One of the advantages of being a conference city is that we, as Durbanites, get a chance to meet people from around the world and with a wide range of interests. Over the next few weeks you could meet people with a passion for bio-manufacturing, documentary making and drowning (or at least preventing it!).
Last week, a room at the Olive Convention Centre was filled with 150 people, from every corner of Africa and the Indian Ocean, mostly young and mostly female. That was exciting. Even more interesting is that they all identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, intersex, asexual or “queer”. Even more interesting is that they were all committed Christians. This was the first convening on the continent of such a group, and Durban was chosen as their destination.
This was in part because the main organiser, Neville Gabriel, is a Durban man who secured support for the conference from the Open Society Foundation.
His organisation is called “The Other Foundation”, since so often people who identify as part of the LGBTIQA+ group in Africa, are treated as “other”, as “aliens” in their own country. The recent decriminalisation of same-sex activities in Botswana is a reminder that there are still 34 countries in Africa where consenting adults who have sex with someone of the same gender can be, and often are, imprisoned. South Africa still stands out on how progressive its legal and constitutional - if not social - attitudes are towards gay people (and permit me please to use the shorthand term “gay” rather than the cumbersome LGBTIQA+).
Conferences on gay rights in Africa are more and more common. This one was exceptional because, as was pointed out by various speakers, on a continent where people take religion seriously, we also need to take seriously the fact that many African gay people are Christian (and indeed Muslim and members of other faiths). When hearing relentless stories of how young people had been abused, rejected, slandered and even beaten by their faith communities, you might wonder why they continue.
But many argued that they did not want to give up a key part of who they were. In fact, they wanted to celebrate that sexual orientation and religious orientation are both part of the same complex creation that is God’s handiwork. To paraphrase one participant: “The God who made me Christian, made me gay.”
In a few important ways, the group was welcomed by mainline Christian organisations in the city - Diakonia Council of Churches (which has a long history of campaigning for social justice), a group of theologians from UKZN, and Methodist Bishop Linda Mandini (who hosted a service in his church and spoke warmly of the presence of the group here). At the opening, the group sang resonant words by our own Archbishop Hurley, who asks for a blessing on those “who right uphold and justice do/ and face withal contempt and pain”.
Speaking at the opening, Dr Allan Boesak, a Christian leader with great Struggle credentials, drew an interesting parallel. When the situation of non-white people in South Africa seemed hopeless, when people were excluded in so many ways, when unjust laws were tolerated, and when the voices of the oppressed were silenced, it was often the churches who took the risk of speaking out, but only after first recognising that they had failed as well. Surely, he asked, the churches had a similar role now to play in defending the human rights of their gay African brothers and sisters; but also, as during apartheid, to start off by recognising their failures first.
But, mostly, mainstream Christian leaders were notable for their absence. To many this was not surprising, but it still begs the question. When church leaders have so often led the way in campaigning for the marginalised, it is ironic that on this issue most churches are the ones still leading the way in doing the oppressing rather than fighting it.
This is not the place for a complex scriptural debate. But the simple point was made, by some delegates who know their Bible, that in all the gospels Jesus says nothing at all about homosexuality. On the other hand, he has frequent condemnations for the arrogant, hypocritical religious leaders around him who thought they knew what was best for others.
There is another interesting parallel between the two Struggles. In South Africa, two riots - Sharpeville and Soweto - are seen as iconic moments, when oppressed people stood up for themselves and said “enough is enough”.
Things did not change overnight, but after those moments there was no turning back. The gay rights movement also points to an iconic riot. This happened at the Stonewall Inn, in New York City, on June 28, 1969, exactly 50 years ago. It was the moment when gay people could stop being ashamed of who they are and instead be “out and proud”.
The anniversary of Stonewall is why this time of year sees Pride marches in many cities, and Durban is no exception. Durban Pride saw a crowd of about 3000 people assembled in the park behind the Workshop on Saturday.
They represented the wonderful variety of Durban: all ages, all colours, various nationalities, and indeed Christians, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. There were people who identify as L, G, B, T, I, Q and A - and also heterosexuals there to show their support for friends and family. One mother carried a placard proclaiming herself to be a “Proud Parent”.
There were no mainstream religious leaders there or even political leaders - even though this is now commonplace in other cities - but the crowd did not care. They have learnt the South African lesson: that we can celebrate who we are and do not have to wait for acceptance or recognition from any who would oppress us.
* Perrier is the director of the Denis Hurley Centre.
** The view expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.