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07/13/2012 / van berger

Gay pride in a ‘free’ nation

In a country that prides itself on freedom and diversity, LGBT rights are both an intriguing and controversial topic to blog about. Not only are there extreme divisions in opinion here, but the issue is also highly topical during an election year when President Obama publicly stated that he supports gay marriage, yet still leaves individual states to decide on the laws for themselves.

A few weekends ago D and I spent most of our waking hours walking around San Francisco enjoying the celebratory relaxed atmosphere of SF Pride. SF Pride is an annual event drawing thousands of people from around the country for a weekend of activism, acceptance and celebrating the LGBT community. The event commemorates the rebellion of LGBT patrons in a hotel in New York after a police raid in 1969. The weekend was a great opportunity to see the liberal ‘free’ side of the city (SF is known as the gay capital of the USA) and we got more than our fair share of seeing interesting diverse characters over the two day event. While walking around the ‘Mission’ we stumbled across groups of people- young and old and dressed up in feathers, leather, gay pride rainbow colours, or wearing nothing at all. They were all headed in the same direction and so we decided to follow them (although we felt pretty damn boring in our plain clothes!). They were all headed towards the famous ‘Mission Dolores Park’ which we’d wanted to see anyway. After a walk up another hill, we were met with a hype of activity: DJ’s playing thumping loud music, people sitting under rainbow-coloured umbrella’s and flags, women and men partaking in water wrestling matches, naked people floating around & dancing, the overwhelmingly strong smell of pot, gay/lesbian families eating lunch and bare-breasted woman enjoying the sunshine – all perched on a hill overlooking a un-usually clear San Francisco bay. We found out that the party was the pre-event for the annual ‘Dyke march‘ being held in the area later that day. Later that afternoon we also visited Castro, an area famously known as being the ‘gay suburb” of the city, and where Harvey Milk is commemorated. (read about him further down in this blog post). We passed by a few more old naked men, some very tanned guys wearing only underpants or thongs and restaurants with names like ‘The Sausage Factory’. All in the spirit of the Castro I say!

The full SF Pride parade followed the next day where busy downtown streets were blocked off and thousands of San Franciscans and tourists gathered to watch companies like Facebook, Bank of America, and NGO’s show their support for the cause. It started off with men and woman on motorbikes racing past (some of them wearing nothing-surprise surprise!) and continued for quite a few hours with an array of paraders – drag queens, a whole group of men & women wearing the most amazing balloon costumes (see pic), historic street cars covered in pride coloured ribbons, gay police officers, christians in support of gay people, the military you name it – they were there.

Read more about SF Pride here:

SF Pride

Above: Some shots I got on our busy weekend at SF Pride. Lots of dress up going on! 

San Francisco (like South Africa’s Cape Town) is known as the gay capital of the country and has been for some time. It has one of the largest LGBT populations in the United States. Many believe this popularity dates way back to the Second World War when many gay soldiers were rejected, thrown out and dispatched by the US Navy at various ports of the city. With a collection of tolerant people in the area, many people decided to stay. Others decided it was a ‘safe’ place to be who they really were and moved here.

Harvey Milk is known as ‘The Mayor of Castro Street’ and is celebrated as a hero in SF. He was the first openly gay elected official to win support for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Sadly he was murdered in 1978. However, his legacy continues to  live on in the Castro district and he continues to inspire residents to speak out for gay rights. There is a great movie about him that I can recommend called ‘Milk’. While SF remains gay-friendly, the high price of living in the city is making it harder for families to afford the rent and living expenses that the city demands.


Above: A very interesting interactive info graphic of how the laws are divided in the USA. Source: The Guardian 

Here’s the interactive version which you should definitely open in a new tab now…
The chart shows the laws around gay rights from state to state. On the chart you’ll see opposing states like California and Alabama with contrasting laws around adoption, discrimination policies for gay people. California might appear quite liberal compared to many other places, but gay marriage is still not recognised. There was a period (very short!) where it was legal in 2008, but when Proposition 8 was passed marriage  between gay people was prohibited. Marriages that had licenses granted before Proposition 8 are still recognised by the state. Domestic partnerships are legal which allow for state-level rights, but not on a federal level.

With the election race in full swing now, Obama came out with his support of the gay community perhaps a little too late. His statement included the following phrase:

“At a certain point I just concluded, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

He shared this on a pretty big news channel in an interview that was only a few days after the Vice-President publicly gave his vote of support. While many have seen this as courageous during the election year, others have felt that it was long overdue if he had felt this way during his entire time in office. At the same time, Obama has contributed to improving gay couples’ civil rights and allowed gay people to serve openly in the US military during his time as President. Before 2011 there was a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy which prohibited people in the military from discussing their gay relationships, families or sexual orientation. His choice to come out with this kind of public statement has spurred on many of Romney’s conservative supporters, but at the same time may have reinforced Democratic supporters votes. Whatever the consequences, this certainly is an interesting time to be living in this country!

Above: President of South Africa: Jacob Zuma at an ANC rally event, Obama openly shows his support for gay marriage earlier this year. (Source left:, source right: The Guardian 

I was proud to discover that despite our complicated history, South Africa was the fifth country in the world (and the first in Africa) to legalise same-sex marriage in 2006. It was also one of the first to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Partners are allowed to adopt, regardless of their sexual orientation. However, during Apartheid, we were right up there with the rest of the world – homosexuality was considered a crime punishable up to 7 years in prison. During the 1970’s the apartheid government even started a system whereby ‘treatments’ were put in place for white gay and lesbian people (including sex changes).

As per usual things on the surface (and paper) may seem a hell of a lot better in SA today compared to areas in the US. However, there are still major issues regarding discrimination and the treatment of LGBT people in South Africa. Many lesbian women in poorer communities are raped in an ‘effort’ to change their sexual orientation in SA. Looking northwards to the rest of Africa, things are even more depressing. Many African countries seem to think that it’s okay for women to be in relationships with other women, but it’s a no-go area for men (Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, Seychelles, Zambia).

There’s a really great blog post by an extraordinary South African feminist and my good friend, Jen Thorpe which celebrates gay couples getting married in New York, yet reminds us of how dire the situation is in our beloved continent. It’s definitely worth a read (as are the rest of her blog posts, she’s one smart lady!)

In the words of Jen:
You and I know that when you love someone, there is not much than convince you that you can stop. Love goes beyond the power of law, and beyond the power of dictators, oppressors and fools.”

Let’s just hope some of these idiots in power realise this.

As you will have read in my experience of SF Pride, you will have noticed a common trend: Naked people! Not surprisingly it’s legal in this city. While being ‘without clothes’ here is not considered a crime, engaging in lewd conduct, or being naked while aroused is a different story. Not everyone seems to be happy about the ‘bare all attitude’ and there’s been a proposal discussed that requires naked people to place a garment or barrier between themselves and a seat when in public. They would also need to wear something before entering a restaurant. (To me this makes hygienic sense!) San Francisco is not known as the warmest city in America (even in summer) so it’s pretty interesting how many people opt the no-clothes route. Read more about that here.

Above: A protest in the Castro area promoting nudity. Source:

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