In 2013, Siona O'Connell, Nadia Davids and I were awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) grant to support our Sequins, Self & Struggle: Performing and Archiving Sex, Place and Class in Pageant Competitions in Cape Town project, the aims of which are to research, document and disseminate archives of the Spring Queen and Miss Gay Western Cape (MGWC) pageants performed by disparate coloured communities in the Western Cape. Important to these performance events is the figure of the ‘moffie’, a queer male, often a transsexual, who has traditionally choreographed and designed the Spring Queen pageant, but who is forbidden from competing in it.Footnote 1 Alternatively, MGWC is a platform for queers of colour to perform in a secure environment without exploitation. My individual work in this collaboration focuses on the MGWC pageant and the attendant methodological questions that have arisen in our attempt to forge bridges between Western queer theory and local articulations of gender identity and alternative sexualities, considering the current preoccupations in scholarship around (South) Africa that cut across geography, politics, economics and history. I will briefly outline the research questions that have arisen from my particular focus on the project aims: the relationship between post-apartheid South African national identity and gay rights, new postcolonial directions in queer theory and the sexual geographies of Cape Town that are bounded by race and economic privilege.
A number of scholars have recently considered significant connections between expressions of ethnicity and sexuality, and sexuality and citizenship, in South African contexts.Footnote 2 South Africa was the first country in the world to include an anti-discrimination clause in its constitution that banned discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. In this way, an African nation has radically influenced legislation around homosexuality in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia. Conversely, countries such as Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria have implemented draconian laws directed against homosexuals, including mandating imprisonment without trial and, in some instances, the death penalty.Footnote 3 Given that gay rights have been at the heart of the narratives around public culture and nationhood in the initial transitional period of post-apartheid South Africa, I found it imperative to consider how sexuality has played a large part in the construction of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a name which already implies an intersection between multiracialism and gay rights.
In order to do this, I am focusing on recent studies that have offered new understandings of social and cultural oppression that link postcolonial and queer theories in a self-conscious and nuanced mode that is sensitive to the particularities of local contexts.Footnote 4 Although the use of queer theory has a direct impact on how I consider the anti-normative performances in MGWC, I am also attentive to underlying assumptions around race, gender, nationality and economic privilege that are embedded in much Anglo-American scholarship in this field. As a result, I do not use ‘queer’ as an umbrella term that embraces all races, cultures and sexual identities, nor do I consider it to be an inherently liberational or progressive methodology. On the one hand, it is true, as anthropologist Saskia Wieringa and cultural theorist Horacio Sivori have argued, that under colonialism ‘the production of cultural alterity was sexualized, as much as it was racialized and intersected by gender hierarchies’,Footnote 5 while, on the other hand, as queer theorist Ian Barnard has pointed out, it is not adequate to try and separate out sexuality from race or gender as a mode of understanding identification or oppression.Footnote 6 This becomes particularly pertinent when considering multivalent queer coloured identities in Cape Town. Analysis and criticism of the pageants as performance present the possibility of troubling known and stable categories of representation of the term ‘coloured’, a hurtful stereotype that exists as a nexus of class and race that is multi-faith, multicultural and multi-class. Considering intersections of sexuality, race, religion and geography in MGWC, I follow sociologist Zimitri Erasmus's germinal study, Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in Cape Town, which invites us to think about coloured identities as creolized cultural identities in which ‘creolization’ is positioned as ‘cultural creativity under conditions of marginality’, a queerly inflected theoretical intervention that attends to the complex remaking of identity politics in this cultural space.Footnote 7
Despite the protection under the law for sexual minorities authorized by the Constitution, it remains dangerous to be publicly identified as queer,Footnote 8 and particularly difficult, according to gay-rights activist and queer theorist Zethu Matebeni, to be both queer and black in South Africa.Footnote 9 Cultural geographer Andrew Tucker's Queer Visibilities: Space, Identity and Interaction in Cape Town has analysed the performance of homosexual and queer culture in the city centre, the Cape Flats and the townships, the latter of which are primarily coloured and black spaces, and the ongoing exclusion of queers of colour from the gay village in the City Bowl, where the MGWC pageant takes place.Footnote 10 US cultural theorist Charles I. Nero, who writes about gay neighbourhoods in ‘Why Are Gay Ghettoes White?’, theorizes the rhetorical figure of the ‘black impostor’, who symbolizes the contradiction between the abstract notion of universal homosexuality and the concrete experience of many homogeneous gay neighbourhoods in ways that are comparable in Cape Town.Footnote 11 As the political sphere in the early 1990s moved away from certain pro-apartheid stances that posited homosexuality as an aberration and anti-apartheid factions that imagined it as ‘a perversity of white rule’Footnote 12 contaminating African heteronormativity, I am seeking to explore a more recent association between gay identity and economic advantage, which implicitly favours professional gay white males. In so doing, I intend to highlight the performance of non‐normative sexualities in the Cape Flats and the townships that are largely excluded from the gay village, as well as the city's gay pride events, which are almost entirely restricted to the village's urban boundaries. This exclusion is embedded in the discourse of public space from the Cape Town carnival to the door policy of some nightclubs in the gay village that cater to Western ‘pink’ tourism. These debates find further shape in Tucker's assertion that drag by white performers in South Africa is read by white audiences as highly theatrical and performance-based, where men are ‘drag artists’ that engage in parody that is safely bounded in theatre/cabaret/art venues, whereas ‘common drag queens’ engage in a cross-dressing identity that is overly emotional, effeminate, unbounded and public.Footnote 13 MGWC problematizes these distinctions by placing performers that defy or undermine these stereotypes within the boundaries of the city centre. While the project ultimately seeks to shed light on lines of oppression, marginalization and classification that persist in post-apartheid democratic South Africa, and to give agency to those participating communities and individuals in the documentation of their performance practices, I aim to reflect upon how MGWC is shaping LGBTI culture in the Western Cape, and challenging the exclusionary racial and economic privileges of the gay village that are re‐racializing forms of difference in the ‘Rainbow Nation’, forms that prolong the inimical legacies of apartheid.