June is LGBTIQ+ Pride Month, when the rainbow peace flag is flown and members of the LGBTIQ+ community and their allies come out to walk the streets in celebration of the diversity of sexuality. For many people, when they think of Pride, they think of parades, parties and men in assless chaps.
In many ways, this month of celebration, which comes hot on the heels of IDAHOBIT (International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia, as celebrated on 17 May, is seen as an American holiday because it was birthed to commemorate the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City.
Whatever its origins, June has come to be seen as a time when the world celebrates LGBTIQ+ rights and the history of the LGBTIQ+ movement. But what does it mean for one to be proud on the African continent? Furthermore, what does it mean to celebrate LGBTIQ+ rights which are, more often than not, never realised? What does it mean for all the celebrations to be the same yet the realities so profoundly different?
Not everyone in African communities can attend a Pride celebration
‘What does Pride mean to you?’
One of the most identifiable problems with Pride is the idea that it should manifest itself in the same way in different contexts. This, unfortunately, cannot be the case, as a lesbian living in Miami in the United States, who has access to Dinah Shore, the spring break for lesbians, has a different sense of her existence than a woman living just outside of Abuja, Nigeria.
Although the notion of Pride itself is arguably universal, an argument is often made that many of the acronyms, labels and categories that come with the modern sexuality movement are taken from primarily Western notions. There are many in the African context who are either afraid to or do not wish to associate themselves with those labels. One then has to question what ‘traditional’ forms of Pride would look like to them. What happens when one’s existence does not conform to pink feather boas, or a colourful group march and an epic party that would rival any New Year’s celebration?
As yet, only three countries on the continent have celebrated Pride in the ‘traditional’ sense: South Africa, Uganda and Lesotho. Despite their different contexts, however, all have had very similar-looking celebrations. A Pride celebration of the San Francisco type is often seen as the goal, with various contexts seeking to plan their own similar celebrations, mimicking their counterparts in the global north.
While many a Pride has had its genesis in similar ideas of visibility and protest, one only has to look at the case of South Africa to know that the needs within this seemingly celebratory space can differ. Within South Africa, Pride marches have splintered into various groups, with Johannesburg alone boasting three different Pride celebrations.
There is often little space to create diverse and nuanced expressions of Pride.
African Contexts for Pride
How Pride is celebrated needs to be cognisant not only of the national context but also what its participants are proud of. Unpacking this idea during a conversation for this piece, one queer man from East Africa lamented that there was ‘too much copy and paste-ing’. He argued that only a very specific demographic manages to occupy these spaces and so can shape them in their image: “A great number of prominent activists go abroad and come back, saying: ‘This is the Pride march I went to. It was great and we must also do it like this. Even us, we must flourish.’”
This is coupled with the issue of social status. Not everyone in African communities can attend a Pride celebration; it takes time, money and guts to be that visible, especially if your community is a small and intimate space where everyone knows everyone else’s business.
This imbalance of power and limited representation is also perpetuated by who funds Pride celebrations. When the money for your Pride comes from Berlin or Washington, there is a certain expectation of what the final product will look like. All this means that there is often little space to create diverse and nuanced expressions of Pride.
It may be time to rethink how Pride can be manifested in different spaces, taking into account different contexts, levels of visibility, cultural considerations and socio-political factors. The aspiration that Pride must be a highly visible Mardi Gras-type march not only means that some may not be able to identify with it or access it; it means that it might not showcase the true diversity of the existences of LGBTIQ+ people globally.