Amidst the jubilation and glee of Pride Month, a feeling of melancholy occasionally disturbed my sense of joy. As I looked through the intoxicating haze of celebration, briefly calmed by that overwhelming sense of “we’ve made it”, a sobering reality remained: fear, in the absence of freedom, defines most queer life in South Africa.
You could call my judgment melodramatic. For a long time I thought that I was projecting victimhood onto the LGBTQ+ community. A quick glance at this nation’s constitution creates the impression that SA is almost a paradise for its queer citizens. And why shouldn’t it be? Same sex couples can legally get married, adopt children, and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation has been outlawed in civic and private life since the passing of our constitution.
Sadly, however, progressive legislation expresses a single side of reality. There is a chasm between what the law demands in treatment of queer citizens and what society adheres to. Well, what does most straight society, and not just individuals in their singular actions, but our institutions collectively, adhere to?
A fear of sexual difference dictates how queer people are treated. It isn’t just the mentality of a bigoted minority, but rather it is an ethos which rules over how we function as a society. This fear is vital in the minds of men who rape lesbians to correct their “brokenness” as women. Fear explodes in the bodies of bullies who taunt and torture their classmates for being too effeminate or too masculine. The fear operates in the passivity of policeman when asked to deal with violations against the LGBTQ+ persons. Queer kids know the fear that boils in the coarse hearts of parents who throw their children into the streets for not meeting the conditions of their love.
Furthermore, the prevalence of anti-queer sentiments can result in the efficacy of our laws being diluted. Beliefs are consequential. Policemen, school principals and teachers, nurses and councilors don’t erase their distress or discomfort over transgender people once their working days begin. In an ideal world I wouldn’t have to worry about people obsessing over how other citizens experience love and sexuality. Unfortunately, opinions and beliefs are not locked in people’s heads. Through interactions they pour out into the world and contaminate our social realities.
For those who live middle to upper class lives in safe, well-serviced suburbs and holding well-paying jobs, the experience of discrimination is significantly more bearable. The issues addressed are a speaking to the majority of the queer community that does not enjoy the protection offered by socio-economic security/well-being.
I’d argue that what is needed to come close to solving the issue of queer subjugation is an understanding of what lies at the root of our oppression. Far too often we see discrimination as a hiccup in a person’s moral character. This zoning in on single instances of prejudice is lazy. One must go further and ask, what set of beliefs or values compel someone to mock another person for being sexually different?
When I look into the eyes of a homophobe, I see the usual disgust and contempt. Beneath this, as a springboard for these reactions, is a panicked bewilderment. The sight of two men affectionately holding hands or the news of a friend who comes out as asexual seems to cause short-circuiting in the brains of some people. To grasp this phenomenon we need to recognize that how humans see themselves and others, how they behave and engage in the social world is partly determined by a network of assumptions that are held in the deepest caverns of our minds.
More often than not, the assumptions we hold regarding what is normal and acceptable behavior, especially in the arena of romance and sexuality, operate as myths rather than logical, evidence based belief. These myths are lodged so firmly into our psychology that we rarely question their validity. This is why the presence of queer people, who are shameless and unapologetic in their existence, is a challenge to the assumptions many straight people have about how humans should behave.
What type of social order constructs such myths? The brands of queer hostility vary across the world, and so do their justifications and origins. Therefore the arguments and conclusions made here cannot be universally applied. In South Africa though, I’d argue that the prime producer and sustainer of queer subjugation are outdated beliefs about gender.
These archaic notions of what it means to be a man or woman draw their inspiration from many sources: conservative interpretations of Abrahamic religions, the values espoused by colonial powers, the cultural imprint left by Afrikaner nationalism and the patriarchal pillars of Nguni cultures. What results from the blending of these cultural forces? A society which has rigid, and at times suffocating expectations of men and women, while also erasing the existence of all those who do not fit within this binary.
These regressive expectations demand that the worth of men be decided by their list of sexual exploits with women. Worse, this mentality demands that men, who can only ever be providers and protectors, be invulnerable to emotion. Emotional frailty is forbidden or it must be concealed. Therefore men who sleep with other men, who love other men, are an abnormality to be mocked. Such values reduce women into instruments whose worth extends as far as they are able to sexually satisfy men, and produce their offspring. Women who are incapable of being sexually or romantically attracted to men stand as a grave violation of the social order – how dare they not serve their function? These are just brief examples of a whole series of repressive assumptions regarding gender.
A personal shift in my own life shed light on changes needed in LGBT+ politics. I used to crave the acceptance of straight people. I would adjust how I spoke, how I walked, and the way I dressed and who I kept as company. At the time, an inauthentic existence was preferable to one marked by alienation. That ambition to re-enter the realms of normality is common amongst the LGBT+ community. The desire is born out of the fear one sees in the faces of those who persecute you for being different. The hostility of the external world is digested by many of us. It morphs into a lethal shame that drives too many into to lives of secrecy, and some to suicide.
It’s only when I began to question why I had to succumb to certain roles and behaviors that I started to feel relief. I realized that acceptance from the heterosexual world is merely a submission to its irrational standards. Both rejection and reformation of the ethos, which underpins the current social order, are fundamental to realize queer freedom.
Such a project of radical renovation must occur within the personal lives of heterosexual and LGBT+ people, but it cannot end there. Institutions within society must be challenged to change: how the media portrays queer people, how the church, temple and mosque engage with issues such as homosexuality, how civil servants treat those queer and in need, how the management and staff of schools create an environment conducive to learning for the entire student body etc.
In some ways this reformation has been an ongoing process across the country for decades, led by activists, artists, academics and ordinary people in their everyday lives. But the invaluable efforts of such work has largely been minimal in impact.
The South African LGBTQ+ community is hindered in its pursuit of freedom by a lack of solidarity in struggle and the absence of active organized political leadership. In order to transform institutions such as the family, schools, the media and the mindsets of citizens, education, and activism has to occur across the country, at a grassroots level, and in large numbers. Sadly, race and class continue to divide the queer community. Only Pride Month parades and after-parties seem to draw the whole community together in its diversity. And even then, the self-segregation continues.
Leadership within the various institutions that need to be changed is painfully lacking. Besides a handful of cultural critics, media personalities and artists, I can’t think of representatives of the LGBT+ community who occupy the public imagination on a national level. This means there are few people to articulate their grievances or to express positive visions for the future.
Writing this, I can’t suppress thoughts of queer youth whose lives are terrorized by a fear of a world that brands them as abnormal, deformed, and not worthy of respect. Pockets of safe spaces aren’t enough. Neither is equality before the law. LGBTQ+ liberation in South Africa requires nothing short of the dismantling of outdated values and the creation of new expectations to guide our institutions and everyday lives – expectations which reflect the multiplicity of human sexuality.