South Africa has fielded at least six participants in the 10th Gay Games in Paris, joining more than 10,000 other LGBTQ people and allies from 91 nations.
The event, which ran from the 4th to the 12th of August, is said to be the biggest LGBTQ celebration of sport and culture, with the goal of sharing the values of “diversity, respect, equality and solidarity”.
Launched in 1982, the Games take place every four years in a new host country. The Paris event was slated to feature 36 sports and 14 cultural events as well as an academic conference on sports and diversity.
According to participant Hlengiwe Buthelezi, there were around half a dozen South Africans at the event, who hailed from Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town and George. The South Africans competed in athletics and, in addition to Buthelezi, included Bongani Nyathi, TJ van der Merwe and Dakin Parker.
Buthelezi, who is from KwaZulu-Natal, said that one of the highlights of the Games was the opening ceremony. She led the South African delegation onto the field of the Jean-Bouin Stadium while wearing traditional Zulu attire. The group waved the South African flag as thousands of spectators cheered them on.
Parker, a long distance runner, agreed that the opening ceremony was an unforgettable experience. He told Mambaonline that even though most of the South Africans hadn’t met before, the team spirit was “awesome.” He noted that, “while we were a small group, we packed a great punch. Team South Africa, ‘Afrique du Sud’, walked in second and the crowd really loved us.”
Bongani Nyathi and Hlengiwe Buthelezi
Parker was also struck by how countries that are antagonistic towards each on the world stage showed solidarity with one other at the Games. For example, when Mexico entered the stadium, the thousands-strong US contingent responded with a “huge, massive standing ovation.” Also, when the team from Russia, where LGBTQ people are being persecuted, walked in, the stadium rose up and gave a huge cheer. “It was beautiful to see. Within our community, we were all there together. It reminded me that our joint plight is far from over.”
Buthelezi had won, at the time of writing, an amazing six medals in the Games in a range of athletics events (including two golds, three silvers and one bronze). She told Mambaonline that, in addition to the sports, she participated in the Games to “build bridges” and to “educate society about the stigmas it has about gay people.”
Buthelezi was also in Paris to promote the AfroGames (of which she is the chairperson) that are set to take place in Durban from 9 to 14 December. That event is officially supported by the Federation of Gay Games.
Buthelezi revealed that she hopes to one day “bring the Gay Games to the continent to advocate for gay rights in other African states where it is still illegal or criminal to be gay.” South Africa previously submitted a historic bid for the Games to be hosted in Johannesburg in 2010, but narrowly lost out to Cologne, Germany. Cape Town recently sought to bid to host the 2022 Gay Games but failed to make it to the semi-final round.
“I think that the Gay Games is the best group thing that us as the LGBTQ tribe actually does,” said Parker. “It’s incredible: 10,000 to 15000 participants and a host city that welcomes us in, events happening all over the place… supporters… The logistics are incredible.” He added: “I felt support, community and cohesion this week that is often lacking in our day to day interactions with each other.”
In addition to the South Africans, there were a number of other African contestants in the Paris Gay Games. This included eight athletes from Uganda. Asked why so few South Africans take part, Buthelezi said that the challenges of getting to the Games include the high costs of travel and accommodation as well as the difficulties in “getting visas as an African, despite having all the required documents”.
Parker also believes that South Africa’s LGBTQ community lacks a real sense of community and camaraderie. Having lived in other countries like the US, he explained that compared to those nations we have few LGBTQ community sporting and cultural groups. “Those groups thrive in America,” he said.
“In South Africa I think we need more gay things,” Parker argued. “An LGBT running group, a gay choir, a lesbian golf league, a Pride Toastmasters… Even if one or two exist, there’s space for more. That’s the best way to meet like souls and to counter the app and tech-based digital spiral towards vacuous interactions. We need to stop rolling our eyes at Pride festivities and seek to come together more than to separate.”
The next Gay Games will be held in Hong Kong in 2022, becoming the first Asian city to host the event.