LGBTI Rights and Realities in South Africa

A constitution can oblige a government to protect a citizen’s liberty and dignity, but one of the real tests for a compassionate society is how well the values that are espoused in a bill of rights are embraced in the hearts and minds of its people. Canada’s constitution champions equality based on the grounds of sex, race and sexual orientation, but one can easily observe daily acts of sexism, racism and homophobia in Canadian society. The gap between the rights provided by a constitution and the reality of those being discriminated against can be great.

This was the topic of “Bridging the Gap”, a discussion that I attended this past Monday evening with some colleagues. The roundtable focused on the gap between rights granted to the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community, and their every day lived experiences in South Africa.

South Africa’s ‘Bill of Rights’ is one of the most progressive guarantors of rights and freedoms in the world. It is the only constitution in the world to explicitly include ‘sexual orientation’ as a ground of discrimination. Since 1996, gay rights victories have been achieved in many areas, including same-sex civil unions, same-sex adoption and same-sex spousal benefits. In spite of these achievements however, the lived reality for LGBTI people in South Africa belies the progressive jurisprudence.

On Monday evening, Ndumie Funda, Founder and Director of Luleki Sizwespoke, spoke passionately about working with victims of ‘corrective rape’: a criminal practice whereby LGBTI persons (often young black lesbians) are heterosexually raped, sometimes under supervision by members of their families or local communities, purportedly as a means of “curing” them of their sexual orientation. She demanded action and not simply words. This is because the practice is not only prominent, but also on the rise. Dozens of incidents of ‘corrective rape’ are reported each week in a country where many LGBTI fear going to the police station or seeking assistance for fear that they will be treated with the same disdain and dismissal as they have experienced in their own communities and homes. I could not help but look around and wonder what some of the women in the audience had been through and how powerful Ndumie’s words must have been for them.

Eusebius McKaiser, a research fellow from the Helen Suzman Foundation, took another approach and discussed non-violent forms of homophobia. One does not need to be raped, beaten or murdered to be a victim, he argued. He recounted his childhood in the West Cape and the taunting he encountered as an effeminate boy. He said that his parents often think he is exaggerating about his pain when he discusses his childhood. He argued however, that homophobia does not just hurt when a rock is thrown, it can taint an entire childhood with a feeling of inferiority, isolation and fear. He pointed out that the default reality in any household or community is homophobic (or at the very least, hetero-normative). It therefore takes a conscious effort to overcome mainstream thought and create an environment of acceptance and inclusion.

Justice Edwin Cameron, a Justice of the Constitutional Court, was the last speaker of the evening. He stated that South Africa is a shining example to the rest of the continent and that’s why progress must continue. After the previous discussion, such a point may seem out of place. How can such a reality provide hope? Well, that’s because north of South Africa, in Cameroon for example, same-sex sexual acts are banned with a penalty of 5 years imprisonment and a fine of 20,000 to 200,000 francs. In Uganda, a bill sits in Parliament which would provide the death penalty for the “crime” of being gay. And so a country that provides same-sex civil unions and adoptions is a bright light of hope in a continent of LGBTI oppression – with many of its own glitches.

An insightful dialogue followed the roundtable. People shared stories and asked questions, all with the same resolve: how can we improve the LGBTI reality in South Africa? The discussion was fruitful – that was, until a self-described “Canadian” took the floor.

At first, I was excited to hear his remarks – perhaps he would provide a Canadian perspective on the matter? Unfortunately, my cheeks reddened as he spoke. His opinion: We shouldn’t seek to cure the phobia. As long as the state ensures that sexual minorities are not raped and murdered, it’s okay if people don’t accept sexual minorities – you can’t change people’s minds. I sunk down in my seat. Somewhere along the line, this Canadian just didn’t get it. How he could listen to the horror stories and the struggles of sexual minorities and provide such a comment was beyond my comprehension.

Although such a comment could have dampened the dialogue, the Deputy of Minister of Justice, Andries Nel, used it as a starting point to synthesize the theme of the roundtable discussion. In responding to the “Canadian”, he argued that we must not only ensure that violent acts are prohibited, we must achieve a society that is open and tolerant, where a person’s character is not diminished because of his or her sexual orientation. It is only when the rights to ‘equality’, so nobly stated in the constitution, are embraced in the hearts and minds of the people that the reality for the LGBTI community will improve. A large applause followed.

For me, coming from a seemingly progressive country that prides itself on raising its voice for the rights of minorities and often pats itself on the back for being a free and open society, it was somewhat surprising to hear that the main voice of resistance was, in fact, a Canadian. It provided a timely reminder of the disparities between “rights and realities” in my own country, and how far Canada has to go before achieving that noble quest for “equality”.

Related Link on the Practice of Corrective Rape: