In the fight for LGBTQ+ rights on the African continent, South Africa leads the way for marriage equality and legal protection against discrimination. In fact it was the first country in the world to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and the fifth to legalize same-sex marriage.
On paper, this country is a haven for people like me, but there lies a stark contrast between the written policies and lived experiences. This is where we need to direct our focus.
The Civil Union Act came into power on the 30 November 2006 after the ruling on the case of Minister of Home Affairs vs Fourie, in which a lesbian couple fought to claim their rights in a country where, post-apartheid, we worked towards eliminating identity-based discrimination.
Because the case didn’t follow a nationwide consensus or a massive shift in the social perception of LGBTQ+ people, this made South Africa an anomaly among many countries fighting for marriage equality. Legal protection preceded public acceptance. This is one of the reasons why we struggle with misconceptions and discrimination regarding same-sex marriages today.
A clause in the Civil Union Act allows civil servants to refuse to solemnize civil unions if they object to same-sex relationships on the grounds of their “conscience, religion [or] belief.” In a country that is religious, this presents a very real obstacle for same-sex couples who want to marry. While an amendment to the bill will solve an important aspect of the problems facing the LGBTQ+ community, it cannot address the deep-seated tendency towards the marginalisation of gay people in South Africa.
For the past few years, I’ve lived and worked in one of South Africa’s more conservative and religious cities. Despite my fierce determination as a queer brown woman to promote feelings of personal safety among members of the queer community, I still at times find I closet myself through silence about my own identity at work or in particular social settings.
A short 30-minute train ride to the neighbouring city allows me the freedom to speak freely about past relationships without worrying about judgement or persecution, and it also gives me the community I very much lack in my day-to-day life.
I’ve only recently realised how much of my identity I have had to put aside as a product of the fear that my external environment engenders. Aside from my own feelings of cowardice, my experiences often make me think about queer people who are living with neither the acceptance of society nor any sort of legal protection, or even worse, the knowledge that their identity is grounds enough for them to be prosecuted..
As a civil engineer working towards water and sanitation provision, I’ve come across many communities that are unable to reach their full potential as a result of failed leadership and unawareness of their own agency. There are many leaders who don’t represent their constituents, and there are community members who aren’t aware of the democratic agency to which they are entitled. This issue is mirrored in the LGBTQ+ struggle. A lack of representative leadership and the silencing of LGBTQ+ voices means that many communities are not having conversations about gay issues.
Progressive Prudes, one of the first surveys conducted on the “attitudes towards homosexuality and gender non-conformity in South Africa”, noted that 51% believe that gay people should have the same human rights, but a staggering 72% feel that same-sex activity is morally wrong. The data regarding these perceptions is in line with the data regarding the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people throughout the country. Forty-four percent of the queer community reportedly experience verbal, physical and/or sexual discrimination in their everyday lives due to their sexual orientation, and sensitive issues are often remarkably under-reported.
So, with the social challenges on the ground in South Africa and the social and legal challenges across the continent, what do we do?
We need to see more gay people represented in leadership positions, not just in LGBTQ+ issues, but in all social issues affecting the country. We also need more queer education and awareness on active citizenship (eg how to be involved in your local Integrated Development Plan meetings where regular citizens can influence budgets and decisions).
The life orientation curriculum in South African schools is robust and progressive on paper. But due to limited experience by educators and social stigma, many topics are not explored and explained as intended. Mila, an online platform seeking to supplement the life orientation curriculum, is one example of how to use technology in order to engage with students across the country on topics they might not have access to.
One friend sees media as a key solution to shifting mindsets. “The consumption of television in South Africa is high. In areas of poverty, one can still find televisions and satellite dishes decorating the homes of many. I'm not sure what the statistics are, but try cancel a week of soap operas such as IsiBaya, Muvhango or 7de Laan and let's see what happens. We open ourselves to storytelling and to fantasy, and as we know, life imitates art. If art showed more gay, lesbian and trans characters in situations the masses often find themselves in, doing things they do, suffering like they do, dreaming like they do, getting married like they do, slowly the divide between us and them would start to shrink."
This year the LGBT+ Forum launched the South African Workplace Equality Index, which seeks to “benchmark and recognise the employers that are most inclusive towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees in South Africa”. They see the index as a way to change attitudes in the workplace and encourage wider positive change. The group helps identify best practices for employment equity plans and hopes to grow the number and sectors of business they include in the survey in the coming years. Initiatives like these are helping us work towards wider societal acceptance.
Advocacy and action
Other countries on the African continent supported South Africa in the struggle against apartheid, and it would be a dishonour to abandon them in their struggles regarding sexuality. Kaye Ally, chairperson of Johannesburg Pride, has asked the president for a "presidential advisory committee" for LGBTQ+ decriminalisation on the continent of Africa.
It’s a practical way for South African leaders to step up. President Cyril Ramaphosa recently reminded the community of his support, noting that “the LGBTI community in South Africa, as much we all have rights, is a community that still needs to be properly supported, properly positioned”. This support together with vocalising advocacy for the rest of the continent has the potential to change the narrative that to be gay is un-African. We have the position as Africans to show that we all deserve to thrive and contribute to the building of a prosperous continent.
The challenges may be many, and may be large, when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights these days, but I can’t help but think back to the many people who came before, who laid down their lives for us to be at the point where we can continue the fight at a global level today.
As popular out-and-proud YouTuber Tyler Oakley recently said: “Queer people everywhere are responsible for queer people anywhere.” That’s something I’ll remember when I feel less brave, in addition to the times when I have the courage to step up, whether it’s for access to water and sanitation or protection of LGBTQ+ people.
The hope is that we can remove these preventable obstacles and unlock the potential of people to live their fullest lives.