Stories of Courage and Survival Screened for IDAHOT 2014
International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) is observed annually on 17 May. Commemorating the World Health Organisation's decision to remove homosexuality from the International Classification of Diseases, IDAHOT has become as much a celebration of sexuality and gender diversity as it is a rallying call in the continuing fight against injustice. Over the last decade the day has grown in scope and depth, and it is now one of the most visible expressions of global solidarity in the fight against homophobic violence, persecution and discrimination. Here in South Africa the event has become one of the most important dates on the LGBTI activism calendar, with organisations across the country not only mobilising for positive change but also reflecting on past struggles and victories.
This year, GALA partnered with the Alliance Française and the French Embassy to host an evening of film and conversation as well as to launch A Different Fight for Freedom, a six-panel exhibition exploring the historical struggle for LGBTI rights in South Africa.
The evening was conceived as a celebration of the courage and determination of LGBTI South Africans to live freely and openly, while at the same time drawing attention to the social, economic and political barriers that continue to undermine our quest for social justice. The evening was an exciting opportunity for GALA to share some of its recent work with the community, with over eighty people attending the event.
The film programme included the French documentary Foot for Love, which records the journey of the predominantly lesbian Thokozani Football Club to Paris, and a selection from My Life, My Story, My Terms: Queer Women from Alex Speak Out, GALA’s latest digital story project.
My Life, My Story, My Terms emerged from a 2013 workshop in which twelve lesbian and bisexual women came together to discuss their personal experiences of discrimination and violence. The final digital stories not only capture the women's personal journeys, they also open up an important reflective space – both for the viewer and the storyteller – to consider what it means to be a black lesbian or bisexual women in contemporary South Africa.
In introducing the life stories, GALA's Lihle Tshabalala noted the importance of this and similar projects in the fight against sexuality-motivated violence.
'Combating the horror of violence is one of our main priorities as a movement,' Tshabalala said, 'but this cannot happen without documenting and understanding what is going on. These digital stories offer a way to do this, but perhaps more importantly they offer a way for these women to tell their stories in their own words.'
My Life, My Story, My Terms is the latest in a long line of life story projects undertaken by GALA. As an archival and cultural organisation, GALA is committed to preserving the histories and stories of LGBTI people on the continent. But My Life, My Story, My Terms is unique in a number of ways: it is the first of GALA's digital story projects to focus specifically on issues of violence and discrimination, and it also intentionally explores the complex process of negotiating a black lesbian or bisexual identity.
Digital story project such as this one are crucial tools in the fight against homophobia and transphobia, both in terms of awareness raising and individual empowerment. For GALA director Anthony Manion, digital stories also provide important opportunities for direct advocacy.
'As with all of the work that GALA undertakes, this project is linked specifically to broader advocacy campaigns,' he explained. 'The digital stories, all of which offer powerful insights into how these women understand and experience their sexuality, aim to produce positive change for LGBTI people. Projects such as this allow for greater understanding of the challenges facing lesbian and bisexual women, and also help to challenge widespread myths and misconceptions.'
The IDAHOT screening was followed by a brief discussion in which people could share their thoughts on the films as well as reflect on their personal experiences. Audience member Rahiem Whisgary praised the participants for their courage and resilience.
'Many people's knowledge of lesbian experiences, particularly those of rape and assault, is mediated through the mainstream media and so it is important for us all to hear about these women's lives – both the positive and negative aspects – in their own words,' he said. 'Sharing such deeply personal narratives is not easy and these women must be applauded for their refusal to stay silent or hidden.'
By showcasing the digital stories alongside the exhibition, the event encouraged those present not only to remember the long, courageous and sometimes painful story of LGBTI people in South Africa but also to reflect on the continuing struggle for justice and equality. For GALA, it is this mix of celebration and anger, this invitation to reflect on our struggles both past and present, that makes IDAHOT such an important occasion.
The My Life, My Story, My Terms project would not have been possible without the generous support of the Foundation for Human Rights and the French Embassy's Civil Society Development Fund.