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.