirl,
    I think your observations about Christianity are a bit inaccurate. Where you find legal same sex marriage, you usually find a lot of Christians, if not practicing, then of Christian heritage – much of Western Europe and Canada for example. And then there are so many different branches of Christianity that it is not really fair to generalize. The United Church, for example, was the first to ordain Gay Ministers. The Anglican church is divided over the issue (with the African part mostly against it, oddly enough). The Catholic church wants none of it. Christianity church per se is not necessarily to blame, but the predatory and ignorant patriarchs who see any alternative way of living as a threat to their authority – and these come in the shape of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Animists and so on and so on. You cannot blame Christianity for homophobia any more than you can blame Islam for terrorism. If it has been instrumentalized to oppress people, it has also been used to liberate people.

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  3. Herman Lategan says:

    Dela, you make me proud. This is a great article. Thanks.

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  4. Graham Sonnenberg says:

    lovely poignant piece – well done!

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  5. Anonymous says:

    seeing the map brought shivers down my back

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  6. Le girl says:

    Fair enough anon. I was speaking specifically about Uganda though, they have a particularly sordid history when it comes to homophobia and evangelical christianity. In 2009 evangelical groups went to Uganda and held seminars, lectures and workshops on how to turn homosexuals straight and also spread ideas that homosexuals sodomise young children and can ‘turn’ others gay. Shortly after these visits the bill was drafted that aimed to put homosexuals to death. A bill which still might transpire. The influence of american evangelicals to the christian ministry in Uganda should not be underestimated.

    I think a more nuanced way to look at it though is also in terms of religion and poverty. If you are living a rather impoverished life, religions such as Christianity can seem like the way out, or liberation, as you say. Also, people desperately seeking values in what seems to them like a valueless world (not receiving basic rights and services) are fed a highly comforting ‘us vs. them’ mentality by homophobic ministers, and people leap at the chance to uphold these values, often violently, as this gives them an outlet and someone to blame for all their other problems. I think this is often what happens in Africa. Don’t blame your despotic government, blame that moffie down the road, his activity is against my. (Or my churches) values and therefore bringing the whole neighbourhood down. Thus violence occurs, as if you are told explicitly by your minister that homosexuality is evil (which happens in many Ugandan ministries) you feel like you are doing good by ridding the world of them.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Agree totally Le girl. Uganda is a pretty desperate case. Truly horrible things have been done in the name of Jesus Christ. A guy with rather feminine virtues, considering the bloodthirsty Roman conquest-culture of his day. Why go to so much trouble nailing up a pacifist with no army, no wealth and no political agenda? Does being different make you a target for contempt and hatred, a path of least resistance to channel frustration and violence? Certainly in South Africa it does. We are still ruled by division and subject to mindless populism. It’s a lethal combination. As long as this is the case, the impulse to violate, subdue and eliminate the ‘other’ will remain. Not to mention the fact that our President once vowed to knock down any gay person who stood in front of him, which seems to be ok with the voters…

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  8. Ben says:

    What a fantastic development – a shelter for people victimised on the grounds of their sexuality! I am seriously impressed that someone took the initiative to actually DO something about homophobia instead of just complaining about it. I salute the founder and everyone involved in this very impressive venture.

    Thank you for a very impressive article!

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  9. K says:

    Great article!

    I wonder how long the residents of Oranjezicht will remain indifferent to the safe house. I have a bad feeling one or two incidents is all it’d take for letters of ‘concern and alarm’ from the Residents Association to appear in the letterbox.

    The comment about Christianity in Africa, I’d prefer to say colonizing religions in Africa in the colonial and post-colonial periods especially when you think of countries like Senegal (Dakar was the gay friendly capital from the pre-1900s to the 1970s), Uganda and Kenya (same-sex relations were permitted in the city not just in traditional culture). These places have not always been (politically and culturally) hostile towards same-sex and homosexual relations.
    And its not just the orthodox Christian missionaries and colonizers or Muslim colonizers who’ve shaped attitudes to homosexuality, but the new-age pentecoastal churches too whose attitudes range from hate the sin not the sinner to flog the sinner, all would be sinners and friends of sinners – in the name of Jesus, Amen.

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  10. Moose says:

    Great work Mahala!

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