Opening spaces to challenge prejudice
The International Day against Homophobia on May 17 gave pause for reflection. As a society in transition, South Africa presents a contradictory picture in terms of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons: one of immense gains at the level of formal equality on the one hand, and alarming setbacks at the level of social practice on the other.
Constitutional and legal equality ushered in the unprecedented participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people in all spheres of society. Simultaneously, however, there is a high tolerance for hate speech and violence against those who do not conform to prescribed sexual and gender norms.
The National House of Traditional Leaders’ parliamentary submission to remove sexual orientation as grounds for nondiscrimination in the Bill of Rights and its drive behind the despotic Traditional Courts Bill are a throwback to apartheid inequalities. These traditional institutions, which have gradually been losing their grip on power since democratic rule began, now cling to a kind of apartheid nostalgia invested in impermeable divisions between queers and straights, men and women, citizens and subjects and blacks and whites. But there is no going back into the apartheid closet.
The myth that homosexuality is unAfrican originates from colonial representations of African sexuality and associated attempts to police gendered and sexual behaviour. It has spawned the social production of a false, limited idea of African sexuality as exclusively heterosexual, homogenous and unchanging, which is - and has always been - entirely out of synch with lived experiences. Same-sex sexual practices may not have been labelled “homosexual” in Africa, but they have always existed and are well documented.
Discrimination against people who define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex in Africa and what we commonly call “homophobia” are products of a Western construction of sexuality imposed during colonialism.
The brand of African culture promoted by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa is dependent on these myths. The organisation says homosexuality is the result of certain rituals not having been performed. The spurious notion that a “cultural correction” can eliminate homosexuality is part of the selfsame disciplinary strategy that makes “corrective rape” possible.
By laying claim to rights and holding leaders to democratic account, many South Africans are contesting these prejudiced moves and seeking to make good on constitutional aspirations to public participation, equality and justice.
Also, spaces are increasingly opening up in communities to promote and protect the choices of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people to live authentically and with dignity. The Triangle Project, an organisation working for the promotion and protection of the rights of these people, convenes difficult but necessary conversations across generations on gender and sexuality.
One example is our “gogo (grandmother) talks” during which older, heterosexually identified women and young, openly lesbian and bisexual women come together to talk, listen and learn that their struggles are not separate. The pressing issue for these women is violence by men - against older women as well as young ones who choose to live openly as lesbians. During these talks neighbourhoods discuss myths about sexuality, lend support to each other and identify ways to respond to the shared experiences of disempowerment and marginalisation that women continue to experience. The linkages being forged here bring together rights struggles and the need for active citizenship against prejudice. They are the building blocks for our common humanity.
At Cape Town Pride in February the gogos came out in numbers. They took up seats next to the Pride route, cheering and waving placards proudly announcing their support for gay and lesbian people. In a conversation held in Mbekweni in Paarl, one gogo said: “You have to come closer for us to hear.” Now is the time for us to come closer and to hear.
Melanie Judge is on the board of the Triangle Project and Jayne Arnott is its director