For most of the people traveling to the Gay Games, last week was an opportunity for excellent athletic competition, great parties and sightseeing in a world-class city.
For others, though, last week was about something far more basic. In the townships of South Africa individuals who are poor, black and female have no status. Impoverished black lesbians have even less.
So attending the Gay Games in Oak Park meant a rare opportunity for the members of the South African lesbian soccer team to stand tall and express who they really are and how they really live.
Competing in the Gay Games, said Zanele Muholi, a photographer who accompanied the team to document their experience, posed a substantial risk for the players.
“We come from a place where young lesbian women still face hate crimes. Being here in America means you’re taking a risk. You don’t know if someone will attack you back home [for going to the Gay Games].”
Kelly Gillespie, a native of Cape Town who has lived in Chicago for four years while attending the University of Chicago, said that two of the women on the team have been raped for being gay.
“They’ve been subjected to pretty serious hate crimes,” she said of the women, who hail mostly from the townships outside Johannesburg. Though the progressive South African constitution explicitly protects the rights of gay people, Gillespie explained, “people living in very poor areas don’t have access to the constitution.”
But the team made the trip, marking for many of the players their first time outside South Africa.
Of course, as it has been and likely will be for most of the women’s entire lives, money was also a major issue. The team, which stayed in a Chicago hostel during the trip, has relied on the generosity of their host communities to provide them with necessities during their time here.
A portion of this generosity came from Shanahan’s, 7353 Madison St. in Forest Park. The restaurant hosted the team for lunch on Tuesday, July 18, allowing the players a chance to refuel before their game that afternoon and the restaurant’s employees a chance to expand their horizons.
“It was nice to get to talk to people from a different country. They sang a little song for us when they left,” said Shanahan’s employee Maggy Lefevour. Though the Americans present could not understand the Zulu song (Zulu is one of eight languages spoken by members of the team and one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), team members explained that it was a song of gratitude for their hosts.
Their gratitude is not only for the food provided to them but also for the recognition and “Hlonipo,” (Pronounced with a “th” sound between the H and L, it is the Zulu word for respect) which they have received during their time here.
“To be treated in decent ways is what we long for,” said Muholi.
According to Muholi, female athletes in South Africa, not to mention lesbian athletes, have long felt ignored. When South Africa won the right to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup during the summer of 2004, euphoria swept the country. The media packaged the news in mythology, declaring, based on little evidence, that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association was won over by the charm and charisma of former president Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as “Madiba,” or “father of our nation.”
“I can now die satisfied,” newspapers claimed Mandela said upon hearing the news, quoting unnamed friends of the then 85-year-old leader. It seemed an unlikely statement for Mandela to make considering the country’s ongoing AIDS epidemic and nearly 40 percent unemployment rate, among other issues.
Though they share in the country’s delight to host the Cup, members of the Gay Games team say that soccer fever in South Africa has not benefited them as much as they’d hoped.
“There is no pre-allocated soccer facility space for women,” noted Muholi. “Sports [in South Africa] are still male-dominated and heterosexist. This is a way for us to express our passion for soccer and for who we are.”