Back in the closet: LGBTQIA+ individuals excluded from the 2022 census

At the first LGBTQ pride march on the African continent in October 1990, protesters in the streets of Johannesburg shouted, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re everywhere!” Indeed, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer people are everywhere — just not where it matters. We are not in our country’s policies and legislation. We are not written about in the books of history, or when we are, our identities are erased until a faded image that is “more palatable” remains. 

Do the names Dr Bev Palesa Ditsie and Simon Nkoli mean anything to you? There are many more such names not easily recognised by large swaths of the population. As gender and sexually diverse residents of this country, we need to be included in the data that is used by our government and other agencies to deliver services “for the people”.

Fieldworkers from Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) began the task of collecting data for the country’s fourth national census in February of this year. At its conclusion, the census will provide a broad and aggregated profile of the individuals living within our borders, providing data on average age, gender, geographical distribution, levels of education and other characteristics. The survey also gathers key information regarding living conditions, income levels and people’s access to basic services. 

The data that is collected plays an important role in planning at the local, provincial, and national levels of government as it is used to draft purposeful policies, implement service delivery, construct and maintain crucial infrastructure and influence budgetary allocations for the various spheres of governance.

Considering the importance of the data collected and how it is used, it is a cause of great concern that the census still does not include questions relating to sexual orientation and will therefore not yield any data pertaining to lesbian, gay and bisexual people in South Africa. Moreover, the questionnaire’s limited definition of sex (as referring to the biological makeup of a person or the sex that is assigned at birth) entirely excludes transgender, intersex and non-binary persons. What is the value of the words in our Constitution, then? 

Historically, LGBTQIA+ individuals in South Africa have been a hidden population. Many hiding their gender and sexual diversity for fear of their lives and/or livelihoods due to the various prejudices and bouts of violence many have experienced. Although there has been progress in terms of visibility in recent years, like in many other countries, there is little to no statistical data of the size and distribution of this population group. The lack of statistical data as to the size of the population has not prevented researchers (primarily from the not-for-profit sector) from concluding that LGBTQIA+ individuals in South Africa face disproportionate levels of discrimination in schools, the workplace and in access to goods and services.

Consultations undertaken by British statistical agencies often reveal that users of data, such as service providers and government departments, appreciate information about the characteristics and size of the LGBTQIA+ population. Health and social care providers such as the Triangle Project and others are particularly eager to obtain such data. Statistically, LGBTQIA+ individuals have worse health metrics than the general population and tend to have particularly worse mental health outcomes. Furthermore, gay and bisexual youth are prone to significantly higher suicide rates than their heterosexual peers, while older LGBTQIA+ individuals disproportionately experience social isolation.

In light of the unique challenges that LGBTQIA+ people experience in South Africa, there are three main harms which occur when data relating to LGBTQIA+ individuals is excluded from the census.

Perpetuation of harmful stereotypes

The exclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals from the census perpetuates a bundle of stereotypes which hinder the attainment of equality, especially economic equality. In this bundle are beliefs that LGBTQIA+ individuals are well-off and are only found in urban centres. The existence of these stereotypes fuels discrimination, which contributes to LGBTQIA+ poverty.

Essentially, these prevailing stereotypes make the need for further laws aimed at protecting the LGBTQIA+ community from crime, harassment and discrimination seem less urgent as members of the community are presumed to be wealthy, and therefore insulated. Moreover, it masks the need for the enforcement of the equality laws (such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act) that do exist. 

By failing to collect LGBTQIA+ data – data that will without a doubt indicate disproportionate levels of poverty in the LGBTQIA+ community and a significant number of LGBTQ individuals living outside of urban centres – Stats SA and, by extension, the government, facilitates the perpetuation of poverty within the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Harms to dignity because of identity undercount

Failing to count South Africa’s LGBTQIA+ population erases the existence of the community from the nation’s conscience. If such data was gathered, LGBTQIA+ lives stand to be more visible, and the existence of LGBTQIA+ people and families becomes more normalised. Therefore, the invisibility of LGBTQIA+ people in the census is not neutral, it is harmful.

Invisibility causes ignorance which, in turn, causes discrimination. When a group is “othered” to the extent that simple facts relating to the size of their community is unknown, the group becomes more abstract and less human, both of which fuel discrimination against the group. Visibility, on the other hand, creates power and, more importantly, humanity. 

A US study on the “identity undercount” — the failure of the state to collect sexual orientation and gender identity population data in government surveys — concluded that there is “a symbiotic relationship between categories for the tabulation of data and the processes of group consciousness and social recognition, which in turn can be reflected in specific legislation and social policy”.

Political harms of the identity undercount

The exclusion of LGBTQIA+ individuals from our census contributes to extensive social and economic harms. As the degree of the existing disparities between LGBTQIA+ individuals and the rest of the population is not reflected in concrete data, lawmakers and LGBTQIA+ advocates are hamstrung in their efforts. The result is that there are fewer opportunities to provide financial support to both government and non-governmental initiatives that address the specific needs of LGBTQIA+ individuals and this in turn  “contributes to a snowballing cycle of disadvantaging LGBT people”.

Media reports of LGBTQIA+ learners being bullied in our schools, LGBTQIA+ workers being fired from jobs or community members being murdered, remind us that LGBTQIA+ people continue to suffer real-life consequences from stigmatisation and marginalisation.

Furthermore, as stated earlier, poverty is widespread in the LGBTQIA+ community. In order to draft policies that address this problem and foster support for such legislative measures from other lawmakers, politicians require comprehensive and accurate information. Government policies and regulations are, or at least should be, data driven. 

When our census does not reflect the number and distribution of LGBTQIA+ individuals in South Africa, lawmakers in civil society who seek to improve the situation of LGBTQIA+ people in South Africa are disadvantaged. Likewise, without data that tells us what it is like to be a LGBTQIA+ person in South Africa, the political power of LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups is limited as they will not have data to support their claims and reflect the experience of their constituents. Therefore, LGBTQIA+ people are politically harmed through this exclusion.

The inclusion of census items relating to gender and sexual diversity does not only benefit LGBTQIA+ individuals in South Africa, it would also set a precedent for the rest of the countries on the continent. South Africa’s influence among African nations, though not often used well, is significant. We are here. Count us in!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Muyenga Mugerwa-Sekawabe
Muyenga Mugerwa-Sekawabe is a candidate attorney at the Legal Resources Centre’s Cape Town office and works on matters of education and legacy.
Viwe Tafeni
Viwe Tafeni is a social worker at the Triangle Project.

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