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S. Africa Gay Rights Parade Sends Serious Message

People take part in the Joburg Pride Parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 2, 2010. People take part in the Joburg Pride Parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 2, 2010.
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People take part in the Joburg Pride Parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 2, 2010.
People take part in the Joburg Pride Parade in Johannesburg, South Africa, October 2, 2010.
Anita Powell
South Africa’s largest city of Johannesburg hosted its annual gay pride festival Saturday - a raucous, colorful celebration in the only African nation where it is legal to be gay. The parade comes as the president of the southern African nation of Malawi says her nation’s voters are not “ready” to overturn anti-gay legislation.

It’s seven in the morning and activist Albert Kafuka says he needs just one thing before the gay pride parade starts in four hours: glitter.

“I really want some glitters on my body, or on my vest," said Kafuka. I’m wearing a black vest, but I would like it to be like a little bit shiny or, how you say, like ‘bling bling.'

Beneath the glitter - and there is a lot of glitter - the feathers, and the leather, fellow activist Henry Bantjez says there is a serious message: to maintain constitutional rights.  Bantjez leads the Gay Flag of South Africa movement, which is making a national bus tour to promote gay rights and a rainbow-colored version of South Africa's flag.

South Africa is the only African nation to allow same-sex marriage and full gay rights; Malawi was considering abolishing its anti-gay laws, but President Joyce Banda recently said she doesn’t have popular support for her proposal.

Bantjez spoke to VOA while wearing a white sailor’s cap, a pink satin bow tie, a pink feather boa, pink fake-fur arm-warmers and a fishnet shirt over his glitter-covered chest.  He says his group opposes a May proposal by traditional leaders to remove a constitutional clause that protects gay South Africans against discrimination over their sexual orientation.

“There’s a very serious side to what we do as well, even though we look pretty silly today," said Bantjez. "Yeah, well, the serious side is, this year, our bus tour is actually called ‘I am African,’ because a little while ago one of the traditional leaders in South Africa, who is very very powerful and also serves on the constitutional review committee, which is very very powerful, he suggested the amendment of our constitution to amend sexual orientation rights, which is absolutely crazy, you can only add to our constitution, you cannot take away.”

South African archbishop Desmond Tutu coined the term “Rainbow Nation” to describe his country’s racial diversity and harmony. On Saturday, attendees seemed to interpret that literally, with eye-popping results. Rainbows, a traditional symbol of gay pride, were everywhere. A couple wore matching prison-style orange jumpsuits emblazoned with the words “proud lesbians.” A male pair wore Cinderella-style ballgowns in pink and purple.

The colorful, raucous, over-the-top event stands in stark contrast to the rest of Africa, where gay men and women are often harassed, discriminated against or targeted with violence.

In Uganda, politicians are considering a bill that would impose life imprisonment -- or even the death penalty - for homosexual acts. Bantjez says his group is calling for South Africa to impose sanctions on Uganda.

Liberia in July passed a law against same-sex marriage.

Kafuka knows this all too well. He claimed asylum in South Africa because he says he could not be openly gay in his native Congo.

But despite its laws protecting gay South Africans, the nation is no gay utopia. South Africa is the hub of what is called “corrective rape” -- the rape of lesbians by men.

Among the entourage on the Gay Flag bus is 19-year-old singer and performer Adonis. The name fits. Like the Greek deity of beauty and desire, Adonis has a smooth face, a slim figure, an elegant coif, full lips and a beautiful singing voice.

“This is, at its core, it is a human rights issue," said Adonis. "Just like there was apartheid and it was a system that oppressed people,  homophobia and these kinds of stigmas that come across and are being inflicted on us, is just the same way, are you saying we are less human for being who we are?”

Adonis’ real name is Thabo Gaubuse, and he is a young man. He’s also among South Africa’s “born free” generation - those born into a post-apartheid world. When he told his parents he was gay, he says, they shrugged and said, yeah, cool.

He says he wishes everyone could be so accepted.

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