Gauteng’s lesbian and gay community took to the streets of Johannesburg on Saturday to celebrate the 16th Annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. Described by many as one of the best organised, most well attended, most representative, and successful to date, it was however marred by a bottle-throwing incident.

The incident, which resulted in a lesbian participant being seriously hurt during the Gay Pride parade has been strongly condemned by the Pride Committee, organisers and by the Forum for the Empowerment (FEW), a non-profit empowerment and support organisation for black lesbians, whose float the victim was travelling on.

It is unclear at this stage whether the incident was an indiscriminate act of aggression or if it was a hate crime aimed at the FEW float, the only overtly political float on the march, which carried placards proclaiming “Same sex marriage is African”, “Viva same sex marriage, viva”, “I am a very traditional woman, that’s why I support same-sex marriage” and “Equality in marriage is one step to real liberation”. The float though was subjected to a range of hate speech along the route from onlookers.

“If this was indeed a hate crime, this kind of homophobic intolerance is not singular to Lesbian and Gay Pride, or to Johannesburg City; it’s just more visible because of the media attention around Pride,” said Donna Smith, CEO of Forum for the Empowerment of Women.

“It’s ironic that FEW’s mandate involves a campaign called “the Rose has Thorns” for black lesbians who are victims of hate crimes and our involvement in Pride has always been a forum through which we can provide black lesbian visibility,” said Donna Smith. “If the media were to cover every hate crime against a black lesbian, when she is raped because of her sexual identity in one of the townships, it would be a daily occurrence,” she said.

This year’s theme of the Pride parade was Sweet 16 – the right to be, the freedom to express and was moved back to the inner city where the first march took place under apartheid rule. Johannesburg Metro Police were quoted as saying that there were far more participants than they had anticipated.

“It was decided at a public consultative forum by the Pride advisory committee to take the march back to the inner City to give the route greater significance by linking key historical, political and cultural venues, and because the City was paying for all the services such as Metro Police and SAPS,” said Donna Smith. “The Heartlands were providing the entertainment and kindly paid for the indemnity and public liability and was a further reason for holding it in the inner city,” she said.

“The fact is, a piece of irresponsible behaviour can symbolically indicate the continuation of aggression shown towards gays and lesbians both within some sections of our community and on our immediate borders”, said Tim Trengove Jones, columnist for EXIT newspaper and a well-known writer on gay issues in SA. “That symbolically understood, however sad, it is a necessary indication to those, both gay and not so, that any smug reassurance vested in the constitutional protection we are afforded should be questioned very powerfully. As such, the incident itself, sad as it is, potentially lethal as it was, is a demonstration of the need for a counter-demonstration such as Pride provides,” he said.

“This is tragic reminder that after 10 years of democracy as lesbian and gay people we still cannot freely celebrate on the streets of South Africa,” said Melanie Judge, programme manager at OUT in Pretoria. “Incidents of this kind reflect the ongoing victimisation of Lesbian and Gay people: a trend which was revealed in the research findings which were presented by OUT during Lesbian and Gay Pride Heritage Week,” she said.

“No amount of broken bottles are going to stop us from claiming our right to human dignity and equality,” said Melanie Judge.

Tanya Harford, event organizer of the Pick ‘n Pay 94.7 Cycle Challenge and the 702 Walk the Talk, who is also a member of the Pride advisory committee said: “All planning was passed by the City of Joburg and a full event plan was submitted to the City Joint Operations Committee, who endorsed the event. The Pride march is an important date on the LBGT calendar, and that the Parade is supported by the community. I have had a number of phone calls from people that took part in the Parade and they have been very supportive of the March and the wonderful atmosphere during the March and at the Finish at the Heartlands”.

Lesbian and Gay Pride Heritage Week Co-ordinator, Paul Tilly said:”Despite the fact that since 1994, Parliament and the Courts have passed over 30 laws which include protection and recognition for Lesbian and Gay people, we still experience discrimination in the home, the community and the workplace.

“It was this kind of intolerance and discrimination against the gay community in Greenwich village in New York in 1969 which led to the Stonewall riots, and then, a year later in commemoration the world’s first Gay Pride rally,” said Paul Tilly. ”This type of incident only serves to enforce the need for a Pride parade. It is only by eradicating all forms of social and legal discrimination and by building a fair and equal society for all can we then truly celebrate our freedom and our democracy.”

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