Turning the gaze on gay rights

Victoria John's report (Gentle man's brutal murder turns spotlight on intolerance, June 28 2012) on the murder of Thapelo Makhutle's made for shocking reading. The full page spread gave a detailed and gruesome account of his killing and brought to mind that old media adage – if it bleeds it leads.

John's report commences with the statement that "most people in the Kuruman area believe it is ungodly and unAfrican to be gay". On reading the article it is apparent that this bold statement, posing as fact, is drawn solely from the account of an individual, contemplating what one might find "if one walked around the streets of Kuruman". Basic journalistic ethics requires that such a sweeping assertion be properly substantiated. If not, such a statement risks reproducing the normalisation of the very homophobic discourses it ostensibly 'reports' to exist. The media has a particular responsibility to resist this naturalisation of the injured/murdered LGBTI 'victim' that everyone loves to hate.

In the midst of murder, local contestations around "Africanness", sexuality and gender are very much alive. Recent resistance to the Traditional Courts Bill and to homophobia by traditional leaders are cases in point. LGBTI people are increasingly claiming political and social space, and women are challenging cultural systems that undermine their rights. This is partly why violence based on sexuality and gender occurs.

John's report, in which Thapelo's body becomes central to the replay of a horror, details the violent minutiae of his murder. In reports on homophobic attacks, it seems all too easy the way in which the black (because they mostly are) and blue bodies of LGBTI people are represented, particularly female bodies. Widening the lens – such that the horror is contextualised – will work against the impulse for homophobic violence and its 'necessary victims' to become normalised and the stuff of its making to therefore be obscured.

Slavoj Zizek's caution, in his typology of violence, asks, "is there not something suspicious, indeed symptomatic, about this focus on subjective violence – that violence which is enacted by social agents, evil individuals, disciplined repressive apparatuses, fanatical crowds? Doesn't it desperately try to distract our attention from the true locus of trouble, by obliterating from view other forms of violence and thus actively participating in them?"

This calls attention to the symbolic and material aspects of violence that are part of what we see as the 'normal' state of affairs – the "most people" status quo. Unlike the bodies they claim, systems of violence, such as heteronormativity, sexism, racism and impoverishment, are seldom laid bare.

Heteronormativity is a social system that privileges heterosexuality at the expense of sexualities and gender identities that don't conform to it. As a function of power it operates through, amongst other means, violence as a policing and correcting force. From this perspective, violence against LGBTI people is partly a response to those who, in different ways, pose a threat to heteronormative privilege and power.

For example, lesbians and gay men challenge what it is to be masculine and feminine and that only opposite sexes attract. Transgender and intersex people disrupt the idea that there is a fixed relationship between biological sex and gender. The mere existence of queer people subverts gender binaries and the myths around its 'naturalness'.

All movements for social change, the anti-apartheid struggle included, are grounded in the pain, rage and resistance of the injured. A growing movement of LGBTI people is increasingly asserting that their bodies matter and have the value to be mourned. These are political acts of staking a claim to, as philosopher Judith Butler frames it, "what counts as a livable life and a grievable death". The full picture then, is not one of injurability alone. It is also about democracy at work, the expansion of citizenship and voices for social justice making themselves heard. These pressures on systems of dominance have the potential to generate new and hopefully more equitable, forms of power and politics.

Violence tells us something about who we are – both the injured and the privileged. This invites us to question: How are gender hierarchies sustained through violence? How do sexism, racism and class inequalities enable homophobic violence? Whose interests are served by peddling prejudice and what is its political function? How does homophobia relate to current re-assertions of colonial and apartheid identities? How do we all – not just queers – hold leaders to account when they promote hatred in the name of culture?

These are some of the issues that violence based on sex, gender and sexuality compels us to consider, lest we remain forever transfixed by the horror of bleeding bodies, while safely ensconced in our own participation in the very exercise of power that makes such violence possible.

Melanie Judge is an LGBTI activist.

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