Drag Queens Outrage Africa ; the Miss Gay SA Contest Is Challenging Bitter Homophobia across the Rest of the Continent, Reports Alex Duval Smith

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AS THE sound of slamming closet doors echoed all across the African continent, Nelspruit, arguably the most conservative town south of the Limpopo River, gave homophobes a little more to think about yesterday when it hosted the first official Miss Gay South Africa.

"The city is in shock," said Marcus Buitendach, organiser of the pageant, as the drag queens cruised into town, their flamboyant outfits vying for attention with the flowering bougainvillea and jacaranda of Nelspruit's sleepy streets. His words were borne out by the Rev Thinus Taute, a minister with the Afrikaanse Protestantse Kerk, who had been collecting signatures in protest at the pageant. "This community has strong Christian values," he said. "We find it offensive. The Bible says that for a man to lie down with a man is an abomination against God."

Eight regional finalists were competing at Nelspruit's civic centre for the coveted title and a holiday in Mauritius, but Mr Buitendach said the winner will also be required to promote gay rights in Africa, especially in neighbouring Zimbabwe. At the Commonwealth summit in Durban last week, the notoriously homophobic Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, caused a stir with jibes about Britain being run by "gay gangsters". Not to be outdone, President Yoweri Museveni added his own tirade of homophobia on behalf of Uganda, where gays are now being rounded up and jailed.

A few weeks earlier, President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya had spoken at an agricultural show of the "gay scourge" that goes against Christian teaching and African tradition. He had been preceded in his outburst, a few months earlier, by Sam Nujoma of Namibia.

Yet in South Africa, gays from all over the world are seeking refuge. Two Pakistani men and one Ugandan are in the process of being granted asylum on the basis that they face persecution for their sexuality in their home countries. Their permits are expected to come through by the end of January.

Evert Knoesen of the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality in Johannesburg had mixed feelings about last night's pageant, given the present outburst of homophobia across the continent. "Every time a Mugabe or a Museveni opens his mouth, our constitution is threatened," he said.

But in Nelspruit, even straight city hall staff were declaring themselves enthusiastically tolerant. "It's the most exciting thing which has happened here for years," said one female member of staff.

Mr Buitendach, setting up a stall, admitted: "This, for us, is a publicity stunt. We knew we would get a lot of media attention if we staged it in Nelspruit. The rules are quite strict, and Miss Gay SA is now a registered trademark, so we're going to do this for years to come."

Last night's winner was to be the campest and fairest of 197 regional contestants whittled down to eight finalists at heats in gay bars around the country. …