Bev Distie is a South African queer icon
How does one assess half a century of life? That’s what legendary queer activist, filmmaker and artist Beverley Palesa Distie is contemplating as they approach their 50th year. And they have a lot to look back on.
Ditsie, who was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Claremont Graduate University in California in 2019, has made their life one of firsts. Co-organising the first Pride march in Africa in 1990 and being the first black lesbian to address LGBTQ rights at the UN, among them.
Ditsie faced death threats for being visible at a time when it was unthinkable. And while they were surviving and changing the world, they also found time to make documentaries like 2001’s Simon [Nkoli] and I, appear in and direct reality TV series and music videos, and become a musician and singer. They even inspired the Boy George song Rainbow in the Dark.
Their passion and commitment to speaking truth to power have not waned. It’s evident in Ditsie’s voice and the way they speak; powerfully, with insight and intent. But they are determined to reframe the narrative; away from representing queer people as victims to highlighting our agency and the spaces and places where we thrive.
Ditsie is hosting a 50th birthday party on 20 November in Johannesburg to mark the occasion and to raise funds for their new foundation; it’s a way of celebrating the past while charting the way forward.
Ahead of the event, MambaOnline spoke to Ditsie about regrets, staying true to themselves, and what advice they’d give their 19-year-old self.
How do you feel about turning the big five-oh? Is it with some trepidation or with joy?
I feel like my life has just begun! Like I’m fully in my own skin and enjoying being alive. I am in awe of the fact that I’m still alive, to be honest. I remember I was talking to my accountant and she was asking about, you know, if I have a retirement annuity and those kinds of things that adults do. And my response was, being the activist that I am, I never thought I’d make it to 50. And so, I never thought of things like retirement and savings because I was living so day-by-day. And there are times where I would not get the job because I’m queer and out and loud. I’ve also had so many threats to my life that really seeing myself at 50 felt like a dream that was not attainable. So, you know, if you see me celebrating like a kid in a toy shop it’s because I’m just so happy to be here.
Do you think one of the reasons many of us in our generation didn’t think about getting older is because we never really had representations of older queer people around us?
I had seen older queer people but they looked like they were struggling. When they were gay men, they looked lonely. When they were women, they looked like they’d had a hard life. There’s a part of me that didn’t aspire to get older because I didn’t see any [older] representation of myself that was thriving, that was happy, that looked like there was joy in being alive, that looked well. Emotionally, psychologically, physically. And I kind of think I look well [Laughs]. I’ve worked through a lot of my issues. I’ve had lots of therapy to help me along.
Milestone birthdays like these are opportunities for reflection. If you look back at the last 50 years, what’s the one thing that you are most proud of?
Oh, I’m most proud of the fact that I stayed true to myself. I’m most proud that I did not allow society, family, conservatives and oppressive ideas of tradition and culture to take me away from me. That’s what I’m most proud of. I knew since a very early age that I was Bev, that I was different to the others around me. I questioned absolutely everything, and I would not let anyone tell me that I shouldn’t question. And even when they said there will never be an answer to that I continued to question. And I stayed true to me, through and through. Yes, of course, once in a while I tried to conform. But I would end up in not such a good place whenever I did.
And, if you have any, what would be your biggest regret?
I don’t think that I have many regrets. I regret maybe that I didn’t stay in music school. Because all I wanted was to be a musician. I mean, I’ve taught myself pretty much everything I know, including music. [But] I’d be a lot more on stage if I stayed in music school, I’d be a lot less insecure. It would [also] be about my relationships and my interactions with people, especially where I think I could have handled things better. Whether they be friends, whether they be ex-lovers, people I made promises to that I didn’t keep… It’s those kinds of things. But I’m a lot gentler with myself. I have forgiven myself a lot and I hope that you know, whoever I had hurt also has forgiven enough and knows enough to understand that sometimes as people we do what we feel we need to do. You know?
If you were able to go back in time, what would you say to the young teenage Bev at that very first Pride march in Johannesburg?
Oh, my God, I would say to them, please stop being so afraid! It’s going to be okay. I lived my life in fear. Obviously, justifiably! I lived in Soweto, in a township in a time when women were being gang-raped, left, right and center, and I was sticking out like a sore thumb. Not only am I light-skinned with funny eyes, but I’m also very butch and masculine-presenting. And so, I was targeted. But in terms of living life itself, I was afraid of life. I didn’t see what life would offer me and I didn’t see how I would navigate life. There are things I didn’t try because I was too afraid to try. There are people I didn’t dare to introduce myself to because I was too insecure and afraid. And it’s very interesting because I know that I didn’t present myself that way. People say, “You were so fearless.” But on the inside, I was terrified all the time. And so, I would tell little Bev to enjoy themselves a lot more. I would tell myself to have a lot more fun; loosen up, chill, it’s going to be okay.
And what do you think that same young Bev would think about where we are today in terms of queer rights and equality?
She would be proud of me. She would be proud of where we are! I look around and see the amount of queer content, queer people, queer entertainment, everything… You know, there were so few spaces when I was that young Bev. That young person didn’t really have many young black queer people around them. There were like five of us black lesbians that knew of each other. There wasn’t much diversity. It’s not even just racially but in terms of gender identity and expression. You were either butch or fem, and that was it. Finding myself in a DS relationship is incredible. The fact that that exists as a community right now is incredible. I have entertainers at my birthday party who are unapologetically, beautifully, flamboyantly queer! That was a dream. That young Bev would be looking at where we are now and going: “Yes, it’s possible to be queer, to thrive, to live, to be loved to feel safe. To feel like you belong somewhere. It’s possible.”
We’ve come so far but at the same time, as you know, 2021 has been particularly difficult for our community. What are your thoughts about the more than 20 murders of queer people this year alone?
I think there’s going to be a lot more, unfortunately. I feel like these are the last kicks of a dying horse. The patriarchy is dying. It’s fighting for its existence. And that is why the feminine is being subjugated in the way that it is. That is why there’s such a spike in women being attacked, women being abducted, queer people being murdered. It is because masculinity feels threatened. And so, I don’t think that we will be able to tackle this without tackling the root cause of it, which is about the patriarchy that’s trying to maintain itself. And of course, the more visible we are, the more of a threat we are. We are wonderful, we are beautiful. And everywhere you look now, you see us. A homophobe sees this and does not want this. This is a threat to them and their own feelings, however irrational those feelings are. We are a threat to the existence of a status quo that people cannot see life without. We expect government to do something but government itself is maintaining the same status quo. Why would they do anything?
How do you remain optimistic?
There are so many more of us at this point, we could actually start turning the tables. And when I say us, I include allies, I include people who get it. I include those people who understand that, in actual fact, patriarchy cannot sustain itself and it is a lie that is harming the world, and that we are here to balance the world. I see the changes, however small, however subtle. For me, they are very visible. As a result, I cannot but be in awe of where we are. And so, for that reason. I’m extremely optimistic.
What’s the idea behind the birthday event that you’re hosting?
It’s just a party! [Laughs] Can we be honest? I wanted to celebrate the fact that I’m 50 years old. I wanted to celebrate it in a way where I am the one that is embracing my own self rather than kind of waiting for somebody to throw a thing for me. Underlying that is the fact that I am announcing the Bev Ditsie Foundation. It’s apt that I turn 50 and start looking at my legacy and what I want to leave in the world, what I want that to look like, and being able to curate that while I’m still here.
Tell us about the Bev Ditsie Foundation.
I’m very focused on our mental well-being, as queer people. I would not have survived had I not had therapy. We are so broken and so beaten down and brutalised that we need whatever help that we can get. And being able to access therapy, being able to have a phone call that is free, where someone can call and say, “Hi, I’m in crisis. I’m about to end it…” And that’s what the foundation is going to focus on; toll-free helplines. And I would like to be able to support those that do exist. The other element of the foundation is to look at images that harm us, to look at how we are depicted. I am, after all, a filmmaker. And so, the foundation also wants to serve to focus on monitoring and responding to harmful images of us in the media. And to also create positive images! I would want to be able to have a third of this foundation look at and support queer content that is positive for us.
Where do you see your life going in the next 50 years? Is it a case of building on what you have achieved or is there a desire to make a huge life change?
I want to go back to my music. I have been and continue to be a professional backing vocalist with two different bands that have been absolutely amazing; toured the country, toured outside the country as a musician. And so, I’d love to see myself playing a lot more. There are three books in the works right now. There have been so many people that have been saying, “Where are the books?” The books are coming! So really, nothing major life-changing. I’m just going to be focused on creating the content that is part of my life’s mission, that is about us thriving. I don’t talk about lesbians being murdered anymore. I don’t talk about us being miserable. We can live. And I’d like to be able to celebrate that and have those who are not in similar situations know that it is attainable, that it is possible.
It sounds like you’re planning on keeping yourself busy.
I’m at a stage where I choose what I want to do, who I interact with, how I interact. I have family that I love, that loves me. I have a partner that loves me and that I love right back. I have friends. I have a home I’m blessed with. I have a community. I feel like every day is a prayer, every day is a thank you. God knew what they were doing when they put me here.
Bev Ditsie will celebrate their 50th Birthday with a fundraising gala dinner on Saturday 20 November at the Emoyeni venue in Parktown, Johannesburg. It will feature performances by the likes of Gyre, Delta The Leo and Sicka Star-ban. Tickets and sponsored tables are still available, so if you haven’t got yours yet, click here.