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Carolyn Hamilton Praises Greame Reid’s How to Be a Real Gay at Joburg Launch

Graeme Reid

How to Be a Real GayOn Monday evening, at the launch of his book, How to Be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South Africa, Graeme Reid introduced some of the flamboyant characters whose stories have been included in it. They had come all the way from the Wesselton township of Ermelo to attend the event held at the Atlantic Philanthropies’ offices in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Reid, director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at Human Rights Watch in New York, explained that he took the title of the book from a series of workshops organised by gay activists in Ermelo.

An anthropologist by training, Reid received a PhD from the University of Amsterdam. His book is a study of how protection of gay rights is a litmus test for South Africa’s Constitutional democracy, and yet is seen by many as a threat to traditional values, customs and beliefs. The book looks at what it means to be homosexual in South Africa today and also speaks to the tremendous capacity of gay people to carve a space for themselves in a harsh environment.

During his address at the launch, Reid asked the audience to maintain a moment of silence for the high number of participants in his research who had passed away and noted that although HIV/AIDS medication is now readily available, stigma and silence are the biggest killers.

Reid introduced Professor Carolyn Hamilton, the guest speaker, who has been his academic mentor for two decades, as well as being a friend and colleague. She holds an NRF Research Chair in Archive and Public Culture based in the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Cape Town. Her research areas include the ethnography and history of the archive; the history of pre-industrial South Africa; and the anthropology of the past in the present.

Hamilton described a story in Reid’s book about the funeral of one Dumisani in 2006. It was attended by diverse people, from matrons to people in full drag. Dumisani was afforded the full rites of the church and, contrary to what might have been expected, there were no voices of dissent or criticism of his lifestyle in any of the speeches. She also described how the book explores the success of gay hairdressers in black society. It provides insight into the economic aspects of being gay and how gay people access donor funding and resources and create networks linking their small towns to cities.

Hamilton praised Reid’s care and commitment to archiving, which is evident throughout the book. How to be a Real Gay provides a powerful analysis of the issues and makes crucial contributions with carefully built-up arguments. By exploring everyday life in hair “saloons”, churches, taverns and meeting halls, Reid shows how well-recognised gay activity is in its setting; the book looks at how gay modernity is performed, and shows how gay life can be lived with reference to, and not in violation of, tradition.

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