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.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage

Watch this commuter make a mad 320-metre, 75-step dash to work
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK edition of wedding show forced to recast after wave of drop-outs
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Top conservatoire offers ‘groundbreaking’ arts degree

Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistants

£50 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Rapidly developing and growing ...

Supply Teachers needed in Stowmarket

£1034496 - £1516224 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: The Job:Randstad ...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week