South Africa made international news in December last year when it became the fifth country in the world and the first in Africa to legalize gay marriage. This, while homosexuality remains illegal in neighbouring African countries, is perhaps indicative of the atmosphere of tolerance that South Africa has prided itself on since its oppressive apartheid regime gave way to democracy in 1994.
But recent events raise the question: does the tolerance towards the gay community reflected in South Africa’s legislation on gay marriage extend to the daily, lived experiences of gay men and women? Tolerance, acceptance, and personal freedom are themes far removed from the events that have made headlines this year regarding gays and lesbians.
First, there was the South African National Blood Service’s (SANBS) decision to exclude all sexually active homosexual men from donating blood, following a statement asking gay people not to donate blood if they have had sex (safe or not) in the past five years, which sparked outrage among the gay community. While the SANBS stuck by its decision, claiming that “international medical reports indicate that men who have sex with men show increased risk of infection with HIV and other blood infections,” members of gay activist and human rights groups argued that the SANBS’s position was not based on local HIV statistics and contributed to the stigmatization and marginalization of the gay community.
If the comments of some African leaders are anything to go by, being gay and black invites more palpable discrimination. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, for example, “called homosexuals ‘worse than pigs and dogs’ and a Namibian minister urged a group of police constables to ‘eliminate’ gays and lesbians from the country.” Even within the borders of South Africa’s democracy and liberal constitution, black, gay individuals face discrimination, prejudice and ostracism daily. And, more than occasionally, violence.
Being black, gay, and female apparently makes you a target for even more savage acts of homophobic hatred: early last month, a 19-year-old lesbian from the Khayelitsha township was clubbed, kicked and beaten to death by a mob of young men. And the slow reaction to her murder amongst the media and police has not been met with much surprise by township gay men and lesbians, who face verbal and physical abuse, rape and intimidation on a daily basis, and for whom “police inertia over hate crime is par for the course” (Marianne Thamm, “Not just another murder” in print edition of Mail&Guardian, Feb 24 – March 2).
Here is another problem generated by a patriarchal belief system, it seems. According to Dawn Betteridge, director of the Triangle Project, “…adopting the clothing and behaviour typical of a ‘butch lesbian’ or the ‘effeminate male,’ is perceived as a threat to masculine dominance…Lesbians who mimic men are seen to be challenging male superiority. Rape and violence against lesbians is common…men who perpetrate such crimes see rape as curative and as an attempt to show women their place in society.”
“Corrective rape, where men try to ‘cure’ a lesbian by forcing her to have sex, still happens, according to gay activists.” Nineteen year-old Zoliswa Nkonyana did not receive this cure. Instead, she, and her lesbian ‘threat’ to masculinity, were simply eliminated. Perhaps the legal team for members of the mob who beat her to death will argue in their defense that, for these youths, ‘prevention’ seemed better than cure...