Jeff Parshley and Adam Bouska

I have to admit to feeling a little cynical about the NOH8 campaign until recently. Sure, it’s a great message – we all need less hate and more love in our lives. But that’s been the resounding call of pretty much every musician since the hippies took to the streets in the 60s, and I’m not sure it’s gotten us any closer to a place free from hate.

But the two founders of the campaign were in Cape Town for Cape Town Pride, and I was interested to meet them. Beneath the cynicism (is it just age?), I’m a complete softy and I wanted to hear the story of these two hate-busting homos who started a global movement. And make no mistake, NOH8 is a global movement.

They have half a million twitter followers and fans in every corner of the globe. They have travelled across the USA, Canada and Europe, and empowered countless people to participate. This was their first time in South Africa – though not their last, they are quick to tell me.

How did the NOH8 campaign start? In 2008, Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley were sitting in their living room in California. Their state had just passed Proposition 8, a constitutional amendment that explicitly banned same-sex marriage, and they wanted a way to express the powerlessness that they felt.

Adam, a photographer, taped his boyfriend’s mouth shut and photographed him with the words “NOH8” written on his cheek. It was intended as a message to share with their friends – neither of them, they say, were activists before all of this started.

That simple photograph has become the symbol of their campaign, rolling out to tens of thousands of people who ask to join in and be photographed themselves. Everyone who is photographed gets the tape and the message on their cheek. The reference to Prop 8 is obvious, and the colour of the 8 was chosen, Adam tells me, because red is the colour of love and passion.

California had silenced its gay community, and stripped them of their rights. “Civil rights,” Adam explains, “shouldn’t be up to a vote.”

It’s logic that I completely buy. Democracy is certainly the best form of government out there, but that doesn’t mean everything should be decided by popular vote. Human rights, for example, are above the whims of voting citizens and should trump all other law. Would South Africa have such a progressive Constitution if it were up to us citizens to decide on issues of human rights? Would gay marriage be legal?

Ricky Martin

If the cacophony of voices calling for the death penalty to be reinstated is anything to go by, we South Africans are far less liberal than our own Constitution. And minorities, by definition, cannot win elections.

The goal of the NOH8 campaign is to give a face to the people who are silenced by hateful laws. It is not politically driven, and the founders feel strongly that it should not become a party political issue. They see the battle for equality as something that can unite across political divides – it is about building a movement, and inspiring people to make their voices heard. They want people to make the campaign their own – bring their friends and families to be photographed and spread the message to anyone who will listen.

The idea is that the photographs will spark a conversation. Seeing your friend in a NOH8 photograph makes the victimhood relatable and human, and causes people to ask themselves if they know any others who are victims of homophobia. It inspired some to create their own photographs, and so far the butterfly effect has been massive, with over 30,000 people having come forward to be photographed by Adam so far. There is even an iPhone app for you to do it at home, complete with adjustable virtual tape and tattoo.

Social media has enabled the campaign’s success. It’s how the message has spread, how volunteers have found one another, and even how Cape Town Pride first came to hear of them.

Adam is passionate about NOH8 being socially driven. “Everyone has a circle of influence” he says, “It’s not just about celebrities. Start the conversation with your friends. Find support from those who care, be visible and proud and strong in your community.”
“Like an Arab Spring for gays?” I ask, and he laughs, but not in a way that makes me think he disagrees.

It’s a worthwhile cause, but is it working?

Adam feels quite strongly that it is. There is a wave of progressive reform sweeping across many governments. The current US President himself is a supporter of gay rights. But what impresses me the most is the support which NOH8 is receiving. A wonderfully diverse mix of people has come forward – gay and straight, black and white, young and old.

Jeff tells me that their youngest subject was seven days old; and their oldest was 92. You may recognise the names of some of their subjects. They produced a video with Mel B that aired in South Africa, and photographed Kim Kardashian, Cher, Rick Martin, Lady GaGa, Deepak Chopra, Miley Cyrus and Mariah Carey – among many others. On this trip our very own Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille was photographed for the campaign.

I ask Adam if he has any advice for us here in South Africa, and his response is immediate: “Don’t be complacent. Be vigilant and guard your rights. You have gay marriage here – we had it in California too.”

Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley with Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille

It’s an important point, and much bigger than gay marriage too. South Africa has a rape crisis that has caught the attention of the world. Many of our LGBT people still live very difficult lives, and we live in a continent where gay people are killed or imprisoned for who they are. Our complacency and smugness infuriate me. Our laws may be progressive, but South African society is not.

Our focus should be on supporting gay people in townships and rural areas, and in building an inclusive, proud sense of community and individual freedom.

The directors of Pride, also present at the interview, inform me that there will be another Cape Town Pride in Khayelitsha this year*, and I think it couldn’t come soon enough. I would really love it if the message of the NOH8 campaign made its way into these areas too – to those who most need to hear it.

If we are to become part of this global movement, we would do well to start at home. Mzansi needs a lot less hate, and we owe it to those suffering from discrimination to help them find their voice.

Adam and Jeff want us to take the campaign and make it our own. I’d say that means taking it beyond social media; and using it to connect in the real world. Our issue isn’t Proposition 8, after all – it’s a patriarchal and often violent society. And that requires standing together in shebeens, offices, homes and street corners too.

*Khayelitsha Pride will take place on the 18th of May.

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