Homophobia, lesbophobia and hate speech

2013-08-27 00:00

NUMEROUS recent letters in The Witness have expressed strong homophobic sentiments, some of them making claims that could be categorised as hate speech. Hate speech can be defined as that which promotes or propagates hatred, and incites harm by disseminating false facts, flawed argumentation, and dehumanising metaphors.

So to claim homosexuals are a threat to the health and wellbeing of society by their dissolute lifestyles (as was done by one writer) is to perpetuate myths and misconceptions without any evidence for such claims. Claims that are not only untrue, but also potentially damaging and dangerous. The South African Constitution excludes hate speech from protection of free speech in the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000.

Despite much prejudice and discrimination, lesbians and homosexuals have been a high-profile part of history since earliest records. Sappho, Virginia Woolf, Billie Holiday, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Jodie Foster, Ellen DeGeneres, Zanele Muholi; Leonardo da Vinci, W.H. Auden, Montgomery Clift, James Baldwin, Sir John Gielgud, Leonard Bernstein, Ian McKellen, Zackie Achmat, Edwin Cameron, and many, many others. Painters, sculptors, writers, poets, actors, composers, singers, dancers, sports stars, academics and leaders in many fields: a great company of brilliant, creative people who have contributed (and continue to contribute) to the rich fabric of our culture and society.

Throughout history women suspected of being different, not fitting into the expected stereotype of good daughters, wives and mothers, have suffered various forms of discrimination and abuse from a patriarchally dominated society threatened by those who refuse to conform to its norms.

The enforcement of heterosexuality, viewed as the “proper” control and “protection” of women, is sometimes seen as the only way to defend (patriarchal) society from being undermined by deviant and perverted women. So persecution, legislation, being locked up as suffering from mental illness, accused of being witches, “spinsters” living on the fringes of “normal” communities, their lives have been isolated, and often fear-ridden.

More recently in South African black urban townships, “corrective rape” has become increasingly common, egged on by various myths and hate speech about “women who are trying to be men, and stealing our girlfriends”.

Dozens of women have been denied the right of walking down a street in the company of another woman, or sharing a house with another women, subjected to verbal abuse, physical assault, gang rape, and often murder, in what at times appears to be an epidemic of violent lesbophobia.

All this viewed as justifiable methods of containing and suppressing such dangerous, sinful and subversive behaviour. Although some homosexual men (such as E.M. Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Oscar Wilde) have been acknowledged as competent writers and poets, lesbian writers (such as Radclyffe Hall, Gertrude Stein, Emily Dickenson) have often gone unacknowledged, and lesbians have frequently been written out of history; their stories written, or rewritten, so as to conceal their real interests and motivations in order to make them appear more acceptable to mainstream views and values, and less threatening to the status quo.

How shocking for some young woman to find that her adored role-model was in fact deviant. This means that, as well as traditional (male) historians expunging certain details from the stories of women suspected of being lesbian, the women themselves have often imposed a self-censorship, hoping to pass themselves off as “normal” heterosexual women. So, until very recently, stories of lesbian women, whether biographical or autobiographical, have tended to conceal the real nature of their sexuality. Few honest, explicit writings exist which allow us a clear insight into the fears, agonies and joys of lesbian lives, providing the kind of understanding that brings an empathetic appreciation of alternative relationships, and their ability to provide enrichment and fulfilment for both partners.

The much lauded, progressive and liberal South African Constitution of 1996, decriminalised homosexuality, with an equality clause which forbids either the state or any individual from discriminating against anyone on grounds of race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth. This allows same-sex couples to receive pension and medical benefits, and to adopt children.

These rights were further extended in 2006 with the passing of the Civil Unions Act permitting same-sex couples to have their relationship legally recognised in either a civil union or a marriage, which has helped enormously to normalise life for many lesbians and gays.

Significantly, this legislation accords South Africa the status of being the only African country to sanction same-sex unions, placing it in the company of the few European countries that similarly recognise the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex couples, for example, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada.

The African continent does not have a reputation for tolerance towards homosexuality, with the recent denunciation of homosexuals by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe providing a vehement example.

However, despite threats, intimidation, and acts of violence, the sense of solidarity and determination to survive among homosexuals living in Africa appears to have grown. The desperate claim by various denouncers that homosexuality is “unAfrican” seems entirely without foundation.

But, in spite of the South African Constitution’s progressive view of sexual orientation, rightly the cause of much rejoicing in the LGBTI community, there is still a long way to go before same-sex couples can feel completely accepted and safe in their day to day activities.

There is, of course, much less overt homophobia, providing the space for many to live their lives more openly. Ironically, however, more visibility has resulted in an increase in hate crimes.

This legal situation must not lull us into complacency that all is well; that the battle for equal rights is won. South Africa remains a profoundly conservative society, where attitudes of generations will not be altered in a few short years.

The rise in fundamentalist religion, and the seemingly unabated scourge of Aids, with all the shame and secrecy still surrounding those who are HIV-positive, are salutary reminders that homophobia still flourishes.

Yet more cause for concern are recent ominous rumblings in certain political and religious circles, indicating that public attitudes of discrimination are very much alive.

To have a liberal Constitution is only the beginning of eliminating prejudice and unfair treatment, and promoting tolerance and respect for the humanity of all people. All reasonable and responsible South Africans have a duty to work towards a more compassionate, egalitarian society where gay rights are recognised as human rights.

• Alleyn Diesel edited an anthology of South African lesbian stories: Reclaiming the L-Word: Sappho’s daughters Out in Africa (Modjaji Books 2011). And is an honorary research fellow at UKZN

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