By Janae McKenzie. Photography by Tristen Rouse

Cafe Manhattan is one of the oldest restaurants in Cape Town’s de Waterkant village. Opening in 1994, it is also Cape Town’s oldest gay bar.

Legally, post-apartheid South Africa’s track record for LGBT rights is relatively positive. Equal employment, military service and access to goods and services are all protected under law. Culturally, however, LGBT South Africans still face discrimination and hardships for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

During apartheid, the rights of LGBT people were severely restricted. Homosexual activity under the National Party, was punishable by up to seven years in prison. But with the passing of the new democratic constitution in 1996, South Africa became the first nation in the world to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. South Africa was the fifth country in the world and is the only country in the African continent to have legalized same-sex marriage.

The importance of safe spaces

The democratic constitution also paved the way for gay bars, restaurants and other public places meant to support the community and give them safe places to gather. One such place is gay bar and restaurant Cafe Manhattan.

Founded in 1994, the bar is the oldest of its kind. Manager Kay-Dee Baker finds that LGBT people can feel more comfortable coming to Cafe Manhattan than they would going to a bar that isn’t explicitly gay-friendly because they are free to be whoever they are.

“If you go there with your partner, for example, and you’re being a bit affectionate in a normal restaurant, you’re still being looked at very weirdly or funny,” Baker said. “Whereas if you come here, it’s completely normal. There’s no judgement or funny looks or awkward vibes with people.”

The signs and wallpaper within Cafe Manhattan give the bar a distinct pink hue.

Gay bars and restaurants like Cafe Manhattan can be integral to the comfort of LGBT people, providing a safe space to express and discover themselves, which Baker can attest to. Baker’s first visit to a gay club was the first time she felt that she wasn’t alone in how she felt and who she loved.

“I saw that I’m not going cuckoo,” Baker said. “There are people out there like me and I shouldn’t be ashamed.”

Life and love as a gay South African

Baker realized that she was bisexual in 2008. She made up her mind from the beginning and made a mental decision not to deny who she was to anyone in her life.

“I came out to my family immediately,” Baker said. “I came out to all my friends. And if somebody ever asked me, I would never deny it. Because, why? This is me; it’s who I am. I’m not going to hide it or shy away from it to please anyone.”

For Baker’s fiancee, Dani Rose, self-acceptance didn’t come as easily. Baker recounts how even when Rose realized that she was a lesbian, she “took a very long time to accept it for herself.” The couple is engaged to be wed in August, and Baker has made a point of showing her love publicly to help Rose be more comfortable with who she is.

“There’s still times when we’ll be walking in the mall and I will grab her and kiss her,” Baker said. “And I sometimes do it intentionally, because I know she sometimes freaks out about it because what are people gonna say? And my response is ‘You’re my fiancee, we’re literally getting married. I’m not gonna hide my love because people might say or look some type of way.’”

Unfortunately, this put a strain on the relationship between Baker and her mother. Baker comes from a staunchly Christian home and describes her 73-year-old mother as an “old-school” person. Baker’s mother still refuses to accept her sexuality and is against Baker and Rose’s engagement.

Kay-Dee Baker has been the store manager of Cafe Manhattan since December of 2018. Having come out in 2008, she is engaged to partner Dani Rose. “When I go to Cafe Manhattan with my fiancee, or a gay-friendly place, we are more comfortable to be who we are with each other,” Baker said. “It’s more like home.”

When Rose initially came out to her family, they were not very accepting of her. But over the years, they have opened up and been more supportive. Given that Baker’s mother will not attend the wedding, Rose’s mother has insisted on both Baker and Rose down the aisle. However, Baker continues to hope and pray for her mother to come around.

“Obviously I would love for my mother to be at my wedding,” Baker said. “But if I can’t change her mind about it, then I can’t change her mind about it. You can’t force something upon someone. But from my side, it’s like you are not willing to even alter your beliefs a little bit because I’m your daughter? You can see how happy I am. You can’t tell me you can’t see the love.”

Steps in the right direction

Addressing LGBT issues in school can be crucial to the development of a more accepting future. In a 2016 report from the Love Not Hate campaign, 56% of LGBT South Africans aged 24 years or younger reported that they had experienced LGBT-based discrimination in school.

Baker has heard from younger family members that LGBT issues are introduced during the life orientation subject in school. Having never experienced that kind of inclusion in her own schooling, she hopes that this trend continues as it “could only have a positive impact on communities and on individuals.”

“Being educated about it gives you a completely different perspective,” Baker said. “You basically still see people like you’re still human at the end of the day. As [people] come from public schools, they need to know these things because that also helps with how we treat other people.”

Baker explained that the work done by nonprofits is key to addressing issues that remain for the LGBT community. One such organization is The Triangle Project, which provides a range of services for LGBT people. These include providing a health clinic and counseling, as well as general advocacy and community events. Matthew Clayton, a research, advocacy and policy coordinator at The Triangle Project, told South African newspaper The Daily Maverick that family rejection of LGBT individuals creates a need for outside resources.

“LGBTQI people can find themselves in a vicious circle where family instability causes instability in their own lives and this instability makes it more difficult to find work, shelter or access other services,” Clayton said.

Thulani Ben has worked at Cafe Manhattan for four years. As a server, he says his favorite thing about working at the bar is the friendly and welcoming work environment.

To help address this instability, individuals can stay at the Pride Shelter Trust, a Cape Town-based nonprofit. Pride is a short-term residential facility for LGBT individuals, the only one of its kind on the African continent. Individuals can stay there for up to three months, receive two meals per day and psycho-social support.

Despite standing discrimination, LGBT South Africans continue to live and express themselves. With progressive education, established safe spaces and advocacy groups, Baker thinks that there’s a lot that’s been done for LGBT people to be open and to be more accepted in society.

“We are all human whether we are males into males, or females into females, or into [transgender people],” Baker said. “I’m still human. I still have feelings. I still have a heart.”

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