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Prismatic Performances: Queer South African Identity and the Deconstruction of the Rainbow Nation

  • Author(s): Sizemore-Barber, April
  • Advisor(s): Cole, Catherine
  • et al.

At a time of increasing legislative homophobia on the African continent, South Africa stands out for its intentional inclusion of sexual orientation into its constitution, making gays and lesbians central to its self-conception as a united, Rainbow Nation. Yet the metaphor of the Rainbow Nation is increasingly used to paper over corruption and inequality and to stifle dissent. This dissertation uses the paradoxical position of gays and lesbians within contemporary South African society--protected legally and yet the victims of continuing violence and homophobia--as an entry point for understanding contradictory enactments of post-apartheid citizenship and belonging. I argue that queer bodies in national space take on a prismatic function, breaking this meta-narrative into its composite parts and creating space to view discontinuities and gaps. Drawing on diverse methodologies, I examine the "queering" of varied public spaces through drag performance, everyday embodiments, photography, choreography, and television soap opera fandom. In each prismatic performance, normative conceptions of space, culture, and tradition are reconfigured and refracted to reveal the constructedness of "being South African." Situated at the intersection of performance, sexuality, and Africana studies, this dissertation makes an intervention in disciplinary gaps in each field, arguing that local expressions of queer identity provide a window into the ambiguities of the post colony and into the critical potential of performativity in debates on national identity more generally.

Following an introductory chapter that frames the dissertation's animating questions through a number of recent clashes at Johannesburg's annual Gay Pride parade, I trace the emergence of racialized drag performance during the transition to democracy (roughly 1989-2001). Satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys and performance artist Steven Cohen both used gender subversion to pose whiteness as a queer sort of Africanness, exploring the temporal and spatial dimensions of political transformation and its discontents. The second chapter turns from theatrical performance towards the far more provisional performances of queer South Africans living in hostile environments. Drawing on nine months of in-depth interviews and participant-observation with members of the Johannesburg-based black lesbian Chosen FEW soccer team, I argue that, unlike recent theorizing around an impossible queer utopia, the everyday provides the opportunity for subjunctive engagements with futurity: performances that act "as-if" constitutional rights are respected. This subjunctive orientation, performed through exaggerated and flexible personas, brings an integrated, localized expression of "self" to disparate, contradictory affiliations.

Chapter three examines a particular aesthetic of displacement developed by black lesbian photographer Zanele Muholi and choreographer Mamela Nyamza to represent sexual violence against black lesbians (popularly termed "corrective rape") without retraumatizing its victims or trivializing its effects. By displacing the audience's focus off the hyper-visible black lesbian body and onto its complicity in witnessing her violation, these artists are able to, through very different media, highlight the mechanisms through which this body is made visible. My final chapter expands these questions of audience deliberation to the most public enactment of South African queerness to date: a romance on the popular Johannesburg-based soap opera Generations between two black South African men. Arguing that television spans numerous viewing communities, I turn to the relatively new virtual spaces (particularly the fansite Gensblog) to observe overlapping viewing experiences and identifications. By analyzing the development and disintegration of one online fan "family" over the course of several years, I trace changing attitudes over time, across virtual and geographic spaces. Without positing the Internet as a placeless Utopia (though perhaps, suggesting a heterotopia), this final chapter argues for virtual reception as a multi-sited performance space, where change can be enacted through a durational, participatory process.

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