The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative in the thought-provoking dance collaboration, H28: Love in a time of hammers, dedicated to Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato. The dance collaboration was also a way of bringing about gay awareness in Africa. Picture: Nokuthula Mbatha

The majority of us think gays and lesbians should have the same human rights protection as other people and should be part of the culture and traditions of the country, a survey has shown.

This is even though most South Africans also think that sex between people of the same gender is morally wrong.

The Other Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) released the results of "Progressive Prudes", a groundbreaking report and the first of its kind in Africa, to finally provide statistically sound, representative data.

Neville Gabriel, chief executive of The Other Foundation – an African trust that advances equality and freedom with a particular focus on sexual orientation and gender identity – says “there is a general belief that people in Africa are deeply homophobic and unaccepting of gender diversities”.

“But the truth is that, up to now, we haven't really known what the African public really thinks because hardly any work has been done to gather and analyse the views of the public in a structured way in Africa. The data is essential to craft our own African narrative about the lived realities of homosexual and bisexual women and men, as well as transgender and inter-sex people.

“We hope to soon expand this survey to other countries in our region.”

The report is named "Progressive Prudes" because it shows that while the majority of us see no difference between gay and lesbian people and everyone else in terms of human rights protections, the sex issue remains problematic.

More than 500 000 South African women and men living in rural and urban areas, and across all age groups, identify as homosexual, bisexual or gender non-conforming – consistent with similar population ratios in other parts of the world. About 3 million South Africans present themselves in public in a gender non-conforming way: about 430 000 men and nearly 2.8 million women.

Over half the population, 55 percent, say they will “accept” a gay family member but only one in four, 27 percent, report having a friend or family member whom they know is homosexual.

The majority – 80 percent – say they have not, nor would they ever consider, verbally or physically abusing someone who was gender non-conforming.

Alarmingly, about 450 000 South Africans have, over the past 12 months, physically harmed women who “dressed and behaved like men in public”, and 
24 000 have beaten up men “who dressed and behaved like women”.

However, support has grown for same-sex civil unions, which have been legal in South Africa since 2006. This runs against the tenor of the decision by the Anglican Church of Southern Africa’s provincial Synod, its top legislative body, which at the weekend voted against a proposal to allow “prayers of blessing” to be offered to people in same-sex civil unions.

Anglican Church leaders from the northern suburbs of Cape Town to the Namibian border voted during the Synod, with an initial motion proposing that clergy who identify as LGBTI and are in legal same-sex civil unions be licensed to minister in parishes, being withdrawn before the debate began.

Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba told the Synod there would be a “palpable pain” in the church over the vote.

The "Progressive Prudes" report found that since 2012 there had been “a tenfold increase” of South Africans who “strongly agree” with allowing same-sex marriage. The proportion of people “strongly disagreeing” dropped by half – from 48.5 percent then, to 23.4 percent.

Crain Soudien, chief executive of the HSRC, said: “The results convey the considerable effort still required to ensure that society understands and respects the rights of LGBT people in the country.

“A sizable share of South Africans continues to express intolerant views of homosexual sex and gender non-conformity. In addition, self-reported levels of past and potential future prejudice, abuse and violence against gay and lesbian people is also a source of concern.

“At the same time, the study offers some encouraging signs. Such knowledge serves as an important basis for further promoting social justice by enriching and shaping social dialogue, advocacy and policy interventions.”

The survey was commissioned by The Other Foundation and undertaken by the HSRC as part of the South African Social Attitudes Survey conducted at the end of last year. More than 3 000 South Africans were interviewed.

The foundation has embargoed the data from the survey beyond this initial report for 12 months to give African researchers who live and work on the continent the opportunity to explore the data first. Institutions and individuals interested in having access to the data during the embargo can apply for access to it. The foundation will offer small research grants to support work in selected areas of interest.

The Other Foundation released the results of the survey ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10 to remind us that tens of thousands of gay, lesbian and bisexual women and men, and intersex and transgender people, take their lives as a result of social attitudes that fuel hatred, social exclusion and violence towards homosexual and gender non-conforming people.

A study by OUT LGBT Wellbeing in Pretoria found that 31 percent of LGBTI people think about suicide and 21 percent attempt suicide in South Africa – well above the national average for the general population.

The Other Foundation released the report with a call to religious communities, trade unions, business executives, traditional leaders, NGOs, government agencies, parents and families of LGBTI people to “intensify efforts to build a just and caring society, free from discrimination, exclusion and harm towards LGBTI people and all other social groups who are seen as ‘other’”. – Janet Smith added comment to this piece from The Other Foundation

* Read more about The Other Foundation and see the full report at www.theotherfoundation.org