Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie. Picture: Supplied
Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie. Picture: Supplied

Our Queer+ hero Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie

By Liam Karabo Joyce Time of article published Oct 30, 2020

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Legend, hero, activist, our Queer+ hero unapologetically black, authentic, queer, artist, filmmaker.

These are just some of the terms people use to describe Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie. And all these terms are appropriate.

Known for her contributions to the South African LGBTQIA+, which include being one of the organisers of Africa's first Pride March held in Johannesburg, she is also an award- winning documentary-maker.

And in speaking about the importance of considering LGBTQIA+ rights in the context of human rights at the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, she became the first openly lesbian woman to do so.

It was also the first time the UN was addressed about LGBTQIA+ issues, with Ditsie saying: "If the world conference on women is to address the concerns of all women, it must similarly recognise that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a violation of basic human rights."

Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie. Picture: Supplied

Now, 25 years after that speech, Ditsie is releasing her latest work, Lesbians Free Everyone — The Beijing Retrospective. The 55-minute film is a collection of interviews with some of the more than 20 activists who gathered in Beijing.

The idea for the film has been around for 10 years but putting it together this year made sense. "It's 25 years since the conference and we as activists have been speaking about it a lot.

“We have been speaking about documenting what happened in Beijing, and when we could not get on planes to physically see each other, a film made sense", she said.

For Ditsie, one of the biggest challenges was accessing archives. "I'm a very spiritual person and very tactile. I work with energy and my best interactions are when I am with people.

“I found I had to use a lot more energy in a virtual environment. You have to make sure you hold the person's attention and don't miss any nuances, so I feel like I have been overextending, but the biggest challenge has been accessing archives when all buildings are closed because of lockdowns around the world."

Putting Lesbians Free Everyone together opened Ditsie's eyes to how invisible lesbian visibility at the conference has become over the years and how much erasure has happened.

"Many people don't actually know about what happened during that conference so it's important for that information to come out now from the people who were there.

"What will come out clearly in this film is how solidarity was being exercised, how we worked so well together, we were from different countries but we found our common goal and worked it and we have lost that, I feel.

“Not just as a queer community but as feminists within the community, as people fighting the patriarchy, the tyranny and racism."

Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie. Picture: Supplied

Born in Orlando West, Soweto, in 1971, Ditsie says she was always a rebel. While growing up in the '80s, she was immersed in the Struggle against apartheid but was well aware that racial oppression was only part of the fight.

The other fight being that for the right of freedom of sexual orientation. When she was 16 years old, she was told about Simon Tseko Nkoli, the gay anti-apartheid campaigner who faced the death penalty with 21 other political leaders in the Delmas treason trial but had been acquitted and released.

A year later, Ditsie, Nkoli and Edwin Cameron among others organised the continent's first Pride March.

Speaking on how her activism began, Ditsie said there was no definitive moment. "l don't know if I can pinpoint a moment. I feel like my entire life has been a moment of revelations.

“One of my first lessons as a child was that we are all performing gender according to society's rules and I've just always been very aware of my place in society and what was going on around me.

“I also grew up very much non-gendered and I always asked 'why', and that played a role."

While many 17-year-olds were doing what teenagers do at the time, she was paving the way for change.

And while many might need to dig deep to find the courage to do so, for Ditsie it was a natural progression of her life.

"l found a community of a people where we were all on the same page of fighting the people that keep us oppressed, and I was just excited to say 'enough of the shame people throw at us, I am not ashamed to be who I am'.

"When I reflect, I see that the journey has been incredible, I've gone from the highest highs to the lowest lows within the community and within my personal life.

"When I started as a queer activist we had three words: gay, lesbian and bisexual, and everything outside of that was performative.

"And now we have a language. I can identify as a gender non-conforming androgynous lesbian, and that's an identity that fits me perfectly.

“And I'm loving where we are while at the same time I'm deeply saddened by how much we seem to be going backwards in how we discriminate against one another, so it's been a roller-coaster."

Although selecting one particular thing within her activism work as a highlight is difficult, she is quick to point out that the idea of chosen family is what she appreciates.

"l could also say that the first Pride was a highlight, and it was."

While the issues of accessibility, exclusivity and discrimination continue to plague the queer community, Ditsie has been vocal about her feelings.

In an open letter she penned last year, titled "A love letter to my queer family", she expressed her sadness.

In the letter she said: "You can imagine my shock sometime in the mid-1990s when the Pride committee, made up of mostly white men, started suggesting that the march should be changed from Pride March to Pride Parade.

"l don't remember who else was there, but I remember distinctly Paul Stobbs, then chair of the committee, saying that queer people were now free and there was no longer a need to protest.

"l remembered Audre Lorde's words; I remember even saying: You have always “been free.

But I am not. I am not sure if I said this out loud, or if I was even heard. By the late 1990s, the Pride March became the Pride Parade, changing routes, charging entrance fees, changing the essence of what the first Pride March stood for."

Dr Beverly Palesa Ditsie. Picture: Supplied

On the issues that face the community, Ditsie said the best way to address these was to go back to the drawing board.

"While on the one hand, I love the youth and new vibrancy and new approach and how unapologetic this generation is, there is also this desire to do things with quick turnarounds and getting into activism for the glory and fame.

"l never did this to be a legend. If you follow a purpose, your ego cannot be in front of you because it will trip you, and I'm seeing a lot of young activists who have their egos in front of them instead of the work, and as a result, we can't even disagree with each other but still get the work done.

“If we understand that we are all working towards the same thing, then it will get better."

Her advice to young queer Africans: "Love yourself, God does not make mistakes, you are valid, our existence is valid, love yourself no matter what anyone else says, take up your space."within her activism work as a highlight is difficult, she is quick to point out that the idea of chosen family is what she appreciates.

"l could also say that the first Pride was a highlight, and it was." While the issues of accessibility, exclusivity and discrimination continue to plague the queer community, Ditsie has been vocal about her feelings. In an open letter she penned last year, titled "A love letter to my queer family", she expressed her sadness.

In the letter she said: "You can imagine my shock sometime in the mid-1990s when the Pride committee, made up of mostly white men, started suggesting that the march should be changed from Pride March to Pride Parade.

"l don't remember who else was there, but I remember distinctly Paul Stobbs, then chair of the committee, saying that queer people were now free and there was no longer a need to protest.

"l remembered Audre Lorde's words; I remember even saying: You have always been free. But I am not. I am not sure if I said this out loud, or if I was even heard.

“By the late 1990s, the Pride March became the Pride Parade, changing routes, charging entrance fees, changing the essence of what the first Pride March stood for."

On the issues that face the community, Ditsie said the best way to address these was to go back to the drawing board.

"While on the one hand, I love the youth and new vibrancy and new approach and how unapologetic this generation is, there is also this desire to do things with quick turnarounds and getting into activism for the glory and fame.

"l never did this to be a legend. If you follow a purpose, your ego cannot be in front of you because it will trip you, and I'm seeing a lot of young activists who have their egos in front of them instead of the work, and as a result, we can't even disagree with each other but still get the work done.

“If we understand that we are all working towards the same thing, then it will get better."

Her advice to young queer Africans: "Love yourself, God does not make mistakes, you are valid, our existence is valid, love yourself no matter what anyone else says, take up your space."

Check out the latest issue of Queer+ Magazine here.

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