TIANG – BAHUMI KGOTHULE
South Africans often take pride in having, one of the most liberal constitutions in the world, promising freedom and equality for all, regardless of race, gender, religion or sexuality. Whether or not this is a reality is a subjective topic of conversation and debate.
According to Graeme Reid – author of How to be a Real Gay: Gay Identities in Small-Town South Africa – in the last 42 years, at least 31 South African lesbians are known to have been murdered in homophobic attacks. Of these, only two cases were brought to court and only one person was convicted. Gay men also face violence and discrimination despite their constitutional rights enshrined on paper.
However, happening concurrently with those attacks, South Africa was transitioning from outlawing homosexuality on the grounds of what was called the ‘Immorality Act’ (essentially, a range of so-called sexual offenses, which interracial sexual relations also fell under) to drawing up a constitution that included sexual orientation as a specific point of protection. In fact, South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to initiate this change.
After the constitution was ratified in 1996, there was a process of legal reform to bring all these laws in place, and a series of legislative changes took place in order to achieve equality in terms of partnership benefits, human rights and eventually, marriage equality.
However, despite the legislative alterations and a growing awareness of and tolerance for gay men and women in South Africa, there remains a persistent notion that homosexuality is “un- African” and “immoral”.
According to a social study conducted by the Pew Research Centre in 2012, a staggering 62% of South Africans regarded homosexuality as morally unacceptable. Evidently, these statistics of social opinion do not reconcile with the legal framework.
When posed with the question of whether or not our society has become more inclusive and aware of LGBTQ+ rights, students and lecturers alike from the university were sure in their answer of acceptance of gay and lesbian South Africans. It was a different story, however, when asked whether or not they should be allowed to exercise the same rights as themselves.
A UP student, who asked to remain anonymous, responded by saying that the “sole purpose of human beings is to reproduce, and same-sex relationships do not promote that”. Another student, who also wished to remain anonymous, expressed that homosexuality is not compatible with “‘African history’. It’s a western thing”. These comments and viewpoints potentially capture misconceptions surrounding sexuality and the progress that is still needed to be made when it comes to fully embody our constitution.
Moreover, Graeme Reid writes that, “the irony, of course, is that many of the laws, even those promoting homosexual inclusivity, are actually relics of British colonialism […] There has been a large emergence of African same-sex practices, but this is purely because the laws afford the reassurance that their lives are protected”.
George Bailanis, a first-year Medicine student from UP who identifies as gay, was eager to add to the conversation. He said to PDBY that, “South Africa has really progressed in terms of accommodating members of the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, it has done so to become one of the most inclusive countries on the continent.” When asked whether or not more individuals would “come out” if society was more tolerant and welcoming, he stated that it would potentially work the other way around – that society would become more tolerant and accepting if more people walked in their own truth and claimed their identities in the LGBTQ+ community.
On the topic of acceptance, tactless and controversial comments from public figures like Mmusi Maimane in 2015 and Jacob Zuma in 2006, perpetuate false narratives and normalise hate speech as these men have far-reaching audiences. Much progress is yet to be made as in theory, the concept of inclusivity and non-discrimination is intertwined into the foundation of our democracy. However, this is often not the case in the LGBTQ+ community.
Image: Cletus Mulaudi