Gay battle not won yet

2004-04-22 16:00
Cape Town - Gays are enjoying a new era of freedom in cities 10 years after the end of apartheid, but black and coloured homosexuals in townships and villages are still victims of discrimination and hate attacks.

Evert Knoesen from the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project said that although South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, signed three years after the first multiracial elections in 1994, had been a landmark for gay rights, the lot of poorer homosexuals had not changed much.

"In the apartheid days we would wear brown paper bags on our heads when we held protest marches because it was illegal for men to have sex with each other," he said.

"Now that we have the constitution protecting us, our challenge is to look at how gay rights translate into real life for people living in rural areas and townships.

"Many black people are accused of being un-African and are victimised when it is found out they are gay. Life has not changed much for them in the past decade."

The new constitution was signed in 1997 by then president Nelson Mandela and was hailed as being one of the most liberal in the world.

Gays celebrated a clause in the constitution making decimation based on sexual identity illegal.

Various rulings by the Constitutional Court, including one allowing gay couples to adopt children, have since been added.

This is a far cry from the mood in 1967, when the country's then justice minister declared in parliament: "We should not allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that we may casually dispose of this viper ... it is a proven fact that homosexual instincts make their effects felt on a community if they are allowed to run riot."

Hate attacks not reported

However, the new legislation does not translate into reality for many.

Dawn Betteridge, a member of the Triangle Project, which provides counselling to gays, said most hate attacks take place in rural areas and townships and are never reported.

"The city-based attacks receive press coverage, while other attacks are unknown," she said, adding that township dwellers faced "far more active and violent discrimination.

"A lesbian raped in the townships may be subjected to further attack, both from her family and her community if she reveals her sexual status to the media."

However, the well-heeled urbanites are basking in their new freedom.

Revelry at a dance hall in a posh suburb of Cape Town, drawing mainly Afrikaans-speaking gay and lesbian couples, shows how far things have come in this traditionally conservative community.

The bash includes pop songs, crisps and cider and a traditional long-arm dance.

"In the apartheid days this type of party would never have happened, now we hold them regularly," said the party's organiser, Deon Nagel.

"Afrikaans families are traditionally very conservative, but today they are openly talking about homosexuality," he said. "After the constitution made it illegal to discriminate against gays, the topic has become less taboo."

In stark contrast to its neighbours, Namibia and Zimbabwe, whose leaders have accused homosexuals of being "worse than pigs" and "un-African", South Africa has actively tried to attract gay tourists to its shores.

The scenic city of Cape Town, with its large array of gay nightclubs, beaches and guest houses has become widely known as the country's gay capital.

Sheryl Ozinsky, the chief executive of the official Cape Town Tourism, said the new gay-friendly constitution had encouraged gay tourism.

"About 10% of tourists who visit Cape Tours are gay and the city actively encourages this," she said.

"Gay people know they are welcome here and that they can have a peaceful visit."

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