Queer activist Bev Ditsie amplifies her voice

Twenty-five years after her historic address at the United Nations, the South African rights icon and filmmaker celebrates the event with an insightful documentary.

In 1995, during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, South African queer rights activist Bev Ditsie made history when she became the first openly gay African woman to address the United Nations on the need for sexual orientation protections for women. 

“No woman can determine the direction of her own life without the ability to determine her sexuality,” she stated. “Sexuality is an integral, deeply ingrained part of every human being’s life and should not be subject to debate or coercion. Anyone who is truly committed to women’s human rights must recognise that every woman has the right to determine her sexuality free of discrimination and oppression.”

To mark the 25th anniversary of the address, Ditsie has put together a 55-minute documentary Lesbians Free Everyone – The Beijing Perspective. Unlike Ditsie’s other film, Simon and I, a portrait of gay rights activist Simon Nkoli, this offers an intimate and insightful behind-the-scenes look into the women who helped shape the historic event and its aftermath. 

A few days before the film’s premiere on 18 October 2020, Ditsie spoke about the difficulties involved in putting a film of this nature together during lockdown, the camaraderie of the lesbian rights movement and being able to tell her own story. 

1995: Bev Ditsie giving her historic address during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. (Photograph supplied)

Carl Collison: You’ve been pretty busy putting the final touches to the film together…

Bev Ditsie: Wow, dude. Yoh! (laughs) I don’t remember ever being this busy. The last time I did something this big and this personal, I had a co-director who was also my producer, so I didn’t have to deal with producing. I also had an entire team that was coordinating all the publicity, plus making bookings and dealing with venues and things. I also had a therapist (laughs). But right now, I have my poor partner, TK, who has to deal with all my angst. But, ja, I’m alive. I’m happy with [the film]. You know that you are the first person to see it? So, talk to me, what did you think? 

Collison: I really liked it. I must say, I was initially a bit worried about the interviews being conducted via Zoom, but I loved the way you used archival footage and graphics. It made it very engaging. According to the press release, getting all the archival footage together was a struggle. So what made you decide to put this kind of film together during a lockdown?  

Ditsie: I’ve got a whole list of films on my bucket list, films that I always thought, the day I die, the only regret I will have is not having produced these films.

One is the story of my mom. And another is the story of Beijing, because it has not been told. And I always knew that I would do this story some day. But it got urgent when, in March, we were all supposed to get together in New York to celebrate 25 years of the conference. And when I say “we”, I mean the main participants of the film, who were part of the lesbian caucus that made everything happen. And when it was all cancelled and the whole world was shut down, the question then was: “How are we going to do this? How are we going to celebrate?” And Julie [Dorf, cofounder of OutRight Action International, an LGBTQIA+ human rights organisation] said: “Well, we had been thinking of archiving this because this story is unknown, so…” 

A UK-based organisation, Kaleidoscope International Fund, said that because they were going to pay for me to do the keynote address in New York, they would put some money in for me to make the film. So, as the lockdown was announced, I was running around trying to get equipment, making sure I’ve got proper wifi. And then we started shooting on the first or second of April. We are in the final edit right now, as we speak, so that’s about seven months in total. But you know when you wish that you could have had more time?

1993: Queer rights icon Bev Ditsie speaking during Cape Town Pride. (Photograph supplied)

Collison: But isn’t ‘I wish I had more time’ what we say about anything we work on? 

Ditsie: I know but, Carl, let me be practical, right? When you see how I used that archive footage, a lot if it is not necessarily the original archive coming from the sources. And that is simply because all their archive places have been closed. Like, right now, if I had to wait, I would still be waiting for the United Nations to get back to me, because there is a part of my speech that I cannot find anywhere. So I could have waited, but if I had waited, I would have waited and waited, and this film would not have come out. 

Collison: What are the kind of lessons you are hoping young queer people will take from the actions of the lesbian movement in Beijing – and not only queer folk, but women’s rights activists more broadly?

Ditsie: What struck me was how all of us were saying the exact same thing: that the level of solidarity that we displayed was… We were coming from such different backgrounds, struggling with these different languages and how to communicate with one another, but we had one goal. And we all went for this one goal. We really pushed. And we had this absolute, proper solidarity. Our egos were not in play. We just worked together to get a goal achieved. And that inspiration I really hope comes through in the film, because I have not seen, since then, an effort where we all put our heads together and say, “Today we do this. Tomorrow we do that.”

Also, we were not asking for permission. A lot of our actions were sometimes very spontaneous. Because nowadays, the propriety of protest is such a huge issue. We ask permission to march in the streets. I mean, that’s like a graffiti artist asking to rent a wall. But to me it’s like, “But your very job is to be an anarchist. You are a disruptor. Your very nature is to disrupt the status quo. Why are you asking for permission to disrupt the status quo?” We didn’t ask permission. We did what needed to be done to force visibility and to force the issues to come up to the fore. 

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Collison: What I really liked about the film was this sense that this was a global movement with a great sense of solidarity. It is a very intimate portrayal of a movement. I particularly loved the way you portrayed Kenyan queer rights activist Kagendo Murungi. What happened to her? 

Ditsie: Kagendo got sick. You see, what we do as activists, we don’t say things. I think one of the reasons I started talking about [me] not being well is because a lot of the time we die in silence. We don’t say out loud: “I am struggling, and my issues need medical attention, and I can’t afford it.” We work non-stop. We forget to eat. We forget to exercise. We are stressed all the time. And obviously, as queer people, we are constantly on our guard. 

So we are living in this heightened state of stress and awareness, but also of being triggered. And so we don’t take care of ourselves the way we should. I think I knew Kagendo was sick because we started chatting deeply – chatting and chatting and chatting – and she would say: “I’m not okay, but I’m dealing with it.” And within a month of that, she was gone. It was devastating. Because a lot of us didn’t know the extent to which she was not okay. 

19 June 2019: “If we are not telling our own stories, we are being erased,” says queer rights activist Bev Ditsie. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)

Collison: You recently started raising funds for your own medical treatment through selling a range of T-shirts and sweaters.

Ditsie: Yes, I have a collaboration with Colour Central, a young queer company. It’s been quite incredible to see, because I didn’t expect it to do as well as it has. We still can’t send stuff to other parts of the world, because lockdown has made it impossible for us to afford that. But people are calling, saying: “How else can we support you?”

And this is helping with the other dream that I have, which is to start a Bev Ditsie Foundation, which will focus on all queer health issues, particularly mental health. These things are important for me for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, as lesbians, and it is a political thing for me, the fact that it took all these years for me to find out that, not only do I have fibroids, but I also have ovarian cysts that are … on my bladder. We don’t talk about this as an issue. It’s almost like it’s a shame when you’re a woman and you’ve got issues in this area. And one of the reasons the issue gets exacerbated is because there is very little care for sexual and reproductive health. That is why we advocate for sexual and reproductive health and justice. It’s political. It’s political that the gynaes that are there are so few and so expensive. It’s political. It’s political that when I have to go to a public hospital, I am put on a waiting list for six to eight months and by the time that comes around, I am either on a job or overseas and I can’t make that appointment. So I can’t actually be seen unless it is an absolute emergency. This is how women in this country are dealing right now with this issue. 

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What then makes it worse is when you are queer or masculine-presenting or a trans man and you are trying to access the same services from a gynaecologist – whether private or public – and the level of discrimination we face makes it hard for us to want to continue to access this healthcare. 

The last time I went to a gynae was about 10 or 15 years ago. This man sexually violated me as soon as he found out that I am not interested in men. And so I did not go back to a gynae for years and years and years. And by the time I did, it was because I was in excrutiating pain. So I had to then find somebody who would not treat me hostile, only to find out it is going to cost me a lot of money to try and deal with my issues. So it is political, and I do think we need to bring it out into the open as a political thing. 

Collison: In our last interview, you said that every time you screen Simon and I, whenever you had to talk about Simon, you were essentially being asked to glorify a man. This, you said, was hard for you, especially as a black queer woman trying to raise women’s issues. The sense that I get is that, with this film, you’ve now finally been able to tell your own story.

Ditsie: I think that’s why I like this film. You can hear my voice. With Simon and I, there was one specific purpose. It started with me wanting to do a biography of Simon Nkoli. I was an afterthought – even for myself – in the film. I didn’t want to be in that film. I was very reluctant. This film, on the other hand, was very deliberate in saying: “If we are not telling our own stories, we are being erased.”

And I realised this erasure right throughout the five months of research when searching and searching for just my speech. Searching for this historic speech, but I cannot find that five-minute speech anywhere on the internet. And then trying to find that speech from news agencies around the world, but then have CNN and Reuters and all these people saying: “We don’t have it.” And I’m like, “What do you mean you don’t have the speech?” That’s erasure. So with this film, I was very deliberate. I was very clear: “We are telling our story here.”

There are many, many of our stories that affirm our existence. These stories exist, and we should not be allowing anybody else to tell us we never existed. And so I make sure that I am telling these stories so that nobody will ever say we never existed. So I am proud of this work. I’m proud that I found a way to tell the story. 

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