/ 12 September 2017

Queer rights activists make their presence known in Parliament

Sex workers can take a pill that significantly reduces the risk of HIV infection.
Sex workers can take a pill that significantly reduces the risk of HIV infection.

With copies of the 2016 Hate Crimes Report in hand, Lerato Phalakatshela walked the corridors of Parliament, going door-to-politician’s-door, delivering the report to MPs.

“They really received it well,” says Phalakatshela. “Most were very open and engaged me on it, which was awesome for me because I definitely did not expect that. Some gave me a bit of a look — you know, that weird look — but it was generally really well-received.”

The report provides data on hate crimes perpetrated against queer people nationally. Phalakatshela’s hand deliveries were part of his work for the recently established lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) parliamentary office.

Opened in February this year, the office is the brainchild of the Love Not Hate Campaign, a collection of LGBTI civil society organisations. These include Access Chapter 2, Gay and Lesbian Community Health Centre, Gay and Lesbian Network, PMB, SHE in East London and Triangle Project. It is co-ordinated by OUT LGBT Wellbeing. Phalakatshela is the campaign’s hate crime manager.

The campaign was launched in 2015 and, by opening its parliamentary office, the organisations are trying to take their drive to try to reduce hate crimes against LGBTI people up a notch.

Notwithstanding the occasional “weird look”, Phalakatshela says many MPs have been supportive. “Some have been very helpful, making time to sit with us and advise on certain things.”

Andries Nel, deputy minister of the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, says the office is important because the organisations involved “play a leading role in their constituencies and also because important institutions such as the Human Rights Commission account to the National Assembly”.

“The world is experiencing a surge in right-wing populism with the attendant scourges of racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. So this really is a time for South Africans to rally to defend and advance the human rights enshrined in our Constitution, including the prohibition of unfair discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Matthew Clayton, the office’s research, advocacy and policy manager, says: “Essentially, Love Not Hate wanted to do two things: create an additional layer of oversight and accountability relating to hate crimes against LGBTI people and also provide a consistent LGBTI presence in the National Assembly that would be able to advocate for LGBTI issues within the policy development and budget design processes.”

With only a few months since kicking off its work, the office is careful not to extend its initial reach, currently attending just two committees, the police portfolio and the justice portfolio committees in the National Assembly, on a regular basis.

Clayton says these meetings would “further inform our strategies down the line. In this process we are looking at how we can build relationships and perhaps provide support and expertise on LGBTI issues”.

As to how he hopes the office’s work will affect the lives of queer people on the ground, Clayton says: “This is always tricky, because we have a long history in South Africa of legislative and other changes generating little to no change in people’s lives.”

The hope is to influence how resources are allocated “and the way that people are held accountable when systems fail. We hope that this process will help in providing not just responses to hate crimes and discrimination, but work which prevents these violations to begin with.”

Phalakatshela stresses this is but one of numerous initiatives aimed at curbing hate crimes. “Nationally, there are many different ways of dealing ways with the issues LGBTI people face. Parliament is not the only mechanism.

“Parliament work takes time,” he adds. “So we’re going to have to be patient and see what fruits this will bear in the near future and in the long run.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation