It has been a little over a month that OUT Wellbeing’s LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) legal clinic has been open, but Maude Maodi-Swartz, the centre’s paralegal officer, is already pleased with the “empowering” work being done.
Her pride stems from experience: “A couple of years ago, I was working at a call centre. And you know when a person challenges your work, but uses personal attributes; uses your sexual orientation to make you feel inferior? Being called stabane [intersex]; being told that who you are is not acceptable. And that was my senior saying those things,” she recalls.
“You just keep quiet. You struggle in silence. That is what a lot of people are going through right now — they’re struggling in silence, fearing that they won’t be able to put food on the table because they stood up for their rights.”
A 2016 study by the organisation found that 44% of LGBTI people surveyed said they had experienced discrimination in the previous two years, and 88% hadn’t reported these incidents. This “could be due to fear of secondary discrimination by the police and being unsure of how to seek justice and secure their rights”.
Johan Meyer, OUT’s health manager, says: “Many victims of LGBTI hate crimes do not even bother to report these offences to the police, as they have little faith that something will or can actually be done. With this legal clinic service, we hope to increase the number of cases reported to the police.”
The centre is an offshoot of the organisation’s three-year, anti-hate crime initiative, the Love Not Hate programme. It officially kicked off its services at the beginning of March. Services offered include support and advocacy services to the LGBTI community as well as victim support for survivors of hate crimes.
Maodi-Swartz says the organisation identified the need to extend the services for hate crime survivors and that “this problem would be better solved by directly assisting the client … because it can be quite complicated for a lay person to go through all those legal processes”.
The biggest number of the centre’s cases are requests for assistance for LGBTI asylum seekers and sexual violations based on sexual orientation and discrimination in the workplace. “We assist survivors, from the initial point of reporting the violation to monitoring the court procedure, and ensuring that the victims receive [the] support they require.”
Asylum seeker cases are referred to the clinic’s partners, Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid.
Sanja Bornman of Lawyers for Human Rights says: “The need for legal advice and assistance remains huge. Legal literacy in South Africa is low and access to justice is deeply problematic for disadvantaged and marginalised communities. The LGBTI community is no different and is, in fact, even less likely to access regular channels, where they may fear or experience discrimination or a lack of understanding of their lived experiences.”
Maodi-Swartz says: “To be able to assist an LGBTI person and inform them that … the supreme Constitution of our country protects them and can be used to get justice — without any financial cost in some instances — is truly empowering.”
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian