The following post is from my paper "Claiming Rainbow Pride," a continuation of ideas I was exploring in a post by the same name back in March.
While browsing the internet the other day, I came across a blog entry posted by my friend Keletso Makofane, a South African activist currently studying at Columbia University, who I met during my semester abroad in Cape Town. His post brought attention to the creation of a South African LGBT flag, a new visibility tool for the queer community in South Africa. This flag borrows from the well-known rainbow flag design and adds the triangle shapes from the South African flag. Keletso writes:
This flag represents to me, a single story of gayness. Gayness is white, affluent, young, male, attractive, fun, liberated (or in the process), talented, worldly, classy. Gayness is "dazzling" with "skills, talent, inspiration, business". As pointed out by the website of Cape Town Pride [the organization that plans for the annual Cape Town pride parade], "It is an international fact that the LGBTI market is both affluent and influential... On the whole, South African LGBTI individuals are high-yield, trend-setting, brand-conscious, loyal and have ample disposable income." This is not possible with our high poverty and unemployment rates. Obviously CTPride is not talking about all of us (Makofane, 2011).
Keletso's frustrations shed new light on a symbol I had never before problematized. The rainbow flag is undoubtedly a staple of the LGBT movement. Its six colors consistently decorate most every pride parade, resource center, queer commodity or LGBT-friendly establishment in the US and abroad as a highly recognizable symbol. It is easy for me, as a white gay middle-class male to claim the rainbow flag as an effective visibility tool for my movement, without considering the dichotomy between who flies it and whose history it truly represents.
In this paper, I will provide a historical context for the flag's creation, as well as critique the rhetoric used when telling this history, searching for what or who it might leave out. Taking South Africa as a case study, I will present some discourses around how certain people are erased from gay and lesbian visibility, space, and politics in Cape Town as a result of intersectional identities and oppressions. My aim is to open a door for discourse that more deeply questions whose history we take up as queer people when accepting the symbols (and politics) handed to us at first "outing."
Rainbow Pride History
In 1977, Gilbert Baker, an artist in San Francisco, was commissioned by activist Harvey Milk to design a a visibility tool for the emerging movement Milk was building in the area. Baker ideated a rainbow flag of eight colors to represent what he and his cohorts saw as different aspects of gay life: "pink for sex (yeah!), and red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, and turquoise for magic, blue for serenity, and purple for the spirit" (Baker, 2010). Pink and turquoise (sex and magic, hmmm!) were eventually eliminated from Baker's hand-dyed version so the flag could be more easily mass-produced - and that it was. The flag gained massive popularity in gay and lesbian circles across America as "a colorful and optimistic alternative to the more common pink triangle symbol" (Anderson, 1993), used in Nazi Germany to identify homosexuals in the concentration camps.
The flag's most visible moments appear in the 2004 documentary Rainbow Pride, which shows a mile-long rainbow flag replica stretched across the streets of New York City in 1994 to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. According to reviewer Charles Michael Smith, Rainbow Pride "touches on significant events in GLBT history, starting with the Stonewall Riots in New York, Anita Bryant's anti-gay campaign in Dade County, Florida, and the assassination of Harvey Milk" (Smith, 2006). Smith's review perpetuates a revisionist LGBT history where Stonewall and Harvey Milk's political campaign become the most widely-recollected historical moments to have sparked "the movement." According to Baker, "a true flag can never be designed, but is torn from the soul of a people" (Baker, 2007). In the case of the rainbow flag, the "people" are mostly white gay and lesbian men and women in urban spaces. These individuals lived a specific politics of visibility within a specific context where intersecting privileged identities allowed for the freedom to move to San Francisco or New York and pursue their movement, one dedicated to sexual orientation as the first and foremost oppression holding them back from "true equality." Queer individuals outside of this framework, such as rural queers, queer people of color, and trans-folks are often written out of the normative gay and lesbian histories of Stonewall and Harvey Milk. Their needs get put aside in favor of politics built around representation within an existing capitalist and neoliberal framework. Over-priced rainbow key chains, clothing accessories, and bumper stickers don't do much for QPOC and trans-folk, who need the whole system uprooted for true "true equality."
A relevant example of revisionist history that that writes out non-normative queer individuals emerges from David's Carter's work, "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution." Much of Carter's project is dedicated to "myth-busting" around "how it really happened," and the importance of that night for "the movement" as we see it today. Carter goes out of his way attempting to prove the non-involvement of Sylvia Rivera, a transgender activist of color said to have thrown the first brick during the riots (Shepard, 2004). According to eye-witness testimonies from individuals who were there (mostly white gay and lesbian cisgender men and women), Rivera was not only absent from the riots, but potentially "passed out on a park bench in Bryant Park" at the time, reinforcing an image of Rivera as deviant, untrustworthy, poor, and classless (Shepard, 2004). In reviewing Carter's work, writer Ben Shepard states that the "treatment of Rivera in the history of activism around Stonewall points to core questions about the historian's' craft (dating back to the days of Hesiod and Herodoais). There are those who suggest history should be written as a social science, while others suggest history should be written as a compelling narrative" (Shepard, 2004). Regardless of Rivera's reported presence at the rally by individuals who might not have noticed her whether she was there or not, it is Carter's responsibility when writing a work that could become a canon of LGBTQ history to include and praise her highly influential and revolutionary legacy as an activist for transgender youth of color. Instead, Carter chose to portray her as a flakey, illogical, and outside the "more relevant" efforts white gay and lesbian activists engaged in at Stonewall. How can highly underfunded resource centers and services for queer and homeless youth of color, such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, use the rainbow flag to identify their space, given that those who constitute the symbol's "soul" perpetuate a politics of memory that write these at-risk queers out of history? It is the lack of engagement with intersecting identities (on the part of middle-class queers) that ground Keletso and my frustration with the liberal usage of the rainbow flag symbol to glaze over the historical and present realities of populations deemed irrelevant by queer historians in the US and abroad.
Cape Town: A Case Study
Cape Town markets itself as the "gayest city in Africa," which is part of the reason I chose to study abroad there. As a young gay white American study abroad student, I was able to find queer people quite easily and integrate smoothly into the culture there because it looked so much like mine back home. My core group of friends was a racially diverse clique of middle-class South African gay men, all involved with activism or politics. Our evenings were typically centered around social justice dialogues, sex talk, and Beyonce impersonations, which for me was so exciting and liberating because I'd never before had a core group of queer friends.
My friends and I would frequent the scene, becoming involved with the two most powerful queer organizations in Cape Town, the Triangle Project and Cape Town Pride. Triangle is more of a service organization, providing 'coming out' resources, a social space, a library, and health clinics. Pride, on the other hand, is a volunteer-based group which mostly focuses on the Pride Parade events that take place each February. CTPride aligns itself with the most visible aspects of queer Capetonian culture - most of which takes place in the "Pink Strip," an avenue in the Greenpoint neighborhood of the city center, populated with several gay bars and restaurants. This is also where the parade takes place. In its very name, "Cape Town Pride" rhetorically and symbolically appropriates the idea of what it means to have "gay pride," a broader notion of sexual identity solidarity. They show you what it looks like, who's turf it's on, when it takes place, how much it costs, and what activities are involved.
Gay life in Cape Town parallels trends in United States urban cities, where dominant queer visibilities "prevented... people from seeing racial and class diversity among gay people and produced a culturally essentialist sense of 'gayness' that actually was about 'whiteness'" (Brier 2009). This narrow definition of gay pride is alienating for people who do not have access to its specific 'brand' of queer identity, one characterized by nightclubs, leisure, and conspicuous consumption. As a result, middle-class queer people with access to these spaces may feel there is nothing left to fight for (civil unions are legal in South Africa), regardless of the harsh reality experienced by those outside of their secure bubble. Marlow Valentine, Deputy Director at the Triangle Project informed me during an interview I conducted with him during my time abroad that "people are being raped, people are being assaulted, people are being victimized [outside the city bowl]" (Valentine, 2010). He explained that a particularly divisive issue on this subject is lesbian corrective rape, the idea that a man can "show her what she's missing" or "fix" a lesbian woman through rape, which occurs across South Africa's townships. There were about nine of these incidences during my five-month stay in Cape Town, and those were just the cases being reported and deemed news-worthy. Marlow noted that it is mostly people of color out there dealing with and fighting against this issue. "There is no coming together of 'what can we do collectively?' initiated by the middle-class, white, queer community" (Valentine, 2010).
The apathetic nature of white queers is attributed, by Marlow, to the reality that they simply can choose not to face these awful happenings (Valentine, 2010). He explained, "if I'm living in a suburb, and I'm accessing my rights, my citizen's rights, my constitutional rights... why should I be worried about what's happening in the townships?" He concludes that this is the legacy of Cape Town, where inhabitants of the suburbs on the other side of the mountain can turn a blind-eye to atrocities going on within a twenty-mile radius (Valentine, 2010).
Additionally, it seems in South Africa that socioeconomic status might overshadow racial identity, as exhibited by some of my black gay peers at the University of Cape Town who shared with me that they are easily able to separate themselves from the violent acts of homophobia occurring in the townships. Most students at UCT who fly the rainbow flag uncritically are the South African elite, with material realities that in no way reflect the lived experiences of South Africans living in townships, regardless of racial identity.
These exclusions are no new phenomenon, especially when looking at the global history of HIV/AIDS. Many privileged gay men came together in urban spaces worldwide during the throes of the AIDS epidemic to support one another through political and social prosecution, but in the process their own prejudices isolated many others from the community they were privileged enough to create for themselves. Poor QPOC and trans-folk were left to deal with their own barriers to effective treatment (Brier, 2009). The realities of lesbian corrective rape as well as HIV/AIDS show us that these issues are literally a matter of life and death.
Queer people, regardless of geography, cannot call themselves part of a cohesive community and blanket one symbol over everyone if they do not consider who has access and who does not. It is significant that the South African LGBT flag's creator, Eugene 'Huge' Brockman is a white gay model: easily able to access the social capital of Greenpoint. Brockman said at the flag's unveiling, "I truly believe we (the GLBT community) put the dazzle into our Rainbow nation and this flag is a symbol of just that... look at all these costumes, this event, even Cape Town at large. It is a testimony that we as the Gay community have a lot to offer in skills, talent, inspiration, business (millions in PINK MONEY) and life" (Makofane, 2011). His rhetoric of "we" and "community" as tied to business, pink money, and commodification ignore the deeply segregated and historically rooted reality of South African citizens along racial and class lines. Keletso echoes, "the flag was designed by few, is owned by few, but it claims to represent many. In doing so, this flag does not unite us, it obscures our own brown, fat, skinny, old, female or poor faces and voices. It places us behind the white, affluent, male, young... It tells only one of our many stories" (Makofane, 2011).
So what do we do with this flag now? Tear it down and build a new symbol? Try to make it work within the context of our activism? Upon further investigation I found that Brockman appeared at a protest against lesbian corrective rape in March 2011 to support Luleki Sizwe, a small group of lesbian activists from the townships in Cape Town. Whether or not his presence worked as a publicity stunt is debatable, but he was able to provide some visibility to the issue. What most struck me was another blog post I came across featuring members of Luleki Sizwe smiling next to the South African LGBT flag, which had been delivered to their modest headquarters in the townships (Nathan, 2011). While the historical critique is there and it is so important, there is something to be said for the personal effect taking up a symbol can have on people. Keletso and I both are coming from a privileged perspective, able to research and dissect queer histories and point out its problematic areas in a public and academic context. For the women of Luleki Sizwe, or for service providers for queer and trans homeless youth, perhaps the history isn't relevant. Perhaps individuals can make the rainbow work for them, where it truly becomes a positive "we're here" kind of visibility symbol, or an emblem that gets people's foot in the door so services can be provided in the first place. Baker writes, "love it or hate it, it is rich in its history. This flag has no rules. It has no protocol that governs its display. It is the community's for the taking" (Baker, 2007). We still need to problematize notions of queer "community," paying attention to how these communities are formed and what it takes to find people who have your back. To build this we all must work on supporting one another and reaching a common compassion and empathy, recognizing our intersecting identities and appreciating everyone's struggles with oppression. If we do that, and sensitively engage all queer people in equality work by holding up QPOC and trans activism as central to all our liberation, a critical mass could rise against the powers that be.
- Anderson, S.W. (1993). The Rainbow Flag. GAZE Magazine, Retrieved from http://www.cs.cmu.edu/afs/cs.cmu.edu/user/scotts/bulgarians/rainbow-flag.html.
- Associated Press. (2011, March 15). South africans decry rapes of lesbians. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/03/15/south-africans-decry-rapes-lesbians/.
- Baker, G. (2007, October 18). Pride-flyin' flag. MetroWeekly, Retrieved from http://metroweekly.com/feature/?ak=3031.
- Brier, J. 2009. Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Hayes, Blake. (2010, June 25). History of the rainbow flag with creator gilbert baker!. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaC9OT-28Qc.
- Makofane, K. (2011, February 5). The south african lgbt flag. [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://justkeletso.blogspot.com/2011/02/late-last-year-at-south-africas-biggest.html.
- Nathan, M. (2011, February 23). South african lgbt activists launch unique rainbow flag. Retrieved from http://lezgetreal.com/2011/02/south-african-lgbt-activists-launch-unique-rainbow-flag/.
- Smith, C. (2006). Behind the rainbow. Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, 13(5), 49.
- Valentine, M. (2010). Personal interview.