South Africa was the first country in the world to pass laws that protect individuals against discrimination based on sexual orientation, as enshrined in the constitution. This country appears to be a safe space for the rainbow community, at least on paper. The question posed to UP students and staff was whether the contents of the constitution reflect the lived experiences of the queer community in South Africa today. Associate professor in Private Law, Professor Anne Louw, told PDBY that the legal developments with regard to the queer community in South Africa “[have] improved the legal position of this community tremendously”. She continued by saying that since the Laubscher case, “same-sex couples (who have not concluded a civil union) are in a better position than unmarried heterosexual couples when it comes to intestate rights”. Whilst this may be true, many interviewees raised concerns about the implementation of these LGBTQ+ rights. Clara van Niekerk, Chairperson of UPandOut, informed PDBY that members of the queer community had been “laughed at” by the police after approaching them for help. Gender-based violence (GBV) Vigil speaker and second year BA Visual Studies student, Luke Bainbridge, reiterated this when he revealed that the police “diminish” gay people. Reece Stedman, a music student at a private college in Pretoria, disclosed to PDBY that he did not know his rights as a member of the queer community, suggesting that education in South Africa needs to place emphasis on awareness surrounding gay rights.
Second year BA student, Sibusiso Malinga, feels that whilst the constitution is “great” in writing, its implementation is “another story”. In reality, Malinga feels that South African society perceives the LGBTQ+ community as “undeserving of these rights”. He goes on to suggest that homophobic violence would not be so rampant if laws were implemented “more rigidly”. Once again the incompetence of the police force was lamented when Malinga described how the recent attack of a gay person at Uncle Faouzi had been met with derision among the policemen- “the Brooklyn police didn’t take him seriously or respect him”.
On the topic of safety as a “ gay, non-gender conforming [individual]”, Malinga feels “fairly safe”. That being said, if he alone is going to a place where he feels his safety is “compromised”, he will “tone down [his] feminine energy”.
Bainbridge told PDBY that he usually feels safe, however, “there have been instances where [he feels] very unsafe such as when out clubbing”. He elaborated on this by suggesting that there were times when people would feel entitled to inappropriately touch him. “You’re supposed to live your life unafraid as a human being [yet] there are a lot of things that you have to do to feel safe as a queer member”, concludes Bainbridge. Transformation and Student Success SRC member Zama Mtshali stated that she has heard of “proposals about panic buttons around campus” which could be a future instalment to ensure greater on-campus protection.
PDBY interviewed Psyche Society Chairperson Kim Eardley to gain insight on the psychological impact of homophobic violence on the queer community. She highlighted that there is a “gross under appreciation” for the psychological, social and academic consequences of coming out. Members of the queer community are told to abide by a “set of guidelines” in order to be “left alone”, however Eardley stresses that “the issue is not with the individual, it is with the perpetrator”. She suggests that the violence inflicted on LGBTQ+ members results in “a sense of helplessness and [feelings] of loneliness”.
Malinga told PDBY that he was bullied by his male friend group in high school. Most members of the queer community have experienced a form of bullying at some point in their lives. Often bullies follow them into the realm of adulthood in the form of workplace discrimination. Prejudice often makes an early appearance, taking root at home and within the classroom. Eardley notes that “some psychologists believe in teaching students in a gender-neutral environment” to combat this. She maintains that “the curriculum needs to be expanded or modified. If the education system would catch up with the times, they could transform [subjects like] LO.” She concludes by suggesting that a “shift in the way we currently do things would make the biggest impact”.
Eardley told PDBY about a friend who would “dress in full drag” and became known as a prominent “queer and transsexual” figure at varsity. Yet he would dress as a “typical heterosexual Zulu man” upon returning to his hometown to avoid getting beaten up. Eardley also suggested that this violence stems from a mentality that it is men’s responsibility to “reprimand” whoever is stepping outside of the typical “male heterosexual” or “cultural Zulu” mould and therefore, in their eyes, “bringing down the masculinity average of the Zulu man”.
Malinga feels that it is “difficult” to be open about one’s sexuality within the black community. He opened up about the “cultural expectation” attached to “black identity” which is difficult to navigate from a queer space. “I don’t see myself in anyone else”, says Malinga. This could be interpreted as a reflection of the isolation and lack of black queer representation in South Africa.
Many LGBTQ+ individuals have a splintered identity. Malinga told PDBY that he “leans on” his “liberal friendships and clubs at Tuks” in order to be “true to [himself] and maintain [his] identity” because outside of those safe spaces his identity would often become “dismantled”. He disclosed to PDBY that he has to “censor” his social media posts because he keeps his sexuality hidden from his extended family. According to Eardley, “this is where psychology comes in”. One must look at mental health problems in the queer community within the context of this fragmented identity and “how much stress that puts on a person”.
On the subject of UP’s attitude toward the queer community, Bainbridge admitted he had “never seen or heard of homophobic remarks or actions on campus” and he feels that “the general attitude toward the queer community is very good at Tuks”. In contrast, Malinga told PDBY that when students are confronted with the more visible members of the LGBTQ+ community, “you can see the shock in their eyes”. He describes UP’s reaction to the queer community as “mixed” and he suggests that “there is still a lot more to be done” to ensure inclusivity. Lastly, he divulged that he feels “engagement with each other is lacking” at UP. Eardley stated that she felt queer-based dialogue is not encouraged enough at Tuks. To combat this, Eardley expressed an interest in having Psyche Society work with the queer community in a “workshop or seminar”. “The difficulty is we need more interaction between the societies and communities on campus,” she adds. Both van Niekerk and Eardley suggested that a way to combat homophobia would entail calling people out for homophobic slurs, as Eardley says, “if we limit the spaces where people start to feel comfortable saying stuff like that, the attitudes will change”. Eardley feels that “misinformation” , the “misuse of Christianity to abuse people” as well as toxic “notions of masculinity” inform South African society’s attitude toward the LGBTQ+ community. Van Niekerk told PDBY that “ignorance is the source of all prejudice” therefore “education” is an important tool to combat homophobia. A problem within South Africa, according to Bainbridge, is the “deeply embedded beliefs and misunderstanding that homosexuality or anything part of LGBTQ+ is inherently wrong. We need to educate more with vigils and seminars where people can understand we are human too”. Malinga described media as an issue “especially within the black community”. The typical narrative of a “feminine, gay black guy who is the comic relief” is detrimental. “I want to be seen as more than that”. Essentially, Malinga feels that there is a need to “extend the narrative of what it means to be LGBTQ.” He concluded by maintaining that the “general public is not there yet but there is hope that we will get there one day”.
Perhaps through open conversations, greater student engagement and enhanced education, the ‘legislative rainbow’ may one day meet the reality of the lived experiences of South African society. Until then, the general consensus appears to be that the legal world does not reflect the psychology of South African society and the complex interplay between identity, sexuality, culture, ethnicity and religion. This in turn means that LGBTQ+ rights are protected to a very limited extent and safety is often compromised within the rainbow community. That being said, significant change does appear to be on the horizon.