Comment: South Africa is not a ‘Rainbow Nation’ if you’re gay

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Recently, a South African college was exposed for offering therapies to try and turn young gay people straight. South African Douglas Bruce Davies explains that despite some of the most progressive gay rights laws in the world, South Africa is not a paradise to be LGBT.

Racism, xenophobia and sexism: 20 years since freedom in South Africa, in earnest, began (though it was made official after the 1994 elections when Nelson “Tata” Mandela became president) and bigotry still runs rampant. So where do we stand on homophobia?

Well, we gays and lesbians can marry in South Africa (that right was obtained in 1998). We can adopt children (since 2002). The age of consent has been equalised (only since 2007). We cannot be discriminated against (that right was obtained between 1995 and 1997). We can serve openly in the military (since 1998). We have equal access to IVF and surrogacy (since 2003). And sex changes are legally recognised (also since 2003). Doesn’t it sound like paradise living as a gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, etc. in this wonderful Rainbow Nation of South Africa?

Would it surprise you that the majority of these rights were not obtained by referendum? Nor the popular vote? Much of it had to be obtained through the courts, as has been the case in several other countries around the world. As a result, there has been no real change in the hearts and minds of the majority of South Africans. In fact, had these rights been put to a vote, we probably would have very little or no rights of which to speak. In some cases, some South Africans are actively trying to get these rights rescinded (such as the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa).

Homophobia is widespread. It exists in the private and public sectors with impunity, even though it is illegal to discriminate. But how, in most cases, do you prove discrimination and who would enforce the consequences? It’s not that easy, especially when it is inconspicuous or widely accepted as “the norm”. Calling someone “gay” or “faggot” is commonplace and is not used as a term of endearment or as a compliment. Children use those and other terms all the time. Why? Because their parents and peers do so. It’s in the DNA of a highly bigoted and angry society.

Then there is violence against gays and especially lesbians, which is rampant (ranging from verbal abuse to outright murder). So is bullying. Does anyone care? Yes, some do but most don’t. They live with the same mentality as much of the rest of Africa and, indeed, the world.

My friend Barney van Heerden was murdered in September 2011 by what has now been established to be a gang, though they still have to be tried and convicted. He was someone who loved the environment, loved people, was proud of who he was, and was the light and life of any party. He was by far a better person than I am. Seven other people were killed too but the authorities still need to link those murders to the gang. Do you know that the police denied that there was a serial murderer/s? Do you know that they did nothing about it for the longest period of time, resulting in the number reaching eight people in total (that we know of), even though it was raised with them long before? Only when there was a lot of publicity did something start happening (even if it was slowly).

Barney was number six of the eight. Barney was tied up naked (I am sure to embarrass him) and strangled to death. And all I can think of is what that must have felt like for him. Not being able to breath. Possibly being reviled by these monsters for simply being who he was born to be. And then being left there alone. Dead.

After his death, I was scared. I didn’t want to live in a country where this sort of thing happens but where else is there to go? The moon? Mars? I am sure large groups of people would support sending gays and lesbians away. Or, for that matter, having them killed. Why? Because it’s not natural. Actually, it is found all over the natural world. Because God hates fags. Really? God hates? I don’t want to believe in a God who hates. Because it’s unAfrican and a “Western lifestyle”. Oh, okay. So all the gay and lesbian people (for they are people like the rest of the human race) across the continent are gay, in some cases at risk of being legally murdered or abused or jailed, because they choose a “lifestyle”? Does that sound logical? But then logic doesn’t really enter into the conversation, does it? Only hate does.

My dream for South Africa is one where people of all races, sexes, nationalities and sexual orientations treat each other with humility and humanity. Where love and peace are prized, and where hate and discord are shunned mercilessly. Where greed and selfishness give way to dignity and altruism. Where we are seen as a beacon of hope by, and a light to guide, the rest of the world. It is possible. The power to become those people lies dormant in our hearts and all we need to do is want it badly enough.