‘”We need kidnapping random insurance.'”
That’s what Riyadh Khalaf’s director of photography told him right before they and their six-person crew set off to make documentary ‘Fighting For Pride: Swaziland’, about the country’s first-ever Pride parade this year.
Gay sex between men is of course illegal in Africa’s last remaining monarchy, this year renamed eSwatini by King Mswati.
As such, homophobia and transphobia are rife in the Southern African nation.
‘Is there going to be a petrol bomb?’
‘The nature of the event we were documenting, as white, international journalists, was one that was tense,’ adds the presenter, best known for last year’s BBC series Queer Britain, who recently became an Ambassador for YouTube Creators For Change.
‘We were living the documentary as we were shooting it. Is it going to be cancelled? Is there going to be a petrol bomb, a police intervention – tear gas, rubber bullets? We didn’t know.
‘Or, is it going to be one of the most beautiful, historic moments in queer history across the continent of Africa? For me, it was the latter.’
The result is powerful 30-minute film, available to watch above or on Riyadh’s YouTube page now.
As well as the Pride parade itself (in part funded by LGBTI rights organization All Out), the film explores the lives of three LGBTI activists: a gay man, a lesbian woman and – Riyadh’s favorite – a trans woman named Philippa.
‘She has the most lovable, happy personality, and lives in a one bedroom shack,’ he explains. ‘She doesn’t pass very often, so has this deep fear of being attacked or raped. Every single day she leaves home she is verbally attacked.
‘Yet she still smiles, still has hope. She marched. And she has a boyfriend, who she loves dearly. She brought me into her home, embraced me.’
‘Even the homophobes were beautiful people’
Philippa wasn’t the only local to make an impression on Riyadh. An encounter with six homophobic teenage boys opened his eyes forever.
‘They saw the cameras and came straight over. “What’s going on?” I said “Have you heard about this gay parade?” They said “Man, that’s fucked up. It’s not normal. The king isn’t gay, he wouldn’t approve.”‘
‘The King’s the guide on morality in this country,’ explains Riyadh. ‘He’s almost a godlike figure for them, which is dangerous. Because at the end of the day, this is just a dude.
‘I said to one of them: “Do you have any gay friends?” He said “No.” I said “You do. Me.” Then I shook his hand.’
‘They listened, smiled and asked questions,’ explains Riyadh of what happened next. ‘They went from being afraid and disgusted by me to saying “We’re going to tell our friends what it means to be gay.”’ I challenge you to do that somewhere like the UK or the US. You’d have a harder time.
‘I was blown away by how beautiful the people are. Even the homophobes are beautiful.’
‘33% of the population is HIV positive’
The film also features straight allies in the form of HIV and AIDS clinic workers.
‘Swaziland has got the highest rate of HIV infections in the world,’ says Riyadh. ‘33% of the population is HIV positive, which is insane. Thousands are dying every year due to the lack of access to antiretroviral drugs.’
‘The King’s seen how bad that is for his country, not just in terms of death rate, but also in terms of global press. So he’s now begun this new wave of access to drugs. The problem is, if you’re LGBT, go to a clinic and are asked about your sex life, you’re literally laughed out of the clinic.
’94% of HIV infections in Swasiland are though heterosexual sex. So what you have is specifically young gay men contracting HIV, not reporting themselves to clinics and seeking help, getting sicker and sicker and then dying because of fear.’
‘Pride must remain a protest’
While the Fighting For Pride touches on dark realities, there are many inspiring moments. Pride itself is shown to be a huge success, generating headlines around the world.
‘We’re still surprised it happened. We still can’t believe this King put this on. In the lead up to the Swazi press were saying “gay people are trying to do this…” Opinion pieces from pastors, conservative politicians. It was negative, negative, negative.
‘The day after, oh my god, it was a complete turnaround. Front page of the newspapers: “Amazing celebration in the Swaziland!” “The colors of rainbow come out for Pride!” “Global eyes on Swaziland!”’
It’s certainly made Riyadh think twice about the meaning of Pride in Western countries.
‘Of course there was a party element: dancing, smiling, kissing and love. You want that. But actually, the purpose of this was to send a loud and clear message. Not just to the Swati government, but to the continent and the world. And it worked.’
At bigger prides, ’the commercial element has to take a back seat,’ he insists. ‘I’m not saying it can’t be there. The more multinational organizations we have fighting, changing logos, all of that, the better. But we have to remember why we started this.
‘It’s because we’ve been persecuted, killed, beaten. It’s still happened in Chechnya, Russia, Turkey, Uganda, the list goes on. We may, in a Westernized country, have the right to get married, walk down the street, keep your job. But that doesn’t mean life’s easy for your brothers and sisters. Until we’re 100% equal then Pride must remain a protest.’
‘Understand your LGBTI family around the world’
Finally, I ask Riyadh for his message is to viewers wondering: ‘What can I do next?’
‘I’d say thank you for taking the time to educate yourself, to learn about people outside your situation,’ he replies. ‘Understanding your LGBTI family around the world is the first step.
‘Secondly, tell people about organizations [like All Out]. Offer your skills, whatever they might be. Volunteer, or support financially if you can.’
‘You’re a walking, breathing advertisement of what happens in these places,’ he furthermore adds. ‘I’m more likely to listen to my friend’s understanding of a situation than I am a news outlet. So speak to your friends, family: let that ripple of information flow.’