The other day I was lying on the beach, drifting in and out of sleep in the glorious sunshine and generally feeling quite smug about the life decisions I have made that have landed me – and kept me – in Cape Town for the past three years. I was lying very close to my boyfriend, with my hand resting on his forearm. It was far from pornographic, but it was the kind of easy proximity and obviously-gay affection that I would only be comfortable with in Cape Town.

Far from the names I’ve had hurled at me in the Eastern Cape and not all that far – but culturally light years away – from being heckled in Stellenbosch, it’s not the kind of thing we worry about in Cape Town. No one even notices when a couple on the beach is a gay couple. So I found it quite interesting when my boyfriend and a friend of ours who has just returned from ten years in London began arguing about whether Cape Town deserves its title as one of the gay capitals of the world.

It’s a fairly well known title. Cape Town, so the story goes, is right up there with Sydney, San Francisco and London as one of the best places to live and visit as a gay man. And yet our friend, annoyed and incredulous, pointed out that we barely have any gay clubs here. There are a handful of them in Green Point, but they are being driven out by gentrification and development so that what was once a massive strip is now just one little block surrounded on all sides by new offices and shops.

The bars and clubs that remain are all quite similar, and are essentially just regular night spots that happen to have a majority of gay patrons. They do not exude “gay culture”, our friend lamented, in the way that Soho in London does. Intrigued to hear that he believed there was such a thing as gay culture, I pressed him to explain what it meant to him. The answer was woefully stereotypical: drag queens, hot pants, show tunes, topless Muscle Marys and house music.

My usual response would be to chastise him for thinking those tastes and lifestyles typify the gay experience. There are plenty of gay accountants, and gay men who are slightly overweight and gay men who only listen to hip hop – and none of them are any less a part of “gay culture” than the vocal and bright. I would also normally wax lyrical about the dangers of self-ghettoising and believing that gay people need to hang out in gay venues to validate themselves. But intellectual debates about prescriptive culture actually obscure the point. I’ve been to Soho, and it’s a lot of fun. That brand of camp that he mentioned is all over London and, judging by the movies I’ve seen, all over Sydney too. It is rare in Cape Town. Aside from some feather boas and drag nights at Beefcakes, there is very little of that culture influencing any of our clubs or bars. Why is that?

“Maybe Cape Town became so accepting because everyone is too laid back to bother getting puritanical…”

“They’re imported stereotypes!” another friend declared. “They have no relevance in South Africa.” Perhaps that kind of culture was only necessary at a certain point in history, I hypothesised, and gay people are now integrated enough into mainstream culture not to have to construct a distinct collective identity for defensive purposes. When we can be ourselves wherever we are, why do we need special places all of our own? The shrinking of the Green Point strip isn’t the death knell of Gay Cape Town; it is a sign that gay Capetonians are ordinary, and everywhere. I looked up at the people on the beach and felt completely satisfied that I was right – it was a completely mixed view of gay people and straight people and no one seemed to mind one little bit.

But my friend was not buying the integration story. First off, South Africa has a horrific problem with corrective rape, and integration into mainstream society has happened only in a tiny liberal bubble. That bubble may be the Cape Town that tourists see but it is not the reality for most of us. Despite our amazing history of triumph over Apartheid and inclusion by visionary leaders who recognised that gay rights are human rights, the predominant culture in South Africa is still patriarchal, aggressive and macho. You seldom see pop icons openly embracing camp culture or participating in gay festivals (Tannie Evita doesn’t count).

And gay areas are not a bad thing, my friend continued. Wherever gay tourists go in the world, they look for the gay area to go out in. It’s good for tourism, and it’s good for us to be able to be ourselves and learn to stop relying on others for our self-respect. It’s not about excluding anyone: straight people are welcome to go out in our gay venues, but it’s on our terms, not theirs.

That does happen to a certain extent in Cape Town. Loads of straight people flock to MCQP every year, and the festival is no doubt one of the reasons we made it onto the world’s gay capitals list in the first place. I have straight girl friends who love the Green Point strip, too. But we are a long way from straight men choosing to hang out there, basking in the glow of alternative world views and a bit of playful camp music.

So how did we earn this status as a gay capital? To borrow wildly from stereotypes again, it could be the lavish abundance of high society possibility: from infinity pools overlooking the best views in the world, to wine bars and caviar, to an ever-generous modelling industry that lathers our streets with beautiful men. It could be the creativity of the city that draws artsy crowds, hipsters and armies of gays who work in media. But at the end of the day, I think it’s just about feeling accepted and free to do whatever we want. Maybe Cape Town became so accepting because everyone is too laid back to bother getting puritanical.

Sure, we may not have as many clubbing options as a city like London, but that is purely a symptom of our size and what we do have is increasingly diverse. There are leather bars and sex clubs and trance floors and karaoke. And gay culture is not purely nocturnal. We have a climate that would shame London and San Francisco, and an al fresco gay culture to go with it: weekend brunches and cocktails by the beach.

Part of what makes Cape Town such a great city for gay people is that we can go almost anywhere in the city centre without feeling unwelcome. We can enjoy outdoor living and indulge in the arts. And if our “gay culture” is not as cabaret as some would like, perhaps that’s because we are a very different country from the others on that list. And I for one think our culture is all the more interesting for not being another bland Western knock-off. South African, or Capetonian gay cultures and subcultures are probably still finding their feet. I look forward to seeing our own nuances and idiosyncrasies grow, and think we offer the gay resident or tourist so much more than Liza Minnelli.

Do you believe that Cape Town is a true gay capital or is its tolerance limited to small ‘elite’ areas in the city? Tell us what you think below.

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