Drag queens outrage Africa

The Miss Gay SA contest is challenging bitter homophobia across the rest of the continent, reports Alex Duval Smith

AS THE sound of slamming closet doors echoed all across the African continent, Nelspruit, arguably the most conservative town south of the Limpopo River, gave homophobes a little more to think about yesterday when it hosted the first official Miss Gay South Africa.

"The city is in shock," said Marcus Buitendach, organiser of the pageant, as the drag queens cruised into town, their flamboyant outfits vying for attention with the flowering bougainvillea and jacaranda of Nelspruit's sleepy streets. His words were borne out by the Rev Thinus Taute, a minister with the Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk, who had been collecting signatures in protest at the pageant. "This community has strong Christian values," he said. "We find it offensive. The Bible says that for a man to lie down with a man is an abomination against God."

Eight regional finalists were competing at Nelspruit's civic centre for the coveted title and a holiday in Mauritius, but Mr Buitendach said the winner will also be required to promote gay rights in Africa, especially in neighbouring Zimbabwe. At the Commonwealth summit in Durban last week, the notoriously homophobic Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, caused a stir with jibes about Britain being run by "gay gangsters". Not to be outdone, President Yoweri Museveni added his own tirade of homophobia on behalf of Uganda, where gays are now being rounded up and jailed.

A few weeks earlier, President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya had spoken at an agricultural show of the "gay scourge" that goes against Christian teaching and African tradition. He had been preceded in his outburst, a few months earlier, by Sam Nujoma of Namibia.

Yet in South Africa, gays from all over the world are seeking refuge. Two Pakistani men and one Ugandan are in the process of being granted asylum on the basis that they face persecution for their sexuality in their home countries. Their permits are expected to come through by the end of January.

Evert Knoesen of the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in Johannesburg had mixed feelings about last night's pageant, given the present outburst of homophobia across the continent. "Every time a Mugabe or a Museveni opens his mouth, our constitution is threatened," he said.

But in Nelspruit, even straight city hall staff were declaring themselves enthusiastically tolerant. "It's the most exciting thing which has happened here for years," said one female member of staff.

Mr Buitendach, setting up a stall, admitted: "This, for us, is a publicity stunt. We knew we would get a lot of media attention if we staged it in Nelspruit. The rules are quite strict, and Miss Gay SA is now a registered trademark, so we're going to do this for years to come."

Last night's winner was to be the campest and fairest of 197 regional contestants whittled down to eight finalists at heats in gay bars around the country. Being gay was not a stipulation but, said Mr Buitendach, it was likely that most of them were.

Miss Gay SA was staged as South Africa itself faced new challenges to its constitutional guarantee of gay rights. In a country which is already xenophobic about other Africans, gay activists are concerned about the reception the new asylum-seekers will receive.

Three weeks ago, Cape Town's leading gay and lesbian bar, the Blah Bar, was pipe-bombed. Even though no one was injured, and gay-bashing remains relatively rare, activists fear they may be seeing the start of a trend.

South Africa's 1994 constitution won its status as the world's most homosexual- friendly thanks mainly to the late Simon Nkoli, who started the first gay and lesbian group for blacks in the 1980s. At the time, the main gay lobby group banned blacks from its functions, in keeping with apartheid laws.

Earlier this year, up to 10,000 gays and lesbians marched through Johannesburg in the ninth Pride parade, and Cape Town has become a popular holiday destination for homosexuals from all over the world.

Yet South Africa remains relatively closeted, with few openly gay or lesbian public figures. Among the few are a human rights judge, Edwin Cameron, and Thandiswa, lead singer of the Bongo Muffin pop group. The gay press remains tame, with most letters published under pseudonyms.

When the intellectuals get to work, they concentrate on the claim that homosexuality was a colonial import, unknown in traditional society. The arguments usually end with activists citing African words for homosexuality and listing pageants across the continent in which men dress up as women. Their argument is that it was homophobia rather than homosexuality that the colonisers brought.

Certainly, it is homophobia which, across the continent, is making its presence most strongly felt. It is five years now since President Mugabe said gays were "worse than dogs and pigs". At the end of October, when Mr Mugabe and his wife, Grace, were on a pre-Commonwealth shopping trip in London, Peter Tatchell, leader of the gay activist group Outrage! and two other men staged a "citizen's arrest" of him outside their London hotel. It was that which led to his "gay gangsters" jibes against Tony Blair's government in Durban.

Mr Knoesen said: "The homophobia is bad in Africa. The `floodgates' argument is often raised in relation to our constitution but no one identifies themselves as gay or lesbian for the sake of convenience. Anywhere in the world it is harder to be lesbian or gay than straight. People seek asylum out of desperation. After all, once they have done it, they can never return home."

For Mr Buitendach, nothing as political as asylum considerations are on his mind. "I think everyone is going to have a really fun time," he said before last night's pageant.

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup