Amid the turbulence of a pandemic and, more recently, the social and political disruption on a scale not seen in many years it’s easy to forget that the marginalised and disadvantaged bear the brunt of these social disruptions.
The GALA Queer Archive, situated at Wits University, is a multidisciplinary repository and educational institution that works to highlight and publicise the stories of LGBTIQ people throughout Africa. Keval Harie was appointed director in 2017, and heads a small team of activists who are passionate about creating spaces where queer voices are amplified and valued as important contributions to our collective social consciousness.
GALA identifies gaps in the historical archive of queer voices in Africa through advocacy and education. Far from being a dusty storeroom filled with old books and manuscripts, the GALA archive is a vibrant, kaleidoscopic space that extends into the societies it serves. It’s through this reciprocal relationship that the archive generates new material and adds lived experiences to its records.
“A queer archive challenges the notion of an archive,” Harie says “From a colonial perspective, archives are used as a way of documenting, of keeping populations in control, of regulating.” GALA’s objective is to extend an archive beyond its traditional, conventional purpose to a space where subjugated voices can tell their stories and be empowered, he adds.
“There is still a long way to go towards creating visibility,” Harie says, referring to the dangers that queer people, especially those of colour, face in many African countries every day simply because they exist in communities where homosexuality is still regarded as a foreign import, and are treated with violence and suspicion. “We want to create that space for queer communities in saying that there are ways that celebrate our own existence that defy the continuous narrative of violence.”
Hopes and Dreams that Sound like Yours: Stories of Queer Activism in Sub-Saharan Africa is a recently-published anthology firmly centred on the personal stories of queer activists who, despite perilous and unsafe environments, make their voices heard. The book contains deeply personal accounts from people coming to terms with who they are and how they reconcile their identity with those around them, their beliefs, faith, family and friends.
The project is a collaboration with Brian Pellot and Taboom Media, the outcome of workshops that generated a trove of unique stories from queer people that GALA and Pellot felt had to be brought to light. These touching and heartfelt chronicles from people living “alternative” lifestyles go against the grain of mainstream media portrayal of otherness and disempowerment.
As many of the writers are living in precarious and dangerous conditions, the challenge was to how best to visually represent each story. Queer and ally artists were tasked with illustrating the individual chapters, and the resulting artworks really speak for themselves: the book’s pages burst with brilliantly detailed colour, form and line that speak to the heart of the project’s purpose of profiling and supporting everyday heroes whose stories give hope to those around them.
Harie is clear about the objectives of Hopes and Dreams. “It’s to provide motivation for younger people, particularly in rural spaces, who feel like they don’t necessarily have that support, to read these stories. But the broader objective is also to say that these stories exist. These are people who are doing what they can to change the communities that they live in.”
Projects such as Hope and Dreams also create points of reference for people in communities that harbour fear and hate towards queers because of their lack of understanding or empathy. “It allows us to go in with a far more nuanced way of understanding the challenges that individuals face,” Harie says. It’s this fear and hate that results in the shockingly number of hate crimes committed against queer people throughout Africa that GALA, through initiatives and collaborations such as Hopes and Dreams, aims to tackle.
The book also offers some light for queer Africans in the darkness of the Covid-19 pandemic. As supportive public spaces such as the GALA Archive have been closed to the public, the vulnerabilities of LGBTIQ African people on the continent have been exposed as never before. Many have lost their homes, or have been kicked out by parents struggling to come to terms with their children’s identity. “The impact of the lockdown and Covid will still continue to affect our communities for a long time,” Harie says.
The GALA Queer Archive is a critical tool for change in a society and continent crying out for support of the marginalised. Harie and his team are making sure that queer voices are recorded and valued for the important contributions that they are.