Each year, the month of June sees widespread celebrations in honour of International Pride Month. For many people, ‘Pride’ is an occasion that commemorates the centrality of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in catalysing increased visibility and equal rights, justice and opportunities for American queer communities. In the early hours of the morning of 28 June 1969, queer patrons and supporters of the Stonewall Inn (in Greenwich Village, Lower Manhattan, New York City) began a series of spontaneous protests in response to violent police raids of the Inn and wider anti-gay sentiment characterising the United States (US).
The riots at Stonewall continue to represent a watershed moment in the history of queer socio-political movements. They embodied and gave momentum to collective queer resistance against an American legal system that had long discriminated against gay people and supported societal practices that marginalised people who did not conform to compulsory cisheteronormativity. The rippling impacts of Stonewall were profound: in a matter of weeks after the uprising, new organisations were founded in order to bring greater cohesion to what was increasingly referred to as the ‘gay liberation movement’ and protests for equality were mobilised not only in other parts of the US, but globally too.
At the levels of societal configurations and identity practices, Stonewall also foregrounded key intersectional questions in relation to personhood, belonging and legitimate citizenry: American queer activists including Marsha P. Johnson (an African American transgender woman) and Sylvia Rivera (an American transgender woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent), for example, highlighted the unique oppressions that they, and other trans Americans of colour, faced at the nexuses of gender, ethnicity, race and sexuality. Their refusals to remain silent sounded resounding demands for a more complex and nuanced lens through which to understand the difficulties and triumphs experienced by LGBTQIA+ people.
Of course, the Stonewall riots were not ends in themselves. America’s journey towards legislative and social equality for queer people has been long and arduous and progress has been slow, with the Supreme Court having legalised same-sex marriage only as recently as 2015. Owing to major gaps between juristic policies and the societal sanctioning of particular identities, social movements for equality have also been required to shift and mould themselves in response to the ever-evolving needs of their stakeholders and broader societal trends. A strong resurgence of anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment characterised America’s Trump era, for example, which alerted us to the ongoing adaptability and persistence with which queer people must continue to mobilise themselves against prejudice and everyday inequalities.
One might point to several parallels between international movements for queer visibility and rights and South Africa’s own historical and contemporary struggle for queer equality. In 1966, just three years before the occurrence of Stonewall in the US, South African police forces raided a party in Forest Town in Johannesburg, arresting nine men for ‘masquerading as women’ and engaging in ‘indecent activities’. In 1969, just as the Stonewall riots were unfolding in New York City, South Africa’s apartheid government amended the 1957 Immorality Act to include the ‘men at a party’ clause which aimed to prohibit two or more men from performing any act that would arouse ‘sexual passion’. Through this historical lens, it is clear how queer South Africans have often been cast as corrupting influences in broader cisheteronormative society, in line with wider trends in the global gendered and sexual imagination. Likewise, resistance against anti-queer laws and practices in South Africa has been characterised by intensive, enduring and laborious processes that have demanded persistent efforts on behalf of queer people in the country to advocate for equal and fair treatment.
Against this historical backdrop, however, it is important to tease out some important nuances that tend to characterise South African queer people’s experiences both past and present – particularly in relation to racial politics and intersectional citizenry. Firstly, while many South African people celebrate International Pride Month in June, our local Pride Month occurs annually in the month of October. This serves to mark the anniversary of South Africa’s very first Pride event, which happened in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on 13 October 1990 as a means of supporting anti-apartheid resistance and the ongoing fight for queer visibility and equality. Archival evidence of our first Pride event attests its heady mix of protest and celebration, with queer people from a range of different backgrounds demanding respect and equal treatment with a decidedly unapologetic and feverish energy.
Thirty-two years later, South African Pride offers us a moment of acute reflection on this history, and an opportunity to orientate ourselves in relation to our current struggles and triumphs. In 2022, our work is not done: our forerunners achieved equality and freedom in the constitutional realm, but many of us continue to experience hardships related to our queer identities. A queer economy also characterises our current politics of visibility, with black lesbian women and trans people in particular continuing to advocate for complexified understandings of the intricate ways in which belonging in South Africa is inflected with issues related to race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, (dis)ability and their plural intersections. Historically, these intersections were aptly articulated by black queer rights and anti-apartheid activist, Simon Nkoli, who proclaimed at the first Joburg Pride: ‘I am black and I am gay. I cannot separate the two parts of me into secondary or primary struggles. In South Africa, I am oppressed because I am a black man and I am oppressed because I am a gay man’.
In South Africa, as we commemorate Prides both local and international, it is thus essential that splinter Pride movements are supported and that we continue to challenge and decentre the prevailing power configurations (re)produced by white cisheteropatriarchy. Particularly in October this year, let us commemorate Pride (in all its forms) by holding space for the complexities and ambivalences that continue to inflect the multiple meanings and experiences characterising ‘queerness’ in our country and beyond.