Bars, bears, and color bars in Cape Town

The jewel of South Africa for gay and lesbian visitors, this cosmopolitan city offers a wealth of opportunities to mix with the queer locals. But years after the end of apartheid the residual effects of racial segregation remain.

BY Advocate.com Editors

October 14 2002 11:00 PM ET

Our tour guide is trying to figure out a way to tell us that one of South Africa's most enduring historical figures was a big homo.

Cecil John Rhodes
Cecil John Rhodes

No one here says out loud that Cecil John Rhodes, founder of the De Beers Consolidated Mines Company and once the prime minister of the Cape colony in what is now South Africa, was gay. But then again, no one here (at least, no one white) says he was one of history's last unapologetic imperialists either. Instead, the rehabilitated memory of Rhodes—after whom an African nation was once named, and in whose name American college students still travel to Oxford on academic scholarships—is instead remembered as a spirited businessman rather than a despotic ogre.

It's quite possible he was both.

But our elegant 50-something female tour guide with dashing red hair and a disarming accent is trying not to get bogged down in the politics of the past. All she wants to do at this moment is find a way to tell her group of gay Americans that one of her country's most enduring legacies was, for better or worse, one of them.

As the local guide for the Cape Town leg of the DavidTours Southern Africa Tour, our leader of the moment is hardly squeamish. After all, David Tours, a company based in Corona del Mar, Calif., specializes in exotic luxury tours for gay men, and our guide is more than comfortable with us. Indeed, earlier in the day, while walking us through a park just beyond Desmond Tutu's former church, she gave instructions on the best angle for capturing in our snapshots the beefy bronzed butts of garden statues.

But the past is a tricky thing in South Africa—whether it dates more than a hundred years ago to the reign of Rhodes, or to a mere eight years ago to the end of apartheid.

For now our guide has found a coded way to impart the immediately pertinent information about Rhodes.

"Rhodes was not fond of women," she says knowingly. "In fact, he refused to allow the men who worked in the mines to bring women to their living quarters, even their wives. Men who did were severely fined. Mr. Rhodes," she continues, "preferred the company of men."

South Africa may well be the continent's most gay-friendly country. Not only is gay life developed and sophisticated here, but the country’s new Constitution specifically spells out equality for gay people. It makes South Africa arguably one of the most politically progressive countries in the world when it comes to codifying gay rights.

Atlantic seaboard
The Atlantic seaboard

South Africa's gay crown jewel is undoubtedly Cape Town, a charming port city seemingly designed to be a gay destination. Its bays are more than just beaches--they are breathtaking reminders of great oceans crashing against a wild continent. And of course, the nudist beach at Sandy Bay, while not exclusively gay, is expectedly cruisy.

The gay center of town is huddled in a section called Greenpoint, Cape Town's answer to Chelsea or the Castro. Two main arteries, just two blocks apart and running parallel to one another, course through Greenpoint: Waterkant Street and Somerset Road. Between these two major thoroughfares, mazes of lanes are dotted with every imaginable gay establishment, from bars and dance clubs to cafés, saunas, and drag clubs.

Women will find the clubs to be generally more mixed than in the United States, with men and women more easily sharing their space, particularly at the large dance clubs. Women-only spaces are primarily dedicated to specific evenings during the week. Café Manhattan in Cape Town, for example, is ladies only the last Thursday of each month. In the Johannesburg area, it’s Girlz Nite at Re-Load every Thursday. And Stardust-The Embassy--a megaclub in Pretoria with seven bars and two dance floors--also hosts periodic ladies-only events. While in South Africa, lesbian tourists would do well to pick up a copy of Womyn: Africa's Leading Lesbian Lifestyle Magazine for the hottest tips on where to go and what to do.

My first evening in the city, I begin at a small pub called Rosie's, located on Waterkant. I start here because it is the hangout for the "bear crowd"—those stocky, furry, bearded men with whom I most closely affiliate in America's gay community. In the past 10 years, the bear community in the United States has mushroomed. Groups now hold bear conventions, where they crown the beefiest, hairiest man "Mr. Bear," and sell all kinds of bear-inspired knick-knacks, from teddies to simulated-paw slippers. But I know from my travels abroad that in many countries, the "bear" moniker is something newer, and often draws a different crowd from the one I am used to in America. I am curious to see South Africa's take on this gay subculture.

Rosie's is a low-key neighborhood bar, the kind of place where most of the men's attention is focused on the pool table in the middle of the room rather than on television screens with noisy music videos. In fact, the smack of colliding pool balls mingled with bar conversation overrides the music playing in the background.

Unassuming and sociable, Rosie's is the perfect venue for friendly encounters, and I am about to get lucky: As it turns out, this evening coincides with the monthly meeting of Cape Town's bear club. When I arrive, the meeting has come to a close, and the men are gathered around the bar and pool table downing beers. It doesn’t take long to get spotted as a tourist, and within minutes half a dozen men offer to collectively give me the whirlwind gay tour of their city.

Led by Brian--a broad-shouldered man with an equally wide smile, who happens to work security at Table Mountain, the city's foremost tourist attraction--we head just across the street to Cafe Manhattan for a bite to eat. (Hey, this is a group of bears, remember.)

Painted bright red and with a luminescent logo that resembles the New York City skyline, this popular local eatery is impossible to miss from the outside. Inside, small tables covered with checkered tablecloths give it a homey feeling--like a Manhattan diner. The menu remains true to the theme, boasting Harlem mussels and Wall Street salmon, Statue of Liberty fish of the day, and Brooklyn calamari. I stick with the Skyscraper beef burger.

After the food we do the bar tour. Just next door is Robert's. It’s advertised as a "cigar bar," but I don’t see anyone smoking stogies. Its feel is more of a neighborhood bar, and it's where many of the bears head after Rosie's. After a quick drink, we round the corner and walk down a short but steep hill on our way to the louder, hipper dance clubs. Along the way, we pass On Broadway, Cape Town's cabaret venue.

The hottest dance spots, located side by side, are Bronx Action Bar and Angels/Detour. Both are home to the young and chic, boasting lots of gyrating bodies sweating to loud house music. Diagonally across the street is Club 55, a late-night hangout that stays open into the wee hours, long after the other establishments close down. It's got first-floor dancing and an unusual second floor, where patrons can crash in the comfort of cushy old sofas or strike a pose on the railing while peering at the crowd on the dance floor below. A lot of people here are high on more than the music and dancing.

Our final stop for the night is Bar Code, the leather-Levi's bar tucked around the corner two blocks away. Tonight Bar Code is having a "fantasy party," and to get in, you either have to be wearing clothing that suggests sexual fantasy (such as leather or rubber) or you have to remove a major article of clothing. You can get away with just taking off your shirt if you want, but most of the patrons don't stop there. The dark bar (which also has a back room) is filled with men scurrying around in their undies.

Johannesburg similarly has a thriving gay life, most of it centered on the bars, clubs, and cafes in the trendy revitalized section of the city called the Heartland.

In contrast to the often puritanical approach to sex in America, South Africa's laissez-faire attitude toward intimate encounters is evident all over its gay community, from the men's saunas that serve alcohol (a big no-no at bathhouses in the States) to the dark rooms still operating in plenty of the leather bars.

This carefree attitude is personified at Jeb's, a leather-Levi's bar in Jo'burg (as natives call Johannesburg.) One of the bears in Cape Town tipped me off to Jeb's, saying only that it simply shouldn't be missed. Later, I see promotional literature advertising Jeb's as a hardcore leather bar and worry that the paltry leather vest I brought with me might not pass dress code muster. I phone and ask if the bar adheres to a strict dress code.

The man on the other end of the line chuckles. "Uh, no," he says, trying to figure out how to explain it to me. "We have a strict undress code."

It's not until I arrive at the bar that I fully understand: Admittance is dependent on checking your clothes. (You may leave on your socks and boots.) Located on the top floor of a strategically situated hilltop building, Jeb's also boasts floor-to-ceiling windows (tinted for obvious reasons) overlooking the city skyline. There's no doubt Jeb's offers the best views—of all kinds—of any gay bar in the country.

Near the end of my stay in Cape Town I return to Bar Code, the leather bar. This particular evening I arrive at 10 p.m., and as soon as I walk in I realize I am way too early. About a dozen men, most of them naked, hug the dark corners of the bar, waiting for the night to grow older and wilder. As I wait with them, I somewhat self-consciously disrobe down to my underwear, focusing on the porno flick flashing across several television screens in the bar. In the film, a well-endowed black man is having sex with a white man.

During my stay in South Africa I inquired repeatedly about how the gay community is coping with racism in the new post-apartheid era. The topic is obsessively interesting to us as Americans, of course, because of our own tortured past with race. In particular, I wondered how personal relationships between white and black gay men and lesbians are faring.

It's hard to know for sure.

Most white gay men I met insisted that racism in the gay community has all but vanished, that white gay men long ago connected the dots between their oppression and the evil of apartheid.

Yet the gay black men I met--thanks, I should note, to the groundwork of DavidTours' owner, David Rubin, who has an uncanny network of connections here--told me that while they harbor no ill feelings toward their white gay brothers, they could never sleep with or date or love a white man.

On the eve of my departure from Cape Town I sit pondering this in the heart of the gay culture--the bars. And I can't help but think of Cecil John Rhodes. He stepped on so many blacks--did the homosexual imperialist ever kiss one?

My eye wanders back to the porno movie, and I realize that—with the exception of my own introductions to black gay men on the tour--in my two weeks in South Africa, this is the only time I've seen a black gay man and a white gay man together.

The irony, of course, is that the porno movie is from America.

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