21 October 2002
The gay traveller was born in the late 19th century, as homosexual European men sought places where there was a greater freedom for the expression of their desires and what would nowadays be called their “lifestyle”.
Some countries were more liberal than others, and usually the movement was towards the Mediterranean countries, but increasingly their destinations were outside Europe, often north Africa.
Just over a century ago, for instance, two of the world’s greatest gay writers, Oscar Wilde and Andre Gide, bumped into each other in Morocco, where Wilde persuaded the more timid Gide to pursue his interest in a lovely Arab youth. Later, writers such as William Burroughs and Paul Bowles would find refuge in the same area.
Today, the gay traveller has become a noted category to which travel agencies and tourist institutions cater specifically. And Cape Town has become one of the gay tourist’s favoured destinations, recommended in guides such as the long-standing Spartacus Guide and on gay travel web sites such as PlanetOut Travel and GayGuide.net
Protection from discrimination
The reasons for Cape Town’s prominence as a destination for gay travellers are not hard to find; many of them are the same reasons Cape Town is a holiday destination for travellers of any kind. Its natural beauty is world-renowned, and it has over the past decade increasingly geared itself for a steady stream of international tourists.
For the gay traveller, however, it is perhaps South Africa’s post-apartheid Constitution that tips the balance in our favour. Adopted in 1996 after lengthy discussion, debate and fine-tuning, the Constitution offers protection from discrimination on the grounds of race, gender or sexual orientation. It is the first Constitution in the world to do so, and is justly famous for this reason.
This new freedom forms a stark contrast, of course, to South Africa’s history, in which homosexuals were legally restricted and persecuted. Laws against homosexual activity were on the statute books alongside the race laws that restricted black/white interaction and limited opportunities for black people.
In the 1960s, for instance, the state promulgated the “Three Men at a Party” Law in the wake of a police bust of a gay party in Forest Town, Johannesburg. This slightly laughable law forbade gatherings of three or more men for what the state defined as purposes of mutual stimulation.
Such laws, including the common law forbidding “sodomy”, a legal category that used to cover more than is understood today by the term, were swept away by the new Constitution and subsequent legal challenges to old laws.
Convictions and imprisonment
But the history of such common-law persecution of homosexuals goes back a long way. Visitors to Cape Town should be aware of its unique history in this regard. Among the sites a historically and politically conscious traveller (and gay tourists tend to fall into this category) visits with alacrity is Robben Island, where many of South Africa’s political prisoners (most famously Nelson Mandela) were incarcerated.
In the 1700s, when the Cape was a part of the Dutch East India Company’s domain, men convicted of same-sex sexual transgressions were imprisoned on the island.
Punishments for the exercise of “dirty passions”, when the crime was deemed less heinous than full “sodomy”, were usually flogging, hard labour, and/or banishment to the Netherlands.
This caused some problems, however, because often the punishment meted out in the Netherlands was exile to the colonies. One Francois David Le Pron, 14 years old in 1765, was put ashore and left in Cape Town by his captain for such offences. A little later, he was convicted in Cape Town of making sexual advances to another man, whipped, and sent back to the Netherlands.
In severe cases, such as that of Nicolaas Modde, the sentence was imprisonment on Robben Island and was often followed by execution. Modde was found to have engaged in sodomy with two slaves while imprisoned on the island. The three men confessed to their crimes before the Court of Justice (torture was often used to extract such confessions) and they were sentenced to death. This sentence was carried out by drowning: the three men were bound together, loaded with weights, and thrown into Table Bay.
Apart from such sobering history, Cape Town has much to offer the gay (usually male) tourist. For a start, it is a very gay city – some claim that there are more gay men per capita in Cape Town than anywhere else in South Africa, and the claim may be justified – though some inhabitants of Gauteng do quibble.
Certainly, Cape Town nightlife gives the impression that this is a very gay-friendly city. Aside from the cluster of gay clubs and bars in the De Waterkant area, the vast majority of Cape Town’s nightspots (and there are many of them) offer relaxed spaces in which gay and straight clientele can mix freely and easily in a stylish atmosphere.
Many businesses, though not designed to cater to an exclusively gay market, are gay-owned and/or gay-run; an example would be Lola’s, the charmingly bohemian vegetarian restaurant in Long Street.
Some venues do, however, cater very specifically for gay clients. The De Waterkant area mentioned above includes the long-standing Bronx Bar and the nightclub Angels, as well as the newer club 55, all popular venues.
The influx of gay tourists to Cape Town has also meant that several guest houses have set themselves up to meet the needs of the tourist looking for exclusively gay (male) accommodation.
The Amsterdam Guest House is one such guest house. Its owner came to Cape Town originally as a tourist and was so taken with the city that he stayed and started the guest house, with the idea that it would be good to have such a venue dedicated to gay men. Now in its fourth year of existence, Amsterdam Guest House is always full over the summer season, taking in visitors from all over the world.
Its international clientele, I was told, comes from Britain, Holland, Germany and the United States, though South African travellers also take advantage of its amenities, especially off-season. When full, the Amsterdam accommodates 18 people in nine rooms, charging about R500 per person per night in high season.
65 Kloof Street is another such guest house, also founded by a foreigner entranced with the city of Cape Town. Its prices are slightly higher than that of the Amsterdam, and it accommodates roughly the same amount of people, which may not seem a lot, but guests are guaranteed to get personal attention.
Obviously, the idea of an exclusively gay guest house has been well-received by gay travellers, many of whom are pleased to be in an environment that caters specifically to their needs. At 65 Kloof Street, you can tan naked by the pool without arousing opprobrium, and the proprietors will provide information about gay venues and events.
Mother City Queer Project
Among those events would be the Mother City Queer Project’s annual costume party, an event that began as a largely gay drag-oriented party but was so successful that it soon expanded to accommodate partygoers of every possible stripe. It is still, however, an important date on the gay holiday calendar, and has now become something of an institution, taking place about 10 days before Christmas every year. Themes have included “Locker Room”, “The Twinkly Sea” and “Safari Camp”.
Some of Cape Town’s much-lauded beaches, among the prettiest in the world, have evolved into gay enclaves. “Third beach” at Clifton is not an exclusively gay beach, but it is the one where a large number of gay men congregate during the summer season. For those keen to cast their eyes over some attractive nearly-naked bodies, this is the place to go.
Those who want to see those bodies entirely naked will have to make the trip to Sandy Bay, alongside Llandudno, further down the coast. Sandy Bay is one of the world’s most famous nudist beaches, and the far, rocky end of this large stretch of sand and sea is its gayest part. The low scrub and trees on the slopes above the beach offer shelter to those who want a bit of shade – or just privacy.
The city’s tourism authority has put its weight behind attracting gay tourists to the city. “Cape Town is the gay capital of Africa and we hope that some day it will become the gay capital of the world,” Sheryl Ozinsky, manager of Cape Town Tourism, has been quoted as saying. Guides such as the Cape Gay Guide booklet offers gay travellers information on where to go and what to do.