eSwatini’s first ever Pride offers hope for countries on the edge of a queer revolution

by Riyadh Khalaf | Author
Thursday, 7 March 2019 09:47 GMT

People wave Swaziland's flags as Swaziland's King Mswati III arrives for celebrations marking his 40th birthday and the country's 40th year of independence at the Somhlolo national stadium outside Mbabane September 6, 2008. FILE PHOTO/REUTERS: Siphiwe Sibeko

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Pride in eSwatini garnered positive headlines both in the country and around the world

Riyadh Khalaf is a YouTube Creator for Change and author of “Yay! You're Gay! Now What? A Gay Guy's Guide to Life”

Gay sex was illegal in Ireland until 1993. This automatically made me part of the first generation who were legally gay in the country. It was a time of change, but also led me to experience years of confusion and shame.

Why was I inflicted with such an awful “condition”, I used to think to myself.

Thankfully, venturing out to my first Pride in Dublin at age 16 in 2007 changed everything. I realised there was a community out there who loved me, they were good people and I was proud to be part of it.

Twelve years had passed and I now found myself venturing to the tiny southern African country of eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland), to document their first Pride march. This was going to be historic, this was going to make noise around the world and would change the lives of LGBT+ people who live there. That’s if it was allowed to go ahead.

Being gay and transgender in Swaziland even today isn’t easy. For starters, gay sex remains illegal and homosexuality is denounced as “satanic” by leading public figures.

According to the latest figures for 2016, the country has the highest rates of HIV and AIDS per capita in the world. To make matters worse, gay men attending clinics have been labelled as demonic by doctors, meaning many are too afraid to access vital medical attention.

As an ambassador for YouTube’s Creators for Change initiative, I had the opportunity to shoot a documentary about the struggle of LGBT+ people in Swaziland. The programme, which aims to create content focused on social change, allowed me and my crew to document the first ever Pride celebration in this tiny southern African country.

One of the most memorable encounters I had while travelling in eSwatini was with six young guys who saw our camera crew and came over to see what all the fuss was about.

I told them all about the Pride parade and they immediately recoiled, telling us how the king would never approve and that being gay was wrong across all levels exclaiming over and over that “gays are not welcome here”.

But what surprised me most about this chance encounter with these local boys was how open and willing they were to listen, to ask questions about what it’s like being gay and to challenge their own ingrained homophobia in the face of a real life gay person speaking sense to them.

After a mere 10 minutes or so, explaining that gay people aren’t sick, that you can’t “catch” gayness and that the parade won’t negatively affect them in any way, they went from being afraid and disgusted by me to shaking my hand and vowing to tell their friends what they had learned.

Pride in Swaziland may seem like a relatively small win for the global LGBT+ movement, but the true impact this event had is beyond belief.

A day before the event took place, the country’s national newspapers were still running anti-gay headlines with a strong homophobic sentiment, but the day after the march took place, the headlines were filled with celebration and elation over the positive international attention gained by this usually ignored nation.

The positive message also spread across the continent of Africa reaching activists in places like Kenya and Uganda, further motivating them to attempt a Pride of their own the following year.

If eSwatini can do it, then there is hope for the countless other countries on the edge of a queer revolution.