Who gets to be most visible?
I attended the Feather Awards, the self-proclaimed LGBTI awards of South Africa, which can be described as the Oscars of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. All the glitz, all the glamour, all the controversy. Like the Oscars, the Feathers is one of the most exuberant and visible displays of this community.
It is televised on national TV and has some of the biggest local sponsors of any entity dealing with LGBTI issues. It was a night when the stars came out and the insults came out harder. There were cameras, lights and allies. It was a time of remembrance, it was a time of debauchery, a time of sexuality and a time of celebration.
But the key question to the event was: Was it a time the whole LGBTI community could identify with? And if not, what did it mean that this was the most visible expression of the LGBTI community?
Many in the community say the problem with Feathers is it silences the voices and experiences of a great number of LGBTI people while celebrating “frivolous accomplishments and straight allies”.
It forgets the existence of violence experienced by many in the queer community.
This argument can be extended to activist and academic spaces, which are also not without divisions and problems. In these spaces, the notion of who is able to speak on behalf of others is sometimes controversial.
In rights spaces one often witnesses the divide between the lingo-toting, conference-attending regulars and those they say they speak on behalf of.
In spaces where rights are discussed one sees the same faces, same organisations and same representatives of the queer community, especially in multilateral spaces.
But what does this mean? Are there some existences that are more valid than others?
The journal had stories about sex and pleasure, photo essays and even comics. The material came from places such as Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and Botswana. The editors were from Southern and West Africa and the diaspora. The team was made up of women (except for one man who snuck in).
But one could argue that the material was a little Southern Africa-heavy with diaspora and Nigeria coming in a close second.
One could also argue that there was a lack of representation of trans folks or that the northern part of Africa and trans women were sorely missed in its pages. This was purely a reflection of the team heading up the production. The argument about under-representation and invisibility is valid.
In a community whose stories on the continent are often either underrepresented, misconstrued or silenced, there is a need to explore and acknowledge the array of lives that fall under the LGBTI umbrella.
The key is to make sure that these spaces reflect the tapestry that is the entire community — from those who have no idea about notions of gender nonconforming to those who can give the entire gamut of sexuality, from those who dodge violence daily to those who dodge lectures. The spectrum of existence is as broad as the spectrum of sexualities.
It is important to be cognisant of these differences and formulate a multidimensional story that reflects a multidimensional existence. This is important not only for those who are represented but also for those who aspire to be represented.
Facing violence does not mean that you cannot look at someone else’s easier existence and not have the hope of being there.
Similarly, living the high life does not mean you must not be cognisant of the fact that life could be very different in a dark way. It is simply about acknowledging that there is a great deal more to the story than one specific tale.
This was first published on Mail and Guardian.
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