In 1969, a landmark year in the history of LGBT political struggle in America (Stonewall Riots), the South African Immorality Act of 1957 which already infamously criminalized sex across colour lines, was amended to curtail the freedom of gay people. Word War II (1937-1945) had brought together “hundreds of thousands” of boys and girls from all over the country into “tightly knit camps” in urban areas – away from the watchful gaze of family members. “By the end of the war, there were gay and lesbian bars and cruising areas concentrated in the Joubert Park area of downtown Johannesburg”. This communal gay life, seems to have stayed active even under the oppressive Nationalist Party – which brought us the gifts of Apartheid law and Apartheid-era architecture among other things.
Until the Forest Town raid of 1966.
“Police had heard that a party for gay men was being planned in a quiet suburb of Johannesburg. Undercover agents posing as guests infiltrated the party where they were stunned to find more than 300 mostly white men dancing, kissing and cuddling each other. They called in a raid and made arrests. The scandal made headline news and sparked further undercover operations to find and round up suspected homosexual networks…“The Minister of Justice, P.C. Pelser, went so far as to warn parliament that the survival of the nation was at stake. Referring to the ghosts of ancient Rome and Sparta, he thundered [rather hysterically, I think]: ‘Formerly glorious civilizations are lying in the dust and South Africa should beware of a similar fate. The canker of Sodom has to be sliced out before it ruins the moral fibre of the nation.’“In 1967, Pelser submitted a proposal to parliament that would give policy sweeping new powers to crack down on homosexuals. A Select Committee on the Immorality Amendment Bill was then formed to study the issue and make recommendations. For over four months, the Committee heard conflicting evidence from a range of experts about the nature and extent of the homosexual threat. On the basis of these, it finally concluded that the state did indeed need greater ability to repress what it called ‘immoral, indecent or unnatural acts’.”
The Forest Town raid moved the white, mainly middle class gay community into action. One of the first gay groups in South Africa, the Homosexual Law Reform Fund (or Law Reform Fund) was started with the explicit aim of opposing the nasty legislation the Select Committee was cooking up. Alas, they failed – in 1969 the Immorality act was amended as follows:
Immorality Amendment Act of 19693. The following section is hereby inserted in the principal Act after section 20:
“Acts committed between men at a party and which are calculated to stimulate sexual passion or to give sexual gratification, prohibited.20A. (1) A male person who commits with another male person at a party an act which is calculated to stimulate sexual passion or to give sexual gratification, shall be guilty of an offence. (2) For the purposes of subsection (1) ‘a party’ means any occasion where more than two persons are present.(3) The provisions of subsection (1) do not derogate from the common law, any other provision of this Act or a provision of any other law.
Not all was lost though. In the decades following the Immorality Act of 1969, different gay groups and individuals emerged. There was high-drama, of course. Some wanted gay liberation but didn’t mind apartheid, some didn’t even want to struggle for that, they were happy to ‘feel the heat with somebody’ every other weekend. Other organisations took on a broader project of liberation – tackling both homophobia and racism at once. The history of LGBT political struggle in South Africa did not begin in the ’90s after SABC 2 started showing Will & Grace. The freedoms we now enjoy were not handed to us by mystery gays from the west. They were earned by many unnamed South African gays and lesbians who struggled for them. Some of them are even still alive, and still struggling for more freedom.
(Mostly) written from Epprecht, M. 2008. Unspoken Facts: a history of homosexualities in Africa. Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ)