Maties’ “gay kiss” goes viral

gay lovers

UCT students participate in the fun of Stellenbosch’s annual kissing festival. The publication of the image has caused an outcry amongst conservative groups. PHOTO: VANESSA SMEETS (copyrighted)

In memory of a wonderful friend and inspiration, Bjorn Czepan. Bjorn died in a car accident three weeks after the kiss made headlines. He will also be remembered for his work with the poor and trying to make a change in South Africa.

VANESSA SMEETS, photo editor Die Matie

When Die Matie, Stellenbosch’s respected campus newspaper, decided to go ahead and publish my photo of two men kissing at its annual kissing festival “Soen in Die Laan,” we knew it would ruffle a few conservative feathers. We, however, did not anticipate such a national response.

In 2008, Stellenbosch beat a record of 7000 people participating in an hour of passionate kissing. Although Lesbigay, Stellenbosch’s lesbian, gay and bisexual society, is ten years old, it is the first time they participated. Gay societies from other universities were invited as well.

The two men in the picture are actually UCT students, but the picture was chosen as the front page for two reasons. Firstly, it was a sincere kiss captured in the moment . They didn’t seem uncomfortable and didn’t even realise I was there. Also, there are straight couples noticeable in the background, which added great context. Afterwards, I asked them if I could use it and both agreed it was a sincere kiss, not dirty in any way. Secondly, it showed that Lesbigay participated for the first time and even managed to get other gay societies to join.

“The response has been phenomenal,” says Robbie Millan, the chairperson of Lesbigay. His inbox has been left with messages of congratulations, motivation (“I want to be like you”) and even confessions by in-closet students of feeling proud and crying tears of joy. Because homophobia has been rearing its ugly head since the publication of the picture, Lesbigay has trying to get more involved with its members and hopes to open a counselling centre for gay students by the end of the year.

It is my first week as the new photo editor and my first front page. Now, there is a par to maintain, which I’m a little anxious about. We never  intended the picture to be sensational or become tabloid-like, as some people have accused us of. But, what a rippling effect it has caused… Even OFM news in the Free State wrote a piece on it. It made its way to page 3 of Die Rapport last Sunday, then landed on Nuus24.com, Eye Witness News and iAfrica.com.

The phone hasn’t stopped ringing by journalists from newspapers and radio stations intrigued by the hype, the reactions and the future of Die Matie. It’s been really interesting to see how they interpret the whole situation. While some have done a clumsy job in news-writing (getting facts and names wrong, adding juicy details to quotes), others have gone the extra mile of getting even a response from the university. The university has stated in Die Burger (18 August, page 3) that it supports all races and sexual identities and does not condone discriminatory behaviour.

Listen to my MFM (Matie FM) interview:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rPb7q5eniIE

I love being a journalist, especially when you know your photos and writing make a difference. I worked three years as an in-depth reporter at Perdeby, University of Pretoria’s campus newspaper, which is where I learnt that even a little controversy in a student newspaper can finally make people read it.

I once wrote a piece on casual sex amongst students, which had a great response from students and lecturers. The same can be said about this picture. While I would’ve preferred them using a picture from two Matie students (who happened to be white and coloured) in a passionate embrace, our editor decided “baby steps.” The reaction on a homosexual couple and, on top of that, inter-racial would have caused even more of an outcry.

Students reactions have been so diverse. While some have been congratulating us for “courage, change and endeavour,” others have been accusing us of boycotting the beauty behind the festival and being “fag hags”. I found many issues of the paper scribbled with hate speech, mutilated or torn to shreds. Some even went as far as changing one of the kissers into a woman. Others have used the paper as dart boards or teasing their friends and house-mates by writing their names above the kissers. Some took dozens of papers to show their friends or to throw them away.  By the end of the afternoon, no issues were left lying around. It is our best response to an issue in four years.

It feels like there’s a revolution taking place on campus… Change is good and keeps society healthy.

Lesbigay claims that next year they will try to get a much bigger group and prove they have as much a right as straight people to show their affections in public. Let’s hope by that time, Stellenbosch’s students would have accepted all human rights. After all, it’s a time of sexual freedom in an age where our freedom of expression has been targeted more frequently. Rise up, South Africa, and realise we fought hard to get this far… What a frightening ideal for some.

Here is a list of all the links:

Die Rapport:
Spoeg spat op Maties
http://www.rapport.co.za/Suid-Afrika/Nuus/Spoeg-spat-op-Maties-20100814

News24.com:
Maties gons oor mansvryers in kampuskoerant. http://www.nuus24.com/Suid-Afrika/Nuus/Maties-gons-oor-mansvryers-in-kampuskoerant-20100815

Eye Witness News:
University newspaper’s front-page kiss gets tongues wagging. http://www.ewn.co.za/articleprog.aspx?id=46488

OFM News:
Die Matie voorbladfoto veroorsaak opskudding.
http://www.ofm.co.za/news.asp?nid=11125

iAfrica.com: Gay kiss photo furore: http://news.iafrica.com/sa/2593980.htm

Homophobia still present: http://www.2oceansvibe.com/2010/08/17/stellenbosch-guffaws-at-predictably-scandalous-uct-students/

iol.co.za: Tongues wagging after Stellenbosch kiss: http://www.iol.co.za/index.php?click_id=13&art_id=vn20100817045312587C979279&set_id=

Cape Camp Culture: Gay kiss makes front page of Die Matie – Stellies newspaper: http://cape-camp-culture.blogspot.com/2010/08/gay-kiss-makes-front-page-of-die-matie.html

Mambagirl.com: Furore over Stellenbosch kiss: http://www.mambagirl.com/article.asp?artid=4752

Towleroad.com: Gay blog… http://www.towleroad.com/2010/08/gay-kiss-photo-stirs-outrage-sales-for-south-african-student-paper.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+towleroad%2Ffeed+(Towleroad+Daily++%23gay+news)

College Media Matters: Gay Kiss Photo in South African Student Newspaper Sparks Anger, Praise: http://collegemediamatters.com/2010/08/17/gay-kiss-photo-in-south-african-student-newspaper-sparks-anger-praise/

Media update: Varsity newspaper front page sparks debate: http://www.mediaupdate.co.za/?idstory=29071

Gay kiss photo stirs outrage, sales for  South African student newspaper: http://www.topix.com/za/stellenbosch/2010/08/gay-kiss-photo-stirs-outrage-sales-for-south-african-student-paper

Topix.com: What happens when a South African student newspaper lets gays kiss on the front page: http://www.queerty.com/what-happens-when-a-south-african-student-newspaper-lets-gays-kiss-on-the-front-page-20100816/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+queerty2+%28Queerty%29

Skadi Forum Germanic Online Community: “Gay kiss” photo furore: http://forums.skadi.net/showthread.php?s=2fabf69f51b752335ce3fb0dba7c7b67&p=1021199#post1021199

My radio interview:  Interview with John Maytham: http://www.capetalk.co.za

JOHN MAYTHAM 17 August 2010 3:15 PM
Gay kiss sparks controversy on campus
The new issue of ‘Die Matie’ shows two men kissing during the annual ‘Soen in die Laan’ (Kiss in the Avenue) event at Stellenbosch University. It seems to have sparked a huge debate on campus, with some conservative students slamming it, while others have praised it. Copies of the newspaper were even defaced and slashed as some students what they perceive as the ‘impropriety’ of the image. Reaction on social media sites, Facebook and Twitter has been large. Vanessa Smeets took the photo and it was a joined editorial decision to have it published in the university newspaper.
Guest: Vanessa Smeets
Organisation: Die Matie newspaper
Position: Photo editor