The long battle for acceptance by Johannesburg’s gay, lesbian, intersex and transgendered residents is told through the exhibition, Joburg Tracks.
MICHELE Bruno was born in Johannesburg in 1941 to parents of Italian heritage. By the age of 18, he was already one of Joburg’s more prominent hairdressers and the city’s most well-known drag artist.
A story of one of the subjects of the exhibitionA story on one of the subjects of the exhibitionVisitors to Museum Africa’s third level east concourse can follow the story of his tumultuous life and career through Joburg Tracks, an exhibition that traces the history of homosexuality in Johannesburg. The subject of the exhibition is eight lesbian, gay and transgendered people, namely: Edgar Dlamini and Emile – these are pseudonyms – Mary Louw, Bruno, Paul Mokgethi, Phumi Mtetwa, Shay McLaren and Vanya Maseko.
“[The exhibition] tells the story of the city from a different perspective and shows the way that ‘gay experience’ is part of the very fabric of Johannesburg. The exhibition itself represents the city of Johannesburg … walk through it, following the tracks of each participant as they converge and intersect,” reads a poster at the entrance of the concourse.
Joburg Tracks includes personal items like an undergarment, a book, a tie, photographs donated by gay, lesbian and transgendered people and tells of their struggle with HIV/Aids, social acceptance and religion.
The exhibition represents the city of Johannesburg … walk through it, following the tracks of each participant. See video
Zola Mtshiza, the curator of exhibitions at Museum Africa, says the subject of Joburg Tracks is contentious. “It explores the conflict between nature and humanity … It is a very broad and thick topic to discuss because of the stereotypes that exist.”
Mtshiza says at the time of putting it up, it was met by resistance – “people saying what are we teaching schoolchildren. But I feel it’s not explicit, it just depicts people from childhood and how they discovered themselves.”
Miss Gay South Africa
Bruno was the first Miss Gay South Africa and visitors to the exhibition can read more about his life as a hairdresser, first in the inner city and then in the northern suburbs and his struggle for acceptance in a society, a large part of which still views homosexuality as taboo.
There is also a snippet of news about his arrest by apartheid police for impersonating a woman.
“I envy gays now because it’s just so acceptable. In my day I was lucky to do hairdressing, a career where I could sort of be myself. But at the same time I knew not to go over the top,” Bruno says in one of his exhibits.
Mtshiza says the exhibition will be on display indefinitely. “It’s a long term exhibition … a very fascinating exhibition.”
However, he refuses to define it narrowly simply about homosexuality, rather pointing out: “These are the feelings of people and their metamorphosis in life.”
The museum chose to host it because it was the first of its kind. “Our procedure entails accepting any proposals and gauging if they feed the criteria. With this one it was like boom, ‘Let’s host it’ but we have thought about the public reaction and the sensitivity to it,” he explains.
“The bottom line is we are a social history museum and this is part of telling that social history.”
The exhibition is supported by Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala), a not-for-profit organisation that documents the lives and histories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in South Africa.
Gala has an archive at the William Cullen Library at Wits University in Braamfontein.
Wencesslous Maseko was born in Diepkloof Extension, in Soweto in 1985. In the exhibition, he tells of how he changed his name to Vanya and his gender at the age of 17, after two years of assessments and therapy with a psychiatrist.
On exhibition the lives of eight lesbian, gay and transgendered peopleOn exhibition the lives of eight lesbian, gay and transgendered peopleMaseko was raped more than once after changing his sexual orientation. Visitors can read about how he struggled with social acceptance, and yet ultimately triumphed. He is now an accountant and undergoing hormonal treatment.
Louw was born in 1972, the youngest of five children in the coloured township of Westbury. As a young mother, Louw struggled with her homosexuality. Later, she became an activist of lesbian and gay issues. She has received several awards in recognition of her civic activism.
“I was always involved when it comes to strikes. I stand strongly for what I believe in life and I am prepared to die for my beliefs. The same thing happens in the gay and lesbian community. My political upbringing has influenced the way I live my life,” Louw is quoted as saying in one of the exhibits.
Mtetwa was born in KwaThema on the East Rand in 1973. She runs the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project and lives in Westdene where she has created a social home for gays and lesbians.
“Now I have my own home which works both as a social and a personal space. I am trying to make a space for people to meet and be themselves. It’s so much easier to claim your rights out in the world if you have a safe and affirming space to come home to,” one of her exhibits reads.
McLaren was one of the first women to live openly as a lesbian in Johannesburg. She was a leader of the Law Reform movement of the late 1960s, set up to fight anti-gay legislation and is well-known for the gay themed songs she writes and performs at parties.
“I have lived to see this happen. Back then, I never imagined that things could change and that gay rights would be achieved in South Africa. I have seen and counselled people struggling with the changes that the Constitution has brought. For many it is not easy. But it is important that we now have a Constitution that recognises us and all our differences.”
McLaren says she is still fighting the stigma around homosexuality. “Still, I’ve never been able to go to a Gay Pride march. I’m worried that it might cause problems for my partner, who is not out as a lesbian, although we’ve been together for over 30 years,” she says in one of her exhibits.
Dlamini was born to a polygamous father in 1934. He began sexual exploration as a young herd boy in KwaZulu-Natal, before his family relocated to Johannesburg when he was 10 years old.
Because of family custom, he got married and had five children. However, he met Phil, another married man who became his “life partner”. They have been together for more than 40 years while they remain married to their female partners. They are now in their 70s and see each other occasionally.
“This life is wonderful, but sometimes it hurts. You live with your wife, but you are involved with someone else who you are devoted to. You would not even be able to sleep next to your wife because you are thinking of your lover. Your concentration becomes divided, so you need to deep room for disappointment,” he explains in one of the exhibits.
Joburg Tracks deals with a common thread, showing how homosexual people have been subjected to prejudice because of their sexual orientation.
“I gave myself female names,” says Maseko. “Publicly, I use Vanya. It’s a blonde name – not heavy. But at home I am Azania. I choose that name because it states that regardless of who I am, I am still a child of Africa, a child of the soil.”
A song by Shay McLaren A song by one of the subjects of the exhibitionMtshiza thinks the exhibition will help demystify stereotypes that society has of homosexuals.
“It will take a long time, the stereotypes are going to exist for a long time to come, and it’s the dynamics of life. Fortunately, South Africa champions the rights of homosexuals. I think the question now is at which level does one need to teach this kind of life to schoolchildren, but the museum is playing its role to educate the community,” he explains.
For more information about the Gala collections or to speak to the organisation about contributing your own material to the archives, contact Anthony Manion at Anthony.Manion@wits.ac.za, telephone 011 717 1963 / 4239.
Joburg Tracks is at Level 3 East, Museum Africa, at 121 Bree Street, Newtown. To book a tour, telephone 011 833 5624 or fax 011 833 5636; alternatively send an email to email@example.com. Entrance to the museum is free. It is open from Tuesdays to Sundays, from 9am to 5pm. It is closed on Mondays, Good Friday, Christmas Day and Day of Goodwill.
Learn how the world was made
Telling of Joburg’s firsts
A snapshot of the Bensusan
Exhibition looks at healing
Artists explore liberation
From shack to homestead
Discover your city
Joburg: art, culture and heritage