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Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA)

"Are your rights respected" a comic by deaf artist Tommy Motswai

“The advancement, development and rights of LGBTI people depend on an accurate record and representation of their struggles. GALA mobilises memory by documenting and popularizing the lives and histories of LGBTI South Africans. In so doing it contributes to the development of pride, challenges homophobia and entrenches the rights of LGBTI people.” GALA Mission Statement

Anthony Manion is an inspired archivist, and a man with a passion for using the power of the archive to make a different, create social change, shift mind-sets. As Director of GALA, formerly the Gay and Lesbian Archive, now known as Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action he is able to do just that! 

GALA was established in 1997, A year after the adoption of South Africa’s new Constitution with its ground-breaking sexual orientation clause,  as a safe place to house the records of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, so as to ensure that their experiences form part of the historical record. Now housed at the Historical papers Department at the William Cullen Library, University of the Witwatersrand, the GALA archive is open to anyone interested in finding out more about South Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex past (LGBTI). The collection covers social, political, legal, cultural and religious aspects of LGBTI life in South Africa and includes media coverage; legal records; oral history interviews; photographs; letters; personal mementoes and documents and objects donated by individuals and organisations. Anthony says that the GALA archive is used more often by foreign rather than local researchers commenting that, for now race rather than sexuality issues seem to tops the research agenda.

While the Archive has a rich stock of information about Constitutional issues and the struggle for LGBTI rights, Anthony says that GALA is keen to complement this with other records: love letters, photographs, diaries, even blogs that reflect more intimate aspects of LGBTI lives. “People don’t come knocking on our doors” he says regretfully, noting that, “they don’t seem to think that the records of their lives are worth preserving”.  There are other factors that deter people from placing their records in the archive. It may lead to unwished for ‘outing’, making people vulnerable to violence or rejection. It may be also be hurtful to others involved. So what motivates people to lodge their records? Anthony tells me that GALA houses the records of an organisation in Uganda, for example, where homophobia is rife and organisations are subjected to ongoing police raids and harassment. The records, at least, are safe from harm in GALA care until such time as the threat abates. In other cases people want information to be available, but fear the repercussions and ask that they be held under embargo until such time as it is appropriate to open them to public scrutiny.

I ask Anthony about the Protection of Personal Information Bill and that impact that this may have on GALA’s activities. He tells me that GALA have become meticulous about release forms - ensuring that everyone who has participated in an oral history project has granted GALA permission to use and make interviews accessible to the public. He tells me too that any material that deals with human rights abuses, such as the testimonies related to SADF activity at Greefswald, have already been digitised and had all information that might identify particular individuals removed. But there are other problems that will effectively render some material inaccessible. Anthony tells me of an archive in GALAs possession that epitomises some of these problems. It seems that a transgender person, know only by a former name, conducted research, entered into correspondence and interviewed other transgender people and handed over the archive to a publisher, before disappearing, or going into ‘stealth’. The publisher passed the material on to GALA. This presents a dilemma as GALA has no way of communicating with the donor or permission to disclose the information contained in this archive. Material presented by journalists, which includes interviews with people who are unlikely to have expected their comments to be included in a public archive present a similar challenge. While GALA has had some success accessing information, using the Promotion of Access to Information Act, Anthony worries that the new legislation means that material currently held out of sight in other archives might never be accessed. 

GALA’s collection is not limited to the archive, it includes a wonderful selection of fiction and nonfiction books and videos that can be borrowed and various queer publications which can be read in the Community Library housed in University Corner on the Wits Braamfontein campus. Student volunteers have turned the small library into a lively social space where regular discussion groups focus on issues of interest or concern to LGBTI people. While the library is well used by students, Anthony hopes to attract the community living in and around the central city too. 

After a decade of existence GALA changed its name Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, reflecting its shift from a purely archival focus on collecting and preserving records to an organisation with a commitment to packaging archival material in accessible forms so that it can be taken to diverse communities and play a proactive role in creating visibility, challenging perceptions and changing perceptions of the LGBTI issues.
Among GALAs many initiatives is an extensive transgender oral history project undertaken in partnership with Gender Dynamix. This lead to the exhibition in 2007 of life size ‘body maps’ or self portraits of transgender and gender variant people in South Africa. These images illuminate the experience of transgender people while at the same time celebrating their difference and encouraging visitors to see, read and understand the transgendered experience. The exhibition was followed in 2009 by the publication of a book, TRANS: Transgender Life Stories from South Africa. The development and production of this book epitomises GALA’s approach to their work in the field of oral history. A reference group was established to identify issues to be explored. Clear parameters were set, defining participanti as those who had undergone or were planning to undergo surgical procedures, or would do so if they had the necessary economic resources. The publication aimed to create visibility, challenge misconceptions and ensure that transgender people were accurately represented.A ll participants were given an opportunity to review and signoff on the text, putting them firmly in control of the way in which their stories were represented.

Other GALA projects have covered the life stories of lesbian sangomas, gay and lesbian youth, same sex marriage and female same sex practices in South Africa. Home Affairs a collaborative project between GALA and TRACE exhibition group, on display at the Apartheid Museum, examines the different ways that people love and form relationships and families. Joburg Tracks: Sexuality in the City, an exhibition which follows routes of eight Lesbian, Gay and Transgender (LGT) individuals documenting their life experiences in the city of Johannesburg, opened recently at Museum Africa, and will be on display until May 2011.
GALA has implemented an outreach strategy that uses theatre and film productions as well as an innovative tour called “Queer Johannesburg” which focuses on lesbian and gay history and experience in Joburg. These initiatives complement the organisations publications and exhibitions and add substance to GALA’s mission to popularise gay and lesbian history and experience by developing creative ways of introducing gay and straight people alike to wealth of material it has collected.

While not directly linked to archival activity, Anthony speaks with pride about GALA’s work with Deaf people, which addresses an urgent need for HIV Aids education in a much marginalised community. Despite being one of the largest disability groups in the country, GALA’s Deaf outreach coordinator, John Meletse observes that “Deaf people are so ignorant about HIV issues.” One of the creative outcomes of this project has been the production of a comic book, illustrated by deaf artist Tommy Motswai. Acknowledging the generally low literacy levels in the deaf community, this publication uses minimal text in the form of cell phone text messages, signs and the occasional thought bubble to communicate its message.

I asked Anthony to describe GALA’s biggest challenge. “Funding” he said instantly, acknowledging that “the whole sector is very reliant on international grant-makers for funding” and added that while its sometimes easy to find funding for particular programmes its really difficult to find funding for operational costs. Another challenge is for GALA to apply its resources and its energies strategically, “there are so many gaps, so many needs” he says, “its difficult not to rush in and fill the holes.” If Anthony’s colleagues are as passionate as he is about the need to make a difference it must be very difficult for the organisation to turn away from the challenges they see all around them.  Anthony also says that while some heritage institutions are happy to enter into partnerships with GALA or to host their exhibitions others give them the cold shoulder, probably because they’re not used to dealing with difficult questions or because they’ve not been sensitised to LGBTI issues. He mentions institutions such as the Apartheid Museum, Museum Africa the Mzundzi Museum and the East London Museum as having successfully hosted exhibitions and programmes.

It takes a little longer for Anthony to respond to my question about what he finds most inspiring about his work at GALA, and when he does he describes a moment during the 2006 exhibition Balancing Act. Like all GALAs exhibition this one included an interactive component; young viewers were invited to write a message to one of the people whose photograph and story was on display. Reading the notes Anthony was deeply moved to find that the exhibition had shifted the thinking of young viewers, helped them to see LGBTI people as fully human. For him, this illustrates the immense power of the archive to effect change.  That’s what keeps Anthony and his colleague’s engaged and inspired: the possibility of making an impact, making a difference, doing their bit to create a more just society, one person at a time.

For more information see the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action website.

Jo-Anne Duggan
August 2010

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