In his Daily Maverick Opinionista column, Simon Williamson asks the question that every June (LGBT Pride Month) is asked in the LGBT community & media, ‘has the time for Pride celebrations perhaps passed?’ The thrust of the argument in general is that we are now in a ‘post gay era,’ an era where one’s sexual orientation is of no importance, where ‘strategic essentialism,’ to deliberately and with purpose, separate oneself from society is no longer necessary. I must admit, this is an argument I could easily see myself agreeing with.
As Simon points out, one could argue that perhaps some prejudices and discriminatory ideas around homosexuals continue as a result of the gay community separating itself from society. That is a not an easy proposition to accept as the aim of strategic essentialism is to forward the primary gay cause, acceptance. However, no matter how difficult, it is one that must be accepted as a distinct possibility. Despite the allure of that argument, I would have to disagree and argue that; the world over, and South Africa in particular; there is still a place for strategic essentialism.
The fight for rights by minorities or any other oppressed group is never truly complete. If the undergraduate analysis can be excused, power relations in society can be said to be static, and if at all fluid, are painstakingly slow to change. A case in point is the struggle for women’s rights. Though things have undeniably advanced a century after the first wave of feminism (the fight for women’s political rights), equally undeniable is that power relations between men and women are still skewed to the former. Essentially, there is still much work being done by women’s groups to both protect and further advance the women’s cause.
Gay rights in relation, particularly gay rights in South Africa, can barely be said to be nascent and thus their protection and advancement is of utmost importance. Across the world, it is generally within particular spaces and even then so, within particular sectors of society that ‘post-gay’ is a reality. The case for South Africa is even more extreme. Most of South Africa’s LBGT individuals (as Simon points out by mentioning the horror of corrective rape) are far removed from the life promised by our progressive constitution. Yet, as with much of South Africa there’s a stark disconnect; to those of us who are gay and live relatively affluent lives in urban areas, where the notion of overt & extreme homophobia is practically foreign, we can enjoy these rights.
Despite this, we cannot be complacent, the reality is homophobic attitudes in South Africa are the prevalent opinion on gay rights. Lest we forget, our very own President stated, gay marriages were “a disgrace to the nation and to God” and that “When I was growing up, an ‘ungqigili,’ (a homosexual) would not have stood in front of me, I would knock him out.” Whilst this statement cannot be taken as irrefutable proof of malicious intent and disregard for constitutional rights afforded to the LGBT community; that statement in conjunction with the less than accepting attitude of the majority of South Africans towards gay rights goes to show the protection of these rights is of paramount importance.
To return to the point I opened with, Simon cannot be faulted with pointing out that strategic essentialism, conceivably is self-defeating. To this though, I would say strategic essentialism is only one element of the gay rights movement, the radical element. However, as the history of minority rights movements shows one needs both the radical and the more mainstream elements for there to be progress in the fight for rights, and protection for those won.
For every Andrea Dworkin who turned off so many to the Feminist cause with her militant positions & aggressive posturing, there must be a Gloria Steinem to temper those positions and postures making them acceptable within society as a whole. For every Martin Luther King Jr. who brought the American civil rights movement into the mainstream of popular political thought & culture, there must be a Malcolm X to test the limits and push the boundaries when moderation of positions turns to appeasement of the powers that be. With the gay rights movement, it is no different. For those of us who already enjoy these rights and for those who are still to benefit from them, no matter what possible alienation it may cause, the radicalism of strategic essentialism is integral to the protection and advancement of these rights.
This post was originally posted on "That's How It Is"