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Culture, Reality

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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