This past May I received a post-graduate research travel grant from the Maine College of Art to work with the folks at Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) in Johannesburg, South Africa. I was familiar with some of their work from their website as well as a few major publications they produced over the last few years and I was struck by the way they positioned queer and trans histories as integral to our present day understanding of pride. Having worked with queer and trans archival ephemera as fodder for my own work as an activist artist/archivist/historiographer, I was elated to have the opportunity to share and learn from the folks at GALA.
Over my week-long stay in Johannesburg I met with the small staff and a handful of volunteers that described to me how they were able to build a grassroots documentation center, volunteer run community lending library, historical archive, numerous archive based museum exhibitions and a diverse array of programming focused on even the most marginalized of queer issues and identities.
I was totally exhausted arriving in Johannesburg, or Jozi as it is more affectionately called, after surviving two days of air travel over three continents. While everyone else descending on the city was preparing for World Cup Soccer madness, I was quietly preparing myself for a week-long, headfirst dive into queer and trans South African history, culture and activism.
But my trip from the airport to the stranger's couch I was sleeping on in the northern suburbs was dream like. Was I in Los Angeles? This sprawling city felt so similar to southern California I almost thought I hadn't really gone anywhere. But sure enough my time at GALA would prove I was in a very different, but at times very similar place. This was queer Jozi and I was in for a treat...
My first day at GALA was highlighted by a walking tour of downtown Jozi with archivist and soon to be friend Kamohelo. We strolled the downtown streets of Constitution Hill together as he activated the city's queer history lying just beneath the surface of all the concrete walls around us. The site of the first gay pride march on the African continent, prisons where anti-apartheid activists were held, the constitutional court which upholds the constitution's equality clause as it relates to LGBT rights and much more.
As we walked and talked we related similarities and differences between the queer world's we come from and how our communities have and have not made progress around certain issues. The historically racist, classist mainstream gay and lesbian organizations in South Africa were sadly similar to the ones I knew all to well back at home in the States.
After the walking tour Kamohelo brought me, along with another international activist/researcher from Ireland named Michael, to the archives at the McCullen Library on the Wits University Campus. It is here where all of GALA's materials are archived and stored along side the South Africa History Archives. Kamohelo quickly walked us through the unending stacks of archival boxes filled with personal affects and ephemera.
We briefly looked through a few collections before spending a bit of time looking through the absolutely amazing political poster collection GALA has accumulated over the years. Queer performance artist Steven Cohen's "Sucking for Equality" stuck out as particularly amazing, but even more so, I would love to have seen the sassy and sarcastic controversial banner he carried in the 1996 pride march that read "GIVE US YOUR CHILDREN WHAT WE CANT FUCK WE EAT!" I'm sure it was in the archive somewhere, but we had more to see and do...!
In the following days I would be working with Kamohelo troubleshooting GALA's new online project QueerJozi, a grassroots interactive historical mapping project, as well as giving input on GALA's upcoming exhibition on anti-queer violence at Museum Africa during the World Cup. The QueerJozi project makes use of google's interactive mapping tools to allow anyone in the world upload images and stories about queer and trans history to a digital map of Johannesburg featured on the website. It is almost like a queer Johannesburg Wikipedia page, but cartographic, temporal, visual and ever-evolving.
The exhibition at Museum Africa during the World Cup focuses on the death of lesbian soccer player and LGBT activist Eudy Simelan, who was raped and murdered in 2008 as well as the deaths of two other women in 2007, Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa who's murder sparked the 7-7-7 campaign to stop anti-queer violence. Museum Africa is expecting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum during the World Cup and QueerJozi is set to launch in the coming months.
After putting in some good old volunteer hours scanning images and sharing my skill set around technology and website building/design with Kamohelo we set off for the Apartheid Museum with Michael and his lover Jaime. I already spent five hours at the museum the previous weekend with my wonderful couch-surfing host Allan, but only got about half way through the overwhelmingly thorough exhibitions. This time I would make a point to get to the small space within the Apartheid Museum that was designed by GALA to represent other marginalized people (queers, women and the disabled) within the anti-apartheid struggle fighting to be recognized within the country's new constitution.
Although small in size and scope, the fact that GALA had even gotten its foot in the door to the country's most well-known and well-attended museums to represent other marginalized people in the permanent collection is an admirable achievement.
Over the next few days I would meet with Anzio, a volunteer form the community library, and Anthony, the director of GALA. In addition to learning about the community lending library at GALA, Anzio and I talked at length about student organizing at universities as well as sharing best practices around working with young people in grade school and high school. Anthony graciously spent time with me describing the organization's history, structure, programming and funding. Having grown to a staff of five, published seven major books as well as numerous smaller pamphlets, produced four documentary videos, developed and showed numerous major exhibitions, and maintained a commitment to the Deaf community by spearheading a unique Deaf queer history project, I can only imagine what is next for GALA.
Unfortunately, as the global economy has come crashing down on the Western world, our queer comrades in the post-colonial global south have experienced the recession in unique acute ways we can't understand. South Africa remains largely a queer and trans safe(r) haven (although not without its problems, as noted above) and is a far cry from the violent anti-queer state repression now infamous in nearby neighboring countries like Uganda, Malawi and Zimbabwe. But South Africa as a queer safe(r) haven and home to many queer/trans African refugees depends on the work done by organizations like GALA.
Without our solidarity, both in spirit and financially, organizations like GALA will have difficulty continuing to do the amazing work they do to the degree of excellence they have achieved. Our queer comrades in the global south need our support, and if you want to do something simple to support them, check out GALA's work, send a note of support, and if you can, make a donation.
I left Jozi with new friends, fresh ideas about activating queer histories in the present, and a deepening sense of commitment to my queer comrades in the global south. Like they say at GALA, "There is no queer pride without queer history." Without genuine, meaningful queer solidarity, there is no global queer and trans community.
See you in the archives... Anthony, Conrad, Kamohelo and Anzio in the community library at GALA