Saturday, October 13, 2007

SA needs to wake up and smell the 'pink' rand

Marketing and tourism people talk about the 'pink rand'. Basically, gay money. Disposable income that can be used on lifestyle consumer items: travel; home decor; appliances etc. It's supposed to pack a powerful pink punch. So, why aren't more SA companies wooing the gay market?
I can't think of a single, mainstream advert in the national press or on any medium which is designed to get me to take note and encourage me to spend my money there. All I can think of by way of explanation is the no-one is brave enough to target the gay rand openly, because we still have a bigoted society that advocates for an openly homophobic man, Jacob Zuma, to become our next president.
Ok, so that's very sad. Look how Cape Town has benefitted from pink money? They've been clever about their strategy and it has paid off. We've obviously got a long, long walk to freedom.
So, even if there aren't big adverts appealing to the market, the one sector that should be very sussed and seductive towards gays and lesbians is the tourism sector. Right?
Not so. Maybe in the Mother City they are, but in KwaZulu-Natal, I constantly hear of cases where gay couples book for a weekend away somewhere and the place assumes that if there are two, they must be a straight couple. One friend who was trying to book a romantic birthday weekend away at a spa was asked "and would your wife like any treatments?" Er, no! But my boyfriend certainly would! He actually had to tell her that his partner was another man. "Oh," she said in reply.
How outdated that we need to out ourselves - much to the surprise of the venue hosts. They should be trained to assume nothing. If I book a double bed, don't rush around when I arrive with my girlfriend and give me a room with twin beds. Please, I know what I want.
What I am trying to say is that the tourism sector, from the smallest B&B to the biggest hotel, needs to wake up and smell the pink rand. It's a wonderful, lucrative market. Just show us some real hospitality!

How the tourist accommodation sector can become more gay-friendly. Some practical tips:

1. When someone books - it doesn't matter who - don't assume it's Mr and Mrs. Use gender neutral language.
2. If you ask for names and figure out that the two who are sharing a room are of the same sex, don't assume they're friends. They may be partners and they will want a double bed.
3. Keep your personal feelings out of it. Don't give us 'oh!.." or attitude.
4. Realise that we will talk about our experience and spread the word that yours is gay friendly / non gay friendly venue.

Which L-Word?

I am a 30-something year-old woman. I pay my taxes; I tend to my roses; I am loyal, I am successful, I love to make people laugh; I’m a snob when it comes to loo paper (double ply, please!); I am old enough to remember the collapse of the Berlin Wall but young enough to know what the Rainbow Nation is. I see the glass as half-full; I own my own home; I can never remember the punch line; I am a coffee drinker and I am a lesbian. Actually, make that ‘a gay woman’. Not because I’m part of some tambourine-jangling fraternity but because – when coming out - it’s always been far easier to utter the three-letter description over its multi-syllabled partner: ‘les-b-ian’.

I have decided to share my story because I can – and because I get tired of paging through magazines or flipping through channels trying to find my story.

The crux of the matter is that despite more constitutional freedom and protection than ever before, it’s still pretty difficult being a lesbian. Hatred and discrimination are difficult to shove back in the closet.

Clothes fill mine, by the way. Although from time to time I get waay back in there (to do a little dusting, mind you!) – but also to reflect on how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go. I’ve always believed in being straight-to-the-point about my multi-syllabled sexuality - with anyone who’s anything to me. I’m delighted to say, most have been very accepting and, as the years have crept by, I’ve become more adept at spitting it out. I’ve also noticed that the thirties have produced in me a new, quiet inner confidence. I am less worried about what people think on the one hand and more resigned that, on the other, I will always care to some degree.

But it worries me that popular culture is turning ‘being gay’ into a trend; a fashion accessory – something to try on for size. It worries me that ill-informed journalists writing one-sided accounts of attempts to legalise gay ‘marriage’ – are feeding fears that the overall plot is to take over society and impose ‘our will’. It worries me that many, many men – including some of my friends – still fantasise about two women getting it off or, better still, coming to their rescue and showing them ‘the way’. It worries me more that countless black lesbians – in townships around South Africa – are being ‘shown the way’ more forcibly; are being beaten and raped and punished for loving women.

Because, here’s the deal. It’s not about hating men. It’s about loving women more. For most of the gays and lesbians I know (I’ve polled it, honest!) – it’s not about waking up one day and deciding ‘Hey, to hell with tradition, I want to be different!’ It is an agonising, protracted process which, for many – involves much denial, a great deal of confusion and self-doubt, the overwhelming desire to conform, the rejection of oneself and many other hideous things – before there is realisation that there must either be self acceptance or self denial and lies. And try being a gay teen. Nothing could be more alienating. When I was fifteen and trying to get my tongue around those three-syllables, I honestly thought I was the only person in the world like me. So much for our supposed built-in ‘Gay-dar’. This was either malfunctioning spectacularly or mine had been substituted with a ‘shit-detector’. Because while I couldn’t tell who else was gay, I sure could smell insincerity from a hundred paces off.

I believe that every parent needs to ask themselves how they would react if their child came to them and confided that they thought they were gay. Or if their child came home and said they’d met someone at school who was gay; or had gay parents. Your reaction will have immeasurable impact. Consider it carefully please – and rather cry silently than compare being gay to shop-lifting or worse. Sometimes giving a child wings to fly is the most important thing you’ll do as a parent – even if they happen to be fairy wings.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Representation and misrepresentation

I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Jane Austen Book Club’ which just happens to have a lesbian character in it. She’s not a central focus of the book but just happens to be somewhere on the landscape. And that’s when I noticed it. The ‘scavenging.’ We’ve all done it at one time or another. Scavenged through some or other content to find that which we can relate to best. The athlete may search for athletic content; the new mom, anything to do with babies; and the gay person looks for ‘gayness’!

Novels are one thing. There isn’t much gay reading material out there. Try finding a gay section in your local book store for one thing. They’re not easy to find. And if there is one, they’re often embarrassingly positioned right opposite the ‘religious’ section, or next to the ‘psychology’ area. But that’s another issue.

Television on the other hand is slowly embracing gay and lesbian themes. When 'The L Word' hit our small screens a few years back, all the girls with Mnet thought we’d struck gold. ‘An exclusively lesbian series? No way?!’ Yes way! But even that was flawed. The one thing I just could not understand was why every advert bracket seemed to be filled with spots appealing to Afrikaans men. Boere-musiek CDs were advertised as were other male-oriented products. Didn’t see any lesbian-related ads there. No Indigo Girls or kd lang CDs up for grabs; no Subaru adverts trying to sell us cars. Didn’t even see any women-oriented ads, like tampon adverts or ones advertising lipstick or shampoo for goodness sake. I mean what could the brief have been for those Mnet sales execs: ‘Um, we’ve got a lesbian show so let’s go out there and try to sell some Kilpdrift and coke and Boere-musiek CDs.” Missed opportunity there. Don’t they know the power of the Pink Rand? Eish.

Anyway, I digress. My point is that there we were still grateful for the token gesture. The series was full of gorgeous women who did all sorts of amazing things. And despite the fact that I’ve yet to come across real-life-lesbians who’re like those 'L Word' divas, we loved and supported the series because they did occasionally (very occasionally) reflect our lives. Any lesbian reading this now (who has also followed the series), knows exactly what I am talking about. Alice’s legendary wall-drawings of women and their ex-partners springs to mind.

But ‘The L Word’ is the exception. Most of the time, gay people have to ‘sift’ like crazy through hours of television to find any representation of who and what they are. The recent debate in the US over the inclusion (or rather exclusion) of black actors in movies and TV programmes is a similar parallel. Token gestures abound. And sometimes they’re the worst characters on the block. When you only crack the nod in one in 100 shows and you’re depicted as an evil, psychopathic manic (as in Andrew on Desperate Housewives); or the depraved (Bad Girls); or the unfeeling bitch (ER’s Carrie Weaver) – it gets frustrating. It gets a little depressing when you’re represented as all of these things, when really you’re just the girl or boy next door, who happens to love someone of their own sex.

Stereotypes are easier to handle though I guess. The dyke-lesbian everyone can safely spot from a hundred paces away or the limp-wristed queen who’s depicted as so impotent that no one could possibly be offended, dahling. It’s a little harder to find meaningful plots with meaningful characters who just happen to be gay (as a by-the-way, as most straight characters are depicted).

And so, for the time being, we will have to be content with the tokens, and the occasionally all-out-goodies, such as 'The L Word', and just head for the kitchen when those Boere-musiek CD adverts come on.

But come on people. One in ten is a significant market. Perhaps it’s even a scavenger hunt! Speaking of which, I'd better get back to my book. I'm still hopeful that this lesbian character will develop into something more.