In case you missed it, a few weeks ago, two gay black South African men tied the knot at their 200-guest traditional wedding, the first of its kind in the old Zulu capital, KwaDukuza.
Tshepo Modisane and Thoba Sithole, both proudly Zulu and Tswana, respectively, decided to go public with their gay African traditional wedding ceremony by inviting reporters to cover the occasion. The video report spread quickly across the Interwebs, inciting a series of media headlines that describe the union as progress for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Africans.
Lessons From Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single (Gay African Male) Story
Chimamanda Adichie, a celebrated Nigerian writer, said in her famous TEDTalk, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete."
On paper, South Africa boasts the friendliest constitution, which protects its LGBTI citizens from discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation. Nevertheless, the country's struggle to shift cultural attitudes toward acceptance of this marginalized group of people, especially in rural areas and townships, remains.
For this reason, as the media continue to hail this single occurrence as a milestone, it becomes critical that supporters of the LGBTI African movement for equality consider that this single narrative exists within the context of many others.
For instance, the video report states that the two gay black men are based in the metropolitan city of Johannesburg and are working professionals in the fields of financial services and IT. That's not to imply that they've been in any way exempt from experiencing the debilitating impact of societal discrimination -- far from it; the effects of homophobia (compounded with racism, as the couple is black) on the livelihoods of people presumed to be LGBTI can result in workplace discrimination and prejudice in health care, not to mention depression, anxiety and even suicide.
Still, there's a huge difference between, on the one hand, the experience of being a "regular-looking" cisgender male employee at a "Big Four" financial consulting firm in a fairly liberal city that boasts the largest gay pride parade in the country and, on the other, the harsh reality of trying to make ends meet in a poor township while also fearing rape for being a lesbian, or murder for being an effeminate gay man.
In a piece written for a South African LGBTI publication last year, writers T.J. Tallie and Maria Hengeveld shared comments by Junior, a young, black, gay-identified male who disagreed with South Africa's reputation as a progressive state (emphasis in italics added by me):
"When you have money, it's quite easy to set yourself free from discrimination and danger," Junior says. "Many of the white gay and lesbian people here can afford to reside in a safe and progressive area, but the majority of us live in townships. In openly embracing your sexuality there, you run the risk of getting abused, raped or murdered." Junior's statement emphasizes that gay and lesbian equality in South Africa is strongly mediated by race and class, and that sexual freedom is often available to those who have the racial and literal capital to afford them.
In light of the struggles of LGBTI Africans, the desire to celebrate any kind of progress, especially when it comes in the form of a gleeful Zulu wedding, is understandable; the vibrant ceremony presented a sharp contrast to the media's grim (and at times gruesome) depiction of violent homophobia on the African continent. However, it is dangerous to assign wide-sweeping gains to all LGBTI Africans based on the perceived victory of a few.
What of gay Africans who view marriage as the least of their problems: young people, for instance, who have been disowned by their families and, above all, seek a stable alternative to homelessness? What about transgender women who experience rejection (and violence) from both gay and straight communities alike? And lesbians, forced to live in fear of so-called "corrective rape"? Will marriage mean social acceptance for them too?
If we've learned anything from criticism of the marriage equality movement in the U.S., it's that too much emphasis on marriage as a pathway to acceptance could only end up benefiting a small segment of the LGBTI community (e.g., gay men, or members of the middle class), while the groups most at risk (e.g., women, youth, transgender people, etc.) are likely to go unheard and unsupported.
A Nigerian lesbian activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) remarked on the unwillingness of many global human rights funders to support "less popular" LGBTI programs:
If you're not doing HIV/AIDS work, forget it. Funders are mainly interested in gay men because of that. With women, we are not seen as much as being affected by these issues. And there is no research on Nigerian gay women to suggest otherwise, so we are at a disadvantage. Our organization provides a safe haven for lesbians and bisexual women to be out, be themselves, meet other women. We organize social events, movie nights, you name it. I know it is saving lives. But the funders don't seem to feel that way because we are not in the news.
Nigeria's recent move to further criminalize homosexuality has no doubt sent even more LGBTI Nigerians back into the closest, making the need for safe social spaces even more critical. In that country, a publicly staged same-sex wedding is punishable by imprisonment for up to 14 years (and by death in the north). Consequently, before the media declare the gay Zulu wedding as progress for the LGBTI African movement, they must ask themselves, "What does progress for LGBTI people in other African countries (or even for different groups of Africans within South Africa) look like?"
The Role of Media in the LGBTI African Movement
Florence Xhaxas, founder and director of the gender justice organization Young Feminist Movement Namibia, warns against zeroing in on the struggles -- and the progress -- of a single African country at the expense of others: "As much as I feel [the wedding video] is great for South Africans, the feeling isn't shared by all LGBT people across the continent. The truth is that [South Africans] have mastered the art of amplifying their voices and documenting cases."
To Xhaxas' point, while stories from South Africa and Uganda continue to shape Western media's narrative about the LGBTI African movement, other countries experiencing their own share of hardships and progress go unnoticed. For instance, the murder of David Kato, a Ugandan LGBTI rights activist, sparked global outrage, whereas the brutal torture and slaying of Maurice Mjomba, a gay Tanzanian community organizer, barely received attention. Similarly, while South African women are perpetually portrayed as victims in coverage of "corrective rape," uprisings by lesbians in other countries, such as Namibia, and Malawi, aren't likely to make headlines.
Still, the cultural significance of the gay Zulu wedding video -- and the power of media itself -- cannot be ignored. LGBTI Africans all over the world were able to see their relationships affirmed in the media, which is a rarity.
Denis Nzioka, founder and editor of LGBTI news organization Identity Kenya, puts it best when he says, "Greater positive media portrayal of LGBT Africans has been proven to change people's perception. As one of my close friend lesbian friend once quipped, 'Kenya's often mild acceptance of homosexuality can be attributed, in some small way, to two persons: Will and Grace.'"
Given the impact that a single video has had on recent conversations about homosexuality in Africa, among Africans at that, it goes without saying that proponents of human rights on the African continent should more intentionally support LGBTI African media advocacy organizations and initiatives, the writers, journalists, digital media producers and artists whose collective works embrace the act of challenging single stories by creating a more realistic, contextualized and complete vision of LGBTI African experiences.