A story of Pride, joy, freedom, and safety by Tutu Zondo-Rurale
Writer: Tutu Zondo-Rurale | Images: Supplied
I was five years old when I heard the word “gay” for the first time. I had no idea what the word meant, but I immediately knew that it was something wrong, dirty, something I shouldn’t be.
I grew up in the type of town where everyone has a Bible on the bedside table and there's one traffic light that's just trying its best. A very small, very white, and even more Baptist place. For years, the only fine dining restaurant we had was Wimpy.
It was in this middle-of-nowhere place where I learned to bury the parts of my identity seen as “unholy”.
And how could I not?
When you grow up not seeing versions of yourself - of who you could become - you begin to believe that you might not exist. So you find ways to hide and shrink. You do it all - you get on your knees, quote scripture, and try pray it away. You date the pretty girl and try convince yourself and her that you’re really into her. You do all of this with the hopes of escaping this “sin”, this unholy word.
Even when I graduated from my small town and moved to Johannesburg, there were parts of my identity that needed to be hidden.
I could only ever explore the beauty of my queerness at night, on isolated street bars with blue lights and a jukebox in lieu of a DJ. In the day, I still couldn’t hold hands with my boyfriend, share a quick kiss, or even wear a crop top to the taxi rank. In ways more subtle than quoting scriptures promising hell, I was still being told that being gay, queer, a member of the LGBTI community; was wrong.
So I would still try bury.
I would try the “straight” clubs with my girls. Get dressed up and call a cab to Rosebank or Sandton. I get flashbacks of a 19-year-old me walking into the clubs, wearing shoes a bouncer declared appropriate and a shirt with a collar (because for some reason this very strict dress code made sense in the early 2010s).
But even more than that, I remember walking into those dimly-lit spaces and thinking; “shrink" ; “Make yourself smaller” ; “Don’t draw too much attention”.
I would utter versions of “don’t be too gay” to myself. Because from the moment I walked into these spaces, everything would tell me that this space was not for me - that I was not welcome.
It would be the looks I would get - small daggers being thrown at me from complete strangers. The invasive questions disguised as curiosity. The endless “I have a gay friend too, you should meet him”. The never-ending hetero courting rituals.
And honestly, even the music was just so… straight. A whole night with no Beyoncé? Rihanna?
It was out of these frustrations that I actively started seeking spaces and events designed for our community, created with us in mind. Spaces that didn’t just tolerate us, but spaces that celebrated and centered us.
The uncomfortable truth is that I found very few, so I decided to create my own.
Spaces like Vogue Nights Jozi, Brave Futures Film Festival, and The Annual Pride Brunch were created out of a need.
Our community is one that has existed on the fringes of society for too long, it’s now time for us to be seen.
There’s a power in being seen by one another, acknowledging the beauty and light we collectively share. It’s far better than being looked at, turned into spectacle in places that were never about (or for) us.
We’ve navigated a world that has always struggled to make room for us.
So as “creators”, we have had to reimagine our world, create something new. There is never a seat for us at 'the table' and instead of begging for one, we’ve decided to build our own.
The spaces we have started creating are about the celebration of our individuality - at Vogue Nights Jozi alone - we catch a glimpse of what is possible when freedom and expression meet. These are spaces rooted in our culture as LGBTI+ people, rooted in our fashion, music (there’s definitely some Beyoncé on our playlists), and most importantly, community.
The places we are creating also offer more than just groove,. For a lot us, these are the only spaces we can be “safe” in.
You see, South Africa has one of the best constitutions in the world when it comes to protecting the rights of LGBTI+ people, but the lived reality for us is something completely different.
This year alone we’ve watched so many members of our community experience unimaginable horrors, living under the constant threat that our lives could be reduced to yet another “justice for” hashtag.
So when we create these new spaces - when we dare to reimagine our worlds - we do so with the full knowledge that we’re creating spaces where we can experience some type of joy, freedom, and safety.
It may be predictable or cliche, but we’ve become the people we needed when we were younger. It's for the little kid living in a small town who feels they have nowhere to go - that their existence isn’t valid.
I see you.
And I hope you see yourself in me.