In the wake of the Pride Month backlash, social justice and human rights activist Sikhander Coopoo writes that we cannot underestimate the power of each voice to promote inclusivity.
June is acknowledged as a month of protest, remembrance and celebration around the world.
In South Africa, it is marked as Youth Month, commemorating the massacre of youth from Soweto who peacefully mobilised and protested against the apartheid education system in 1976. It led police to open fire, brutally murdering young people. By the end of that year, about 575 South Africans had been killed.
Seven years earlier, in 1969, police brutality against queer people in the United States also led to days of protests and violent clashes. The Stonewall Uprising in New York City changed the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights worldwide.
The Stonewall Uprising is commemorated globally as LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, with activities such as marches, memorial services, parades, parties, gatherings, conferences and concerts; with millions flocking to partake in these events.
Superficial Support: Businesses and the Pink-Washing of Pride Month
And millions of people gathering at events means millions in potential revenue. Rainbow flags and even pink symbology, originating in Nazi concentration camps and reclaimed by the queer community as a means of empowerment, are targeted for exploitation, leaving many to argue that businesses primarily celebrate Pride Month to “pink-wash” for public relations and profit without intending to bring about meaningful change.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen many South African companies and organisations pay mere lip service to the queer community during Pride with some simply changing their logo to Pride colours and making a few social media posts. Should we not expect more from businesses and civil society where millions are pumped into social cohesion, civic education and corporate social responsibility programmes that end up having very little or no impact?
We also need to question the role of our religious bodies who preach peace, love and unity; yet have so many devout homophobic and transphobic followers who spew hate and intolerance. (Whereas many of our Sangomas have taken a firm stance and joined the fight against the killing of queer people.)
Leading by Example: Companies Going Beyond Symbolism to Support the LGBTQIA+ Community
Despite pink-washing efforts, it seems that some businesses like Vodacom, Woolworths and Mercedes-Benz are willing to go a step further. Vodacom, for example, has an LGBTQIA+ employee network that supports equity and diversity inclusion in the workplace, gender-neutral restrooms, inclusive employee policies, education campaigns, an events and celebrations calendar and an e-mail signature toolkit with preferred pronouns.
Mercedes-Benz also has an LGBTQIA+ employee network with a business resource group; and campaigns for the queer community inside and outside of the company. In both instances, Pride isn’t only in June but throughout the year.
This past Pride Month, Woolworths trended on social media for its ‘Be an ally’ campaign, which is part of its broader inclusive justice programme, with a portion of the revenue generated donated to LGBTQIA+ organisations. The resulting backlash against Woolworths was in part focused on a Pride-branded hat, t-shirts, socks and a bag. These items of adult wear got conservatives frothing at the mouth. They somehow equated this to the “targeting of children”, “going against the moral fibre of society” and an “attack on good family values.”
This is the formula conservative South Africans used to call for and justify a boycott of Woolworths. They made ignorant and shameful claims of attempts to “groom” and “sexualise children” into becoming queer; despite the campaign not featuring children in any of its displays or advertising material. If you choose to boycott a business, do it for the right reason and not a hateful and ignorant one.
Progressive voices spoke out against the intense hate by vocalising their support for the queer community. This voice of support also manifested and pushed back against an obscure Western Cape politician who took to social media and threatened to re-paint Cape Town’s rainbow pedestrian crossing. In response, drag queen Stella Rose proudly walked over the rainbow crossing and defiantly stood in protest against his hate.
Countering Hate: The Importance of Progressive Voices and Societal Change in Promoting Inclusion
The hate directed towards queer people isn’t new but very little is done by government, businesses, religious bodies and civil society to counter it. In as much as we need progressive laws to prevent and combat hate crimes and hate speech, we also need a societal change of heart.
The Woolworths boycott demonstrated how effectively one voice in a WhatsApp group can tap into the fears that so many have toward those of us who are perceived as different. We must stop using heteronormative, religious and cultural practices as excuses to discriminate and cause harm to queer people.
International Pride in June and South African Pride in October are moments to gauge our society’s reaction to queer people and to gauge how safe a gay child is in our democratic society. It is a reminder that even with our progressive laws, our lived realities tell us that we are still deeply conservative, homophobic and transphobic and not much different from other societies that criminalise and even kill queer people.
Just recently, an online user commented on a Gender and Sexuality Alliance of East London’s Facebook post: “We will kill any LGBTQIA member in our community”. In response to an ENCA article titled, “LGBTQIA+ under attack during Pride Month”, another online user commented: “How I wish to go on a gay serial killing spree. One day is one day.”
These are just two examples of the kind of hate queer people experienced during International Pride Month 2023. If a referendum was held tomorrow, would you lend your voice to make South Africa safer and inclusive or will your voice be added to the fuel of hate? As the saying goes, “Be careful who you hate. It could be someone you love.”
Pride Month and Youth Month show that we have the tall shoulders of people like Hector Pieterson and Marsha P Johnson to stand on, confirming once again that one voice can make all the difference. Use yours to stop the hate.
Sikhander Coopoo is a black, queer, Muslim intersectional feminist with backgrounds in gender, pedagogy and local governance. He is a social justice and humxn rights activist at heart. Sikhander serves on the Gender and Sexuality Alliance of East London committee and writes in his own capacity.