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Fighting for the right to love: It's time to end un-African prejudice

As the world recognises the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, we need to support the South Africans who are dismantling the idea that it's not African to be queer.


What does it mean to be queer in South Africa? Our constitution was the first in history to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. We were the fifth country in the world – and the first in Africa – to legalise same-sex marriage. So coming out in South Africa shouldn’t be difficult. But in a lot of ways, prejudice is still a fact of life for LGBTQIA people in this country. That has to change. Today it’s worth looking at where we’ve come from to appreciate where we are now – and to recognise where we need to go.

Out of the shadows

Compared to the rest of Africa, South Africa is a legal haven for LGBTQIA people. Thirteen years after legalising same-sex marriage, it is still the only country on the continent to have done so. Considering that more than half of all sub-Saharan African countries still have anti-homosexuality laws, that’s real progress.

And in other ways, we have made important steps forward. At Cape Town’s first Pride festival just 26 years ago, marchers were given the option of hiding their identities by wearing brown paper bags on their heads. Today that’s hard to imagine. In some ways at least, South Africa is moving towards becoming a place of acceptance.

A grim reality

While the constitution provides legal protection, there is a disconnect between those rights and the experiences of queer South Africans. Serious human rights violations ranging from social stigma and harrassment to murder and corrective rape are still appallingly common.

Caster Semenya is an extremely visible example of this tension between nominal acceptance and institutional persecution. While Caster – a gay black South African woman – is celebrated at home and around the world for her extraordinary abilities, that hasn’t always been the case.

And as the recent verdict by the Court of Arbitration for Sport shows, the institutions that govern international athletics seem determined to find new ways to stop her from competing. Caster has fought her entire career against a series of discriminatory rulings and regulations that question her identity as a woman and threaten her rights as a human.

So how does Caster respond? She finds a way to get back on the track, ties up her shoes, and races. Time and again, she wins. Her quiet courage is a source of inspiration for all South Africans; her struggle is an experience that is all-too familiar for the LGBTQIA community.

Fighting for the right to love

The intolerance Caster has had to endure is present throughout our society – as is her strength and dignity in overcoming. Funeka Soldaat came out as lesbian 30 years ago. Soon after, she was raped in an attempt to ‘correct’ her sexuality. In a conservative family and strict community, she suffered alone. Soldaat is strong, a fighter. She knew that others would go through what she did, and she knew that they would need support. So she started to host support groups and went on to found Free Gender, an organisation that raises awareness for black lesbians. This year she published a book, Uhambo . Aimed at young black lesbians and denouncing the idea that homosexuality is un-African, it tells Soldaat’s story in her own words.

There’s more. Landa Mabenge is a trans man who struggled through depression and alcohol abuse before securing funding to undergo gender reassignment surgery, making history in the process. Elle van der Burg is a model, activist, and music producer who happens to be transgender. In embracing who she is, Van der Burg has created a platform that she is using to raise awareness around how gender and sexuality are represented in the media. Theo and Christo Menelaou wanted to start a family, but were rejected by adoption clinics. So they found a surrogate mother and got more than they bargained for. Today they are two dads with triplets – a delightfully unusual South African family.

The lives in these stories have found expression on Beautiful News, a positive news platform that is committed to dismantling the idea that being queer is un-African. These voices are part of a vibrant, vocal, and passionate LGBTQIA community that is emerging in South Africa. This visibility is due in large part to the legal rights our constitution provides. But each of these stories involves overcoming some form of trauma or discrimination. The pathway to self-acceptance and social visibility is painful.

Being queer isn’t un-African. Accepting who you are and being proud of it, on the other hand, is profoundly African. The prejudices that surround sexual orientation are an artefact of colonialism. Many traditional cultures accepted different sexualities prior to colonial occupation. We need to support the people who are working to make South Africa a truly safe space for LGBTQIA people. We’ve come a long way, but we have a lot further to go – and those who are living this struggle need support. Share their stories. Recognise their courage. And make South Africa the place it can become.

Beautiful News continues to release one uplifting short film a day. To see or submit a story to Beautiful News, visit www.beautifulnews.co.za, email or join the conversation with #BeautifulNews and #MyBeautifulSA.

For further information, contact: Apollo Zake, , +27 (0) 21 419 3189.

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