Written by Adriaan van den Berg
We have an innate tendency to censor realities, to overlook unpalatable truths and to evade and filter out and ignore hard and challenging facts. I believe it is with regards to the state of the South African LGBTGQ community at large… What might come to mind when one thinks of our community is that we are a people whose rights as such are legally and constitutionally recognized and protected. We have organisations providing us with services and support in health and legal matters, who represent and advocate for us. We have numerous LGBTGQ groups which exist and offer support online with a host of individual therapists, counselors and other professionals who further serve our needs. With numerous businesses catering for us and competing for our Pink Rands, we rather seem empowered, like trendsetters with a stalwart community newspaper like Exit, and other LGBTGQ publications including gay lifestyle magazines available on the shelves besides.
Last month, in July’s edition of my monthly column On This Queer Day which largely deals with LGBTG history, I argued that as individuals and as a people and as a community, we are in certain regards “invisible” and “ghettoized.” We need to reach out to each other, and to network and fight dissolution of our community and invisibility as a people. But the one thing, the one facility, resource and institution which ought to serve us as such, as a community and to meet our needs, is absent or lacking in every province of the country: There are no provincial LGBTGQ centres in any of South Africa’s provinces – it is the first of a number of unpleasant realities and facts regarding our community which are all going to point to the need for such centres.
Consider this: 1) The majority of LGBTGQ organisations, services and resources are based in Cape Town, eThekwini-Durban and in Johannesburg and Tshwane-Pretoria. Despite certain LGBTGQ organisations, resources and services being available countrywide, most are localized, leaving other localities downright resource impoverished, services starved and largely of localized LGBTGQ organisational representation and support deprived.
This situation of this concentration and contrasting absence or limited availability of LGBTGQ organisations, services and resources is especially worrying since it means certain provinces are completely without any localized LGBTGQ organisational representation and support and without LGBTGQ resources and services, namely provinces other than the Western Cape, Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu-Natal. It means that many of our provincial capitals and some of the largest cities and towns in the country have either none or very few LGBTGQ organisations, and few or no LGBTGQ services and resources, places like Mangaung-Bloemfontein and Kroonstad, Kimberley-Sol Plaatje-Galeshewe, Nelson Mandela Bay-Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage-Kariega, Bhisho-Buffalo City-East London, Msunduzi-Pietermaritzburg, Mahikeng, Mbombela-Nelspuit, Polokwane and Louis Trichardt. In some of these cities and towns, one or at best two local LGBTGQ organisations and institutions with a small staff compliment are servicing an entire province’s LGBTGQ community with limited resources, and providing a limited range and extent of services, rendering support far more curtailed than they’d like to.
2) There is no formally established and coordinated, central unified national network linking all the existing LGBTGQ organisations, resources and services in every province and which coordinates them all across the entire country as a network of provincial LGBTGQ centres could do.
3) There are no central walk-in hubs of provincial LGBTGQ centres in any of our provinces for organisations and contact where all provincial LGBTGQ organisations, services and resources can be found or from where they can otherwise be referred to for LGBTG people who have reached or contacted such a hub or centre.
4) Many South African LGBTGQ people still can’t access some of the existing LGBTGQ resources and services, though certain LGBTG organisations such as Out provide their services countrywide. Ideally, the closest it can be brought to them are perhaps in the guise of provincial LGBTGQ centres located in the provincial capitals, or else in the largest cities and towns in the provinces.
5) There are no Provincial LGBTGQ Archives in many provinces, which are just some of the kind of community resources currently absent which could be facilitated at and by provincial LGBTGQ centres. Along with such archives, LGBTGQ libraries and other resources and services can be facilitated and hosted on the same premises.
6) There is a need for provincial community contact points which connects people in the cities, towns and rural areas, which facilitate this contact and which offer LGBTGQ people a sense of being a local, province- and country-wide community, with each provincial community and contact centre also connecting with others. Our people in the provinces are often isolated, yes, but even in the big cities, LGBTGQ people can be isolated, anonymous, invisible, internally ghettoized.
7) Despite a need to fight isolation and invisibility of the LGBTGQ individual, we are facing more than invisibility. We are also facing dissolution of our real world LGBTGQ community as community association, action and participation in activism wanes. A quest to raise funding, resources for and to found and establish provincial LGBTGQ centres across the country can be the rallying point needed to mobilise and to bring South Africa’s LGBTGQ community together, to bring us out of invisibility and which can be the beginning of greater self-assertion for us as a people and a community.
The Free State and Bloemfontein where I live is a good example of a location where organisational representation, resources and services are limited or in short supply, where a provincial LGBTGQ centre is desperately needed. A LGBTGQ presence and representation in public life and in our provincial social, cultural, political and economic institutions is either very limited or completely absent. Here one LGBTGQ advocacy and support organisation, Rainbow Seeds, has offices in town and a small network of church ministries, Aids support NGOs and therapists cater for LGBTGQ people to some extent, otherwise there are a handful of mostly local social LGBTGQ groups on Facebook, but otherwise large communal and public LGBTGQ events are limited (there is a nightclub (out of town) and a bar or two catering for LGBTG people). What it all amounts to is that LGBTGQ people are still to a certain extend and in certain regards, invisible in the city, and all the more so in outlying towns and the province’s rural areas. Thank God for the LGBTGQ students and their organisations on campus at UFS and CUT – it is on these campuses that LGBTGQ people otherwise do congregate publicly sometimes, where events such as speeches, lectures, workshops, talks and training are held and occur, where activists operate and where they and their organisations are based and at the UFS.
A campus office is engaged in gender and LGBTGQ advocacy and addressing LGBTGQ issues and needs on campus – all open and available to LGBTGQ people from throughout the province, but not officially dedicated as such. Here in Bloemfontein in the Free State as in every province, a well-known and allocated, staffed and resourced central provincial LGBTGQ centre is needed.
Getting premises like these and accommodating everyone involved and all these services, resources and facilities is an ambitious ideal – perhaps mostly so since it has never been done in any province before. However, one such centre in every province in South Africa would be the fulfillment of a great and undoubtedly worthy ideal though. And to those who will claim this is over-ambitious and a pipe dream, I will say: it is well within the means and abilities of South African LGBTG people in terms of funding and their human and material resources and through personal commitment (as well as through collective abilities, community action, activism and support to raise the resources and to establish such centres in every province across the country ourselves, but governmental and larger community involvement, especially in funding, should be welcomed).
This is not a project to be realized with a year or two, but it should be seen as a decade-long ideal and project, in other words a long-term one, for our community spread out across the land. It is time that we at least start talking about this ideal and begin to raise awareness of the need for it and as an overall motivation, take a look at ourselves.