It was something of a rocky start, I’d say. The brief — which I somehow convinced those interviewing me I could pull off — was daunting: putting together stories that examined the experiences of queer people across the continent.
Aside from initially distrusting sources and unrelenting deadlines, there was also the matter of this being new terrain for all of us: editors, subeditors, readers and even queer old me.
There were debates (“Is this headline potentially offensive?”), some head-scratching (“How do we use non-binary persons’ pronouns — ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ — in sentences without confusing everybody?”) and losing of tempers (well, only my own, to be honest).
But we did okay, even though there were some snide digs at our work from the nit-picky woker-than-thou brigade. We took it on the chin, because who could really blame them?
When it comes to covering anything related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) matters, the media — particularly African-based publications — are known for being unsupportive to the point of cruelty. And not only in countries such as Uganda, where just the mere suspicion of being queer could result in your face being plastered across national newspapers. Even South Africa, with all of its “most progressive Constitution in the world” self-importance, is not exempt.
In July 2106, Shaun Westley laid a complaint with the press ombudsman against a Western Cape-based tabloid, after the paper’s front page headline read, “Maak die moffie vrek”.
His bid to have the newspaper apologise for having “perpetuated the dehumanisation of the gay community” was dismissed. Westley says: “The paper’s argument was that they were speaking the language of their readers. But my argument was that language, in itself, is a tool of violence and that these micro-aggressions ultimately shape people’s perceptions of others and how they classify them.”
Anastacia Thompson, a transgender woman and author, says: “I’ve been the subject of numerous headlines suggesting that I was ‘born in the wrong body’, or a ‘woman in a man’s body’. My body is neither ‘wrong’, nor is it a ‘man’s body’. I’m a woman, and it is my body. It is perhaps unique and different to some other bodies, but it is nonetheless my body.
“Those sorts of phrases strip us of agency over our bodies and serve only to reduce our personal histories and experiences to stereotypical, reductive and inaccurate concepts. Too often, those who are retelling our stories will either twist the narratives to fit their own preconceptions, or will simply be insensitive to the nuances and complexities that surround transgender identity.”
Brian Pellot is the co-founding director of Taboom Media, which has, since 2016, trained more than 150 journalists in Africa on “how to better report on religion and sexual orientation and gender identity and expression issues”.
It provides a good starting point for reporting on a complicated beat. “In our training sessions, we talk about ‘human rights journalism’. And that’s about human-centric reporting, essentially; keeping the individual at the centre of our stories and not losing sight of that.”
This is important in countries where same-sex activity is a considered to be a crime, and journalists sometimes default to reporting through a criminal narrative. Pellot warns: “We can’t lose sight of the fact that people are people and they deserve to have their voices heard. It is not our duty to re-criminalise people or put them in harm’s way. We’re there to tell a story and to help our audiences understand what might be unfamiliar or complicated issues.”
A 2018 scoping study by Taboom Media, which examined the coverage of LGBTI issues in Malawi, Botswana, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, found that “South Africa was by far the best”, followed by Botswana and Malawi, with Kenya and Uganda “at the lower end”.
Pellot adds that journalists often face problems of self-censorship, editorial censorship and sometimes government censorship. “So sometimes … a journalist wants to cover a story but gets worried their newsroom colleagues might think they are gay for doing a story. Or their editors might say the issue is ‘too sensitive … our audiences can’t handle it’.”
“South Africa is doing a great job, comparatively,” he says, “But obviously we can improve.”
Being in a space where we can report is one thing — and we need more of those spaces — but we must do better.
The Mail & Guardian, too, is by no means perfect. After all, it is not as though the former publishers and editors one day realised a need for dedicated reporting on queer people — among the most marginalised people on the continent. My position at the newspaper was funded by The Other Foundation, which approached the M&G and the two entered into a partnership. So there is that.
We occasionally got things wrong. And I have, in the rush to meet deadlines, delivered stories that needed more work done on them. Despite this, we provided a platform for people whose stories might not otherwise have been heard. What greater honour can there be?
Carl Collison was The Other Foundation’s Rainbow fellow at the M&G from August 1 2016 to July 31 2019