How do you hold a Pride parade in a country where being gay is illegal?

That was the dilemma faced by Swaziland’s queer community. The country has a poor record on LGBTQ rights, with colonial-era laws against homosexuality, a king who reportedly described gay people as “satanic” and rife societal discrimination.

And yet, despite these odds, the brave LGBTQ community of Swaziland made history when they successfully held their first ever Pride parade in capital city Mbabane earlier this year.

For a new documentary, created with the assistance of YouTube’s Creators For Change project, Riyadh Khalaf travelled to the African country – which is the only remaining absolute monarchy in the continent – to follow the Pride parade’s journey from conception to reality.

We caught up with Riyadh to find out more about the documentary, and what life is like for LGBTQ people in Swaziland.

Why was it so important for you to make this documentary?
So, I remember like it was yesterday my first ever Pride, and the unbelievable impact it had on me. I went along still actually feeling a lot of self-hate, shame and internalised homophobia, but also this weird and unspoken desire to find a sense of community, or to find out who the hell I was. Because I had absolutely nothing in television, nothing in film, nothing in my family even [that I could relate to]. So I knew that this first ever Pride in Swaziland, a traditionally homophobic country, was going to be absolutely massive, and I thought there was a really amazing story to be told there. Here we have a country that has a homophobic King who calls its LGBTQ citizens ‘satanic’, where there are still anti-sodomy laws, where LGBTQ people are harassed daily and fear for their lives – the list goes on and on. And these are really amazing and brave activists who are going to be an example to other countries around the world who might be on their way to doing something similar, places like Uganda or Turkey. So that’s why I decided to go to Swaziland, even though I had no idea where it was when I first heard the story.

Were you worried about going to a country that has such a strong anti-LGBTQ sentiment?
Well, the thing is, for me, I kind of have this out-of-body experience whenever I’m telling a story through a video or documentary, where I just think, ‘Fuck it, it’ll make for a great story and a great experience’, and I always put my safety second. But this was the first time I’d taken a full crew with me overseas where there were safety risks, so it was the first time I had to think beyond myself. And there were risks. There were threats of the parade being petrol bombed, or people being attacked, or maybe even police intervention. We were worried there might be similar things that happened in Turkey and Uganda where people were pepper sprayed and shot with rubber bullets. So there was always that fear, right up until the morning of the event, which kind of got more and more real as time went on because we began to hear from other people saying that this could potentially turn nasty. But thankfully on the day it went off without a hitch. It was quite scary though to have to buy kidnap and ransom insurance.

Wow. I didn’t even know that was a thing.
Neither did I! There was also insurance for repatriation of our bodies, in the event that we die on location. I didn’t put it into the budget initially, so we kind of had to make up the money to allow the shoot to happen with that insurance.

How was it to witness the Pride event?
Well, in the morning when we arrived, it was looking like it was going to be a very small event. They were expecting around 2,000 people, and I had a feeling that wouldn’t happen, but when we arrive there were no more than 20 people in a field. We thought, ‘OK, everyone’s happy, this is a nice vibe, but it’s going to be tiny, how are we going to make a celebration out of this?’ But then as the hours went by, it rose to about 500 which was incredible, and there was just an absolute buzz in the air. Even the police – who were very anti-Pride in the local press – were there, they were smiling, some of them I saw holding rainbow flags, I asked if it was OK if we filmed them and they said, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, we just want you all to be safe’. So there was this weird double-sided story where they were OK with the event happening, but they didn’t want to be seen to be OK with the event happening. They didn’t want to be seen as supporters but they were actually fine with it. And then after the event happened, and the global eyes were on this tiny country for the first time in a positive way, the government and the police and the press and the public all had a big, big change of heart, they were like, ‘Actually, if we let people be who they are and let them have this one little rainbow day a year, then this is an amazing publicity stunt, in a way, for this country that no one really talks about’. It sent shockwaves not just across Swaziland but across Africa as well. We’ve had word from other places who are thinking about doing a Pride parade too.

Getting to spend time with members of the LGBTQ community who have been through so much oppression and discrimination, that must have been inspiring.
It was extremely humbling. You think you have it hard living in London, where you have someone calling you a faggot once a month on the tube or something – yes, that’s awful, but my god were my eyes opened to how hard it is for people over there. We had three main contributors in this film: A gay guy named Mlando, a lesbian called Alex, and a trans woman called Polycarp, and it was amazing to see that each of them had their own struggle, but their struggles were very individual. So the gay guy, Mlando, actually fled Swaziland to neighbouring South Africa to have a somewhat free and open life. He just couldn’t live as his true self in his home country, and it was devastating that he had to leave. But he made that journey back to his homeland for this Pride, which was a huge moment for him. There were tears in the interview, and he couldn’t believe it was finally happening in Swaziland, talking about his father beating him as a kid for not being masculine enough. Then we had the lesbian side which was fascinating, because they’re not believed to be lesbians, the men think that these women just haven’t seen the light, and that they need to basically just get their shit together and realise they actually fancy men. That’s why in Swaziland there have been corrective rapes of women, to try and snap them out of it, and if you say you’re a lesbian, what you’ll often hear is that the men will be really offended, like, ‘How dare you not be attracted to me?’ And then for the trans woman, Polycarp, that’s the most difficult story. She’s essentially terrified for her life every time she leaves her house. She doesn’t always ‘pass’ when she’s out in public, so she speaks of being afraid of people coming up to her, grabbing her hair, pulling her into a ditch, and she said that her auntie tried to send her to a pastor to rid her of her possessions because she believes she has a demon. Her parents understand that she’s trans but beg her to present as a man for the sake of the family. So it’s multi-level and it’s just a constant battle with your identity and society and trying to find this middle ground where you can be who you are without offending everyone else.

What can people in the UK do to help people living in countries that don’t let them be who they are? Because it can feel quite hopeless sometimes.
Yeah, I totally understand that it can sometimes feel a bit like, ‘Well, they’re over there and that’s really sad, but oh well’. I think it’s about getting educated, knowing these people’s stories, talking about their stories, and supporting international LGBTQ rights movements. So it’s visibility, education, and then doing real-life calls to action or donations. So I made this film in partnership with All Out, they are a global LGBTQ rights charity that fight for justice and love in some of the most dangerous places in the world to be queer. So they actually brought the concept of doing something in Swaziland to me, and then we worked on it together and pitched it and got it over the line. It’s important to think of how you can help charities who are actually on the ground. I always say Pride to me, if you go back to the roots of it, it’s a protest not a party. In some parts of the world, thankfully protesting isn’t as important as it used to be, but in places like Swaziland and Russia and Uganda and Turkey, it’s still very much a protest and a dangerous one at that. Pride in Swaziland wouldn’t have been possible without the funding that All Out gave to the activists on the ground. So they didn’t go in and say, ‘We’re gonna put on Pride for you’, they got the money from the global community and they said, ‘Hey, you put on your Pride, this is your thing to do, we’re going to enable you to do it yourselves’, which is an amazing gift, I think.

You touched on it a little bit already, but having gone to Swaziland and experiencing Pride there, has that changed your opinion on what Pride means?
I think that Pride should always have a political element, even if we find out way into this idealistic, utopian land where the LGBTQ people can run freely without any fear of intimidation or attack, even then there’s still a political movement that needs to be shouted about at Pride events. I believe that young LGBTQ people can sometimes forget what happened before them and who came before them; the struggles, the fights, the arrests, the beatings and the killings that happened only decades ago, and are still happening in some places around the world. I love Pride, I’m a real Pride supporter in every shape and sense, and I think it should be a party if at all possible, but I do think that certain Prides – in particular the big ones – could put the political agenda a little bit more to the forefront.

Now that you’ve been to Swaziland, is there anywhere else you’d like to visit to further explore LGBTQ communities around the world?
Well, I’m half-Iraqi, and so I would absolutely love to get to Iraq, even to the Kurdish region which is slightly safer, and to explore what it means to be LGBTQ in one of the most dangerous war-torn parts of the world. Because of course everywhere in the world you’ll find people like us, we just exist. To go there, maybe with my father, to see the underground, hidden stories of LGBTQ people who are living and hiding, I think that would be amazing. There is an idea I pitched, which we might still do, which is involving LGBTQ activists in Northern Iraq who paint queer murals on walls under the cover of darkness, and then after a couple of hours they get defaced or whatever, but they still keep doing it. It’s really brave. So I think top of my list would be Iraq, and then Uganda and Turkey would also be in there.

What do you hope that viewers are going to take away from this documentary?
Even though these people are an eleven-and-a-half hour flight from us, in a country that feels socially like a complete different planet to ours, the struggles and the hopes and the dreams for free love and equality and a happy life, they’re exactly the same as we are. If I dare say, they’re more friendly and more warm than we are. I have never met a more beautiful people than the Swazi people, and let me just say this: I never thought that I would meet homophobes that I would say are beautiful people. I met homophobic people in Swaziland that were absolutely beautiful people inside and out, and what made them beautiful was their willingness to learn and to change their perceptions. There’s a scene in the documentary where I have a conversation with teenagers who say the Pride parade is disgusting, and that it’s going to be petrol bombed, and within 10 minutes of speaking to them and revealing that I’m gay, talking about what it means to be a gay person, they went from being afraid and angry about it to shaking my hand and saying, ‘We’re going to tell our friends what it’s really like to be gay, because now we understand’. That’s what visibility can do. If we can do that in 10 minutes with a group of lads who have institutionalised homophobic beliefs, then imagine what can we do with days, and weeks, and months of visibility and normalising who we are.

Riyadh’s new documentary Fighting For Pride: Swaziland is available to watch on YouTube now.