Portia Meje took an eight-hour bus from eMalahleni in Mpumalanga to celebrate with like-minded people at the Durban Pride event.
“My friends and I came here to celebrate being free and showing people that I’m not ashamed to share who I am,” said the 29-year-old, sitting among her friends before the event. Dressed in matching rainbow skirts and black shirts, they were some of the first people to arrive at Gugu Dlamini Park in Durban, which was named after the activist who was stoned and stabbed to death after she came out as HIV positive on radio in 1998.
“This is my first time coming to Pride. We are here to celebrate ourselves and show the world we’re not afraid to be ourselves. But we are also here to say we are not free yet.”
As the event was getting under way, one of the MCs shouted, “Who is gay? Who is lesbian? Who is out?” Each question was answered with a cheer from the crowd. Meje said she, unlike so many other people from the LGBTQIA+ community, had no problem coming out to her parents. Hers is not a common narrative in a world that continues to be oppressive and often profoundly dangerous for LGBTQIA+ people, in both personal and public spaces.
“I guess I am lucky,” she said. “They all accepted me for who I am. The fact that they were able to accept me made it easier for me to come out and be myself. If you are loved and accepted at home, no one can say or do anything to hurt you. It is easier for people to disrespect you if they see that’s how your family treats you.”
The crowd of colourful revellers had grown substantially by the time they were ready to begin marching through the Durban central business district at around noon. Couples held hands and shared kisses as they marched past the taxi rank waving the Pride flag while drivers hooted and passersby cheered.
Keep the promise
Some marchers carried placards with the phrase “Keep the promise” on one side, and the names of LGBTQIA+ people who had been murdered – such as Thuthukile Mabasa, who was killed last year in the Western Cape – on the other.
Nonhlanhla Mkhize, the director of Pride Durban, said she was happy with the turnout. “More and more LGBTQIA+ voices are becoming silenced. We want to reject that HIV is our disease as gay and lesbian people, but at the same time the stigma around HIV and being gay remains something we need to speak about,” she said. “This year’s Keep-the-Promise-themed Pride at Gugu Dlamini Park is about that. Coming out, you are stoned to death, either as HIV positive or as a gay person. You get rejected by your own family. These narratives are common between the two.
“Gugu Dlamini’s story resonates so much with us and many other activists who we’ve got in the LGBTQIA+ movement. Just by coming out, and saying, ‘This is who I am’, you find yourself a victim.
“We want to make sure we don’t lose what Pride is. The idea is that you design your own placard. The other side of the placard is empty, and you can reflect on a promise. So some of the placards had people’s names on them. It could have been someone you lost to a hate crime. It could be somebody you lost through HIV. It could be someone you feel the community or the system has failed,” Mkhize said.
Pride is political
The goal of the Pride event is to reflect on the stigma and discrimination people from the LGBTQIA+ community face from society, their families and many institutions, and to highlight the difficulty some experience accessing the justice and health systems.
“Imagine a South Africa where all are equal and all access services equally. But that’s not the reality on the ground. We have beautiful policies and a beautiful Constitution, but that’s not our reality. We are still discriminated against. We are still misgendered. There are issues around gender-based violence.
“It’s frustrating. But I still couldn’t imagine myself living anywhere else. Despite all the trials and tribulations we face here, South Africa is still a safe place for me to live as a gay person,” Mkhize said.
Ian Gardner and his friend Tyrone Spinner, sporting elaborate fake eyelashes, were dressed in matching traditional Zulu outfits, and had their dogs – adorned with rainbow unicorn horns – on leads. They were a major attraction with attendees asking them dozens of times for photographs.
“The objective of Pride is to walk among the people and call for solidarity. Now, in Durban, we walk past City Hall and traffic has stopped. It’s LGBT and people interact. It’s the objective of Pride to spread the message about what gay people do and are, and show a cross section of society – from drag queens to normal people to moms giving hugs,” Gardner said.
Despite being from Durban, Siya Ntuli came to Pride with his friends for the first time. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised. It was a great day celebrating who we are with people doing the same and not having to worry about being discriminated against,” he said.