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Reshaping public opinion on gays

Friends of the slain lesbian Duduzile Zozo protest outside the Palm Ridge Magistrates Court in November last year when Lesley Motleleng was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for her murder. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Friends of the slain lesbian Duduzile Zozo protest outside the Palm Ridge Magistrates Court in November last year when Lesley Motleleng was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for her murder. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng

Published Mar 26, 2015


We need to increase efforts to shape public opinion on patriarchy, gender and sexuality to end violence against homeosexuals, writes Pierre Brouard.

Pretoria - When he opened the 13th Out in Africa Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in March 2007, Deputy Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Dikgang Moseneke said three important things.

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First, “we have to acknowledge the long history in this country, and indeed in many other countries around the world, of the marginalisation and persecution of gays and lesbians”.

Second, there is “a need to remind our people that we need a radical rupture from the past which is not limited to race but includes family relations – this is a rejection of patriarchy”.

And third, “we have committed to turn our back on all those things that seek to impede the fullness of each one of us and we should steadfastly continue to do so”.

These words speak to the essence of South Africa’s constitution, more particularly the Equality Clause, which outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Read with the proscription of discrimination based on sex and gender, the human rights of people who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) can be deemed to be, on paper at least, protected.

This means anyone who practises same-sex sexuality, or who has a non-normative gender expression or an alternative gender identity, should be protected from denial of their basic human rights, including various forms of social exclusion, stigmatising social attitudes which constitute a form of symbolic violence, as well as attacks (ranging from verbal to physical), because their practices, appearance and identity are seen as an affront to acceptable norms and behaviour.

Yet crimes against LGBTI people continue. Assaults, rapes and murders of lesbian women remain disturbingly commonplace and shocking.

Seen against a backdrop of high levels of gender-based violence and intimate femicide in the broader society, they speak of a society at war with itself.

While the roots of these forms of homophobia (a fear or antipathy towards same-sex practising people) and related transphobia (a fear or antipathy towards gender variant people) are complex, in essence they reflect a hetero-patriarchal world view (linking heterosexuality, and clear and rigid binaries of acceptable male and female behaviour and appearance with beliefs around male entitlement and power).

This is bad for LGBTI people but also for anyone who challenges the patriarchal order, including heterosexual men who eschew conventional forms of masculinity and all women who demand equality.

This homophobia, as Ugandan human rights defender Professor Sylvia Tamale, of Makerere University, noted in a public lecture at the University of Pretoria last week, finds expression beyond South Africa, through new and specific laws which are harsh and uncompromising.

These laws, she argues, do not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they reflect a return to cultural and religious fundamentalism in times of economic and political uncertainty. Along with views around the appropriate appearance and morals of women, they reflect both a cynical attack on sexual minorities to boost political power and persistently patriarchal views on sexual pluralism and the subordination of women.

Tamale could have been referring to South Africa when she spoke of social uncertainty and moral panic as a breeding ground for discomfort and prejudice around sexual and gender minorities (and the emancipation of women). Here, experiences of stigma and discrimination may be hardest for LGBTI people on the margins.

As one Human Rights Watch report noted: “The economic and social position of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people in South Africa has a significant impact on their experience… for those who are socially and economically vulnerable, the picture is often grim.”

Poor access to justice and lack of knowledge of, or belief in, rights instruments (such as the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act) complicate this picture.

Of course, the situation is not entirely bleak and there is evidence that there are shifts in social attitudes and practices. But these shifts are neither inevitable nor unidirectional, and as we see from countries to the north of us, vigilance is required to guarantee the human rights and dignity of LGBTI people and, indeed, women.

In fact, it would be fair to say that, on balance, a sexist, homophobic and transphobic culture still pervades South African society.

This explains why activists have argued that the law on its own is not enough to address this phenomenon. Along with a proper enforcement of our constitutional entitlement, there is a need for a renewed effort to shape public opinion on a range of issues relating to patriarchy, gender and sexuality, along with visible and meaningful leadership from the state.

This would counter the view that there is some ambivalence in state actors around the rights of LGBTI people.

One key development has been the formation of a National Task Team, under the Ministry of Justice, to develop a National Intervention Strategy to end gender and sexual orientation-based crimes perpetrated against LGBTI people and an approved Inter-sectoral Implementation Plan to align complementary programmes in the government and civil society.

This is an important initiative but it smacks of government-speak and may yet get bogged down in politics, funding challenges and the demands of alliance-building. Beyond task teams and intervention strategies, there is work to be done, some of it led by the government, but much of it by civil society actors, who need to hold the government to account to make the Equality Clause a reality rather than an ideal.

This could have a positive effect on the dignity and opportunities of all South Africans, of all genders and sexualities, and could also start a conversation about humanness beyond gender and identity, beyond labels. Perhaps, in the shadow of our recent Human Rights Day, this is what Moseneke meant when he spoke of the “fullness of each one of us”.

* Pierre Brouard is co-director for the centre for sexualities, Aids and gender, at the University of Pretoria.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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