The Pink Loerie Mardi Gras and Arts Festival is a story that begins with the idyllic coastal town of Knysna.
Knysna (a local Khoikhoi word that legend has it, means ‘ferns’), lies 1200km south of Johannesburg and east of Port Elizabeth. Once, one of the best-kept secrets in South Africa, the now much-loved town of Knysna is on the Garden Route and is surrounded by lush indigenous South African rainforests spilling out into a crystalline estuary; fed by the Knysna River. For the past twenty years, at the end of April and the first week of May, Knysna has also become home to one of the freshest and most exciting LGBTQ+ celebrations around the world – the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras and Arts Festival.
Initially, it was started by local businessmen to entice tourists to the town during the traditionally slow month of May, and reinvigorate the local economy. It was run by Juan Lerm until 2009, and the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras became an event that would not only incorporate the local region’s gay identity expression, but it also celebrated the cultural contributions made by the gay community, and in so doing, overcame a prior history of suppression in the area. With an ever-increasingly visible LGBTQ+ community, Knysna’s Pink Loerie has systematically become one of the most written about must-see annual celebrations within the international LGBTQ+ community.
During the early days of the event’s creation, the organisers had first envisioned having the event rollout as a parade, similar to the famous Pride events celebrating the diversity found around the world. The next evolution of the concept was to host a parade as well as a party, akin to that of the Sydney Mardi Gras. While acknowledging that the region needed an event that provided a celebratory and creative outlet for its local LGBTQ+ community, the organisers agreed that whatever was created should go a step beyond that of the traditional, better-known Pride parades. It should be a celebration, a carnival – and a carnival with a purpose too. This allowed the event to incorporate all residents and visitors in the town, regardless of their sexuality, and celebrate the rich diversity of people from the Greater Municipality of Eden area as well, which incorporates Knysna and nearby George. It became an event that truly embraced the ideals of equality and freedom, whilst essentially remaining a celebration of gay culture and queer freedom, it was to serve as a platform where LGBTQ+ cultural and political issues could be debated and addressed, in an informal and relaxed setting. Issues such as sexual education, HIV/Aids and acceptance from all sides of the community were often primary themes of discussion and celebration.
After some initial discussions with the local government and a whopper of a fundraiser (that proved just how much support they had from all areas of the community), they were ready to begin … And so, in 2001, the very first Pink Loerie Mardi Gras was launched, and to say it was a huge success is an understatement. It was the birth of a new, culturally aware and uniquely South African version of the European Pride, and to date, the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras provides a wider range of events, exhibitions and gatherings to focus on creative and political endeavours within the South African and international Queer communities, including Performing art shows, dance parties, art exhibitions and charity drives that provoke thought and debate as well as good old-fashioned fun! And, for the more outdoor-oriented, there have been excursions to local tourist attractions such as Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, as well as lagoon rides on the cruise boats on offer.
At its heart, the Pink Loerie is a festival and a celebration; so, dancing, fun and music also played an enormous part of the event, with daily shows being held at various locations throughout the town and club nights. This beautiful tradition of celebration, Pride and creative expression in a gorgeous setting has continued to glitter and thrive for over eighteen years.
The grand finale of the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras, the Parade and after-party, is held on the final weekend of the celebrations. The festival attracts floats, performers and DJ’s from all over the world and local businesses also get into to the spirit, competing for the best Pink Loerie window display.
This festival is the event where Knysna comes into its own, with the locals showing the full extent of hospitality, diversity and fanfare and festive spirit that is the backbone of the event, and the reason that people keep coming back every year.
Businesses on the Garden Route such as accommodation establishments, restaurants, Monkeyland, Birds of Eden, estuary boat cruises, and local shops have benefitted over the years from the influx of tourist for the Festival.
Moreover, in 2016 Africa’s first mass same¬sex wedding added a dash of colour to gloomy weather on the Garden Route, when 16 couples tied the knot in Knysna.
“As we celebrate 16 years of making a mark on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LG-BTI) community, and the 10 years since same¬sex marriage in our country was legalised, we felt it only appropriate to highlight one of the most appreciated and sought-after rights – the right to marriage equality,” festival organiser John O’Neil said at the time.
The grand finale of the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras – the parade and after-party – is held on the final weekend and it attracts floats, performers, and DJs and flocks of spectators.
The best Pink Loerie shop window display contest has over the years seen fierce competition among local shop owners which literally turn their windows pink in the festive spirit of partaking. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pink Loerie Festival for 2020 had to be postponed and we can confirm that the Pink Loerie Festival 2021 will be back next year stronger and better and will take place from Friday 23 April – Tuesday 27 April 2021.
The Pink Loerie Mardi Gras & Arts Festival is, therefore, a time of celebration, but a celebration with a