Make sexual minorities mainstream

Is the government a champion of the rights of sexual minorities? This past week there was minor excitement within the broader community of sexual minorities and civil society organisations that work on sexual-health issues.

Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had agreed to give the keynote address at a conference focusing on sexual-health issues affecting men who have sex with men (MSM), particularly within the context of the HIV/Aids pandemic.

The minister’s presence, according to one of the organisers, is “indicative of the department of health and the minister’s personal response to MSM and recognition of the need for programming”.

And yet, notwithstanding the importance of the health ministry targeting all groups affected by HIV/Aids, this praise for a minister doing his job gives us an opportunity to reflect on a broader set of questions.

Is this government, in general, a reliable champion of the rights of sexual minorities? Is the more specific focus on MSM appropriate or does it reinforce stereotypes about the sexual behaviour of minorities?

The ANC-led government has had a chequered relationship with sexual minorities.

On the one hand, in spite of the fact that the majority of ordinary citizens display various levels of homophobia, the ANC agreed to a liberal Constitution that outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sex and sexual orientation. And, of course, it is old hat to assert that we have the most progressive gay-rights jurisprudence in the world.

There is no political pressure on the ANC to take liberal party positions on these thorny ethical issues.
And yet there has appeared to be something of a principled commitment to create at least a legal environment that affirms the substantive equality and dignity of sexual minorities.

Seen within this context, Motsoaledi’s personal appearance at a conversation between experts and sexual minorities about their sexual health challenges is appropriate. Indeed, it flows from the very constitutional rights that sexual minorities enjoy. It gives policy and practical meaning to those legal rights.

At the same time, however, the minor excitement about the minister’s presence is deceptive. We should not exaggerate the symbolism of the health department’s decision to be a serious partner in localised conversations about sexual health within various vulnerable communities. It belies the broader reality that there is a gap between the liberal Constitution and political leadership on issues of sexuality.

Where, for example, is government’s leadership on the issue of so-called corrective rape, which too many lesbian girls and women torturously endure? Where is the ANC government’s commitment to human rights in the appointment of Jon Qwelani as ambassador to Uganda, a man who has a record of committing verbal violence against sexual minorities that shatters their dignity?

Where is government’s commitment to substantive equality for sexual minorities when a senior diplomatic figure, Jerry Matjila, argues at the United Nations Human Rights Council that it would be wrong to oppose homophobia and racism in the same resolution because to do so would belittle the experiences of racism’s victims?

Worse still was the intervention by this diplomat’s political principal, Ayanda Ntsaluba, who explained that Matjila should have used “more elegant” language. The truth is that the Constitution cannot change hearts and minds. It is an important step towards making the country safer for sexual minorities to live freely. And it matters that there is legal affirmation of everyone’s unqualified entitlement to dignified treatment from the state and from their fellow citizens.

But if we are to see a change in attitude on the part of the homophobic majority, much greater leadership is required than the health minister’s appearance at a health conference. This is not, of course, to deny that the minister’s appearance is necessarily limited in terms of its potential impact. And, furthermore, it is appropriate for him, specifically, to focus on matters of health rather than on the broader fight against homophobia, for example, or sexual violence against lesbians and heterosexual women and non-violent manifestations of prejudice against all vulnerable groups.

It does mean, however, that we need to urge the government to display greater visible, public leadership in a broader social dialogue about attitudes towards sexual minorities. The danger of having a minister present only at a health conference is that we may inadvertently medicalise sexual minorities.

We may (though I acknowledge this is not the intention) accidently reinforce the belief of some that sexual minorities are objects for medical intervention rather than banal persons with the same banal desires, capacities, wishes, dreams, hopes and fears as the heterosexual majority.

We can render sexual minorities boring, however, only if government, as a unit, shows moral and political leadership in celebrating the positive contributions many sexual minorities make to this country and shows leadership in fighting the social manifestations of prejudice against them.

Motsoaledi’s commitment to sexual minorities’ wellbeing is praiseworthy. But more is needed from government to ensure that, at some point in the future, the very need for a conference of this kind falls away.

Eusebius McKaiser is an associate at the Wits Centre for Ethics

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