Africa: "It Looks Like it's Unbearable to Live Without a Man, It's Unbearable to Be a Lesbian'

31 May 2023

The Centre for Human Rights (CHR) and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS, and Gender at the University Pretoria together with the Center for Gender Studies and Feminist Futures and the Center for Conflict Studies at the Philipps-University Marburg have launched the second edition of the Pretoria-Marburg Queer Conversations.

The conversations emanate from a convergence of interests in the work on LGBTIQ+ and queer identities among the centres. This year, the series is embedded in the Marburg Lecture series themed: 'De-and Reconstructing LGBTIQ+ Politics in a Postcolonial World', with lectures taking place in-person at the Philipps-Marburg University.

On April 27, 2023 at the first event of the series titled Where is the joy? Portrayals and Depictions of LGBTIQ+ Persons - Dr Beverly Ditsie (they/them), led a conversation on being joyful and un-apologetic as a queer person. Ditsie is a gender non-conforming lesbian activist, award-winning film maker, reality tv director, writer and musician. They have directed more than 20 documentaries, nationally and internationally.

Ditsie says there is a stereotype that all gay people are hairdressers. There are rarely gender non-conforming lesbians and there is rarely a representation of gender non-conforming lesbians and they continue to remain invisible because someone is making a decision about what is put on air about them.

"Those of us who have the power to change it have to constantly be at war to be able to put any representation of us that makes any sense to us, and we are still not in charge of our own narratives, we are constantly told who we are. And so for me it continues to be a fight", says Ditsie.

The representation of LGBTQI+ people in general in the media and tv productions has increased over the last few years but the representation and the showing of lesbians has actually decreased so this goes to show and underline how lesbians are removed from spaces. Ditsie shows this in their documentary THE COMMISSION - From Silence to Resistance where they showed how the Coalition of African Lesbians was not tolerated in one of the main bodies among the AU human rights structure. They are fighting invisibilisation through archiving, a very powerful tool making bodies, persons, identities that are marginalised visible, making lesbians, lgbtqi+ women visible and putting them at the centre.

Despite all the backlash and constant push Ditsie faces as a queer person, their source of is that they are part of a community. They think it is helpful to be a part of a community of film makers, activists, of writers, of poets, of romantics, of musicians, of people who no matter how they are treated, invisibleised, marginalised and ignored may continue.

"As the Coalition of African Lesbians, the African commission literally kept saying change your name to Coalition of African ladies and then you can do your things in private. You understand that invisibilisation and erasure is real. And lesbians free everyone. Here's one thing that I realised that shocked me to my core, I made a historic 5 minute speech at the Beijing conference in 1995 and over the years have been searching to find the full video of that speech, there is a few seconds of the prop that I eventually found from Reuters, then there's a few seconds at the end. The most famous few seconds at the end comes from SABC but nothing in-between, none of the really poignant and important things that I said exist in that speech", says Ditsie.

"The very first speech that was done in the 1975 by an Australian lesbian who was a unionist, who was fighting for poor workers, that speech doesn't exist not on video, there's some words but the full video doesn't exist. In 1980 Kenya, 1985 Denmark, there were a few speeches along the way, there was another from a major reproductive conference that happened in Cairo where a lot of lesbians stood up to speak, I struggled to find some of the speeches I did and found them in people's own personal archives. If that is not a deliberate erasure, then what is? You realise that there needs to be a continuous belief of our non-existence because if there is continuous belief of our non-existence then we can continue to be marginalised because we should not exist anywhere," they add.

Ditsie makes an example of the invisibilisation of queer women by mentioning the story about Rafiki, a Kenyan lesbian film by Wanuri Kahiu. The film was banned in Kenya by the Kenya Film Classification Board and they entered the Oscars. The producers talked to the ministry that they have a chance to win an Oscar and they must show the film in cinemas for two weeks in the local cinemas in order to qualify, the ministry unbanned the film for two weeks and it was sold out and after the 2 weeks run, it was banned again.

One of the ministers was invited to the cinemas to watch the film, he watched the film and enjoyed it and said he agreed to un-ban it if they change the ending because the lesbian main characters are "too happy, they look like they make it possible for lesbians to be happy".

"Then you begin to understand why there's a need for us to be seen as angry, struggling, violated, our lives are unbearable, then it looks like it's "unbearable to live without a man", "it is unbearable to be a lesbian", "it's not attractive" and that has been the motive the entire time. How do we do that? By showing as much joy as possible", according to Ditsie.

"I laugh a lot in my films, we laugh a lot because we are full rounded beautiful human beings who live full rounded lives. Whatever the adversities, however we live, we live full lives and that needs to continue to be out there, banned or unbanned it doesn't matter. And what we do is we also push our narratives. Right now we have people saying things like we are "shoving homosexuality down their throats", but no we are living under a gender and sexual dictatorship. We are being told who we are, what we should be, how we should be as though cisgendered heterosexuality is a be all and end all, we know it's never been", says Ditsie.

To create joy, Ditsie advises queer people that they need to go into the roots of their own beliefs, spirituality, whatever it is that they believe is their highest self, whether one believes in the universe or they call the universe God, however they relate to the world that core has always been Ditsie's spirituality.

"I speak quite a lot about my great, great, great grandmother for several reasons, she was a warrior and from my understanding of this history as a warrior, she was surrounded by women, she did not listen to any of these men. They were not happy about it. That seemed powerful to me and my great great grandmother would then talk about how people like me always existed. My joy is rooted in my knowledge and understanding that I'm not wrong to exist, that my existence is very right, it's pre-ordained. It's my existence because we are all different. We all exist on different spectrums of being, we should not all be the same. We must find our joy within ourselves, but for me it began with an understanding that I'm not wrong to exist. I've been put here to exist, to be happy and to share myself with others. I'm married to a beautiful woman, that joy is possible", Ditsie says.

To preserve, document and share joy amidst the constant crucifixion of our intersecting identity, Ditsie says queer people should bring their full and unapologetic self.

"When you are constantly told to hate yourself because God hates you, there's nothing as damaging as being told that your maker hates you and as a result if God hates you then everybody else surely must hate you. How do you then bring self-love and self-care? There's a lot of undoing, we have to undo all these messages we are hearing around us. We are undoing all these stereotypes that we are hearing around us and seeing. We have to constantly question our very own existence and try to find some semblance of normalcy and joy in the midst of all the yuckiness that we get told about ourselves and eventually when you reach God within yourself then none of it matters."

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