Marianne Thamm

A giant leap

2007-05-31 08:48

Marianne Thamm

We've come a long, long way since the words "sexual orientation" were fought for and added to the Equality clause in the South African Constitution in 1996.

It didn't come easy. Back then, the National Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Equality (NCLGE) spent months lobbying political parties and the Constitutional Assembly while the religious right - primarily led by the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) - mobilised to curtail the human rights of lesbian, gay and transgendered people.

Mercifully democratically minded South Africans won the moment and we became the first African (and one of only a handful worldwide) country internationally to give lesbian and gay citizens full equality.

Ten years later lesbian and gay South Africans are no longer forced to live lives on the fringes of broader society. Same sex couples are able to enter into Civil Unions, adopt children and enjoy the same benefits as everyone else.

But the granting of full political rights was just the beginning. Deep and dangerous prejudices still exist in this country.

Institutionalised violence

South Africa has a long and notorious history of bigotry and institutionalised violence, discrimination and oppression. We all knew it would take time for the masses to catch up with the constitution and what it represents in terms of the society we would like to shape and live in.

But it is not uncommon to still read columnists in this country who describe lesbian and gay people as "an abomination" and "dogs" who must be "shunned" or "done away with". Hate speech indeed but there are many who feel perfectly comfortable and entitled voicing this position. I have no doubt that some of the comments that will follow this column will be a reflection of that - scroll down and see.

While leaders of the religious right - people who claim to know so surely and so intimately the mind of God - are free to object and voice their opinion, it is important also for them to consider the possible consequences of their statements and exhortations.

At the launch of the ACDP's manifesto shortly before the 2005 local elections in Cape Town, the party's mayoral candidate, Pauline Cupido, promised to make Cape Town "an efficiently run, world-class, God-friendly city, instead of a poorly run, gay-friendly city".

A month later, a 17-year old lesbian, Zoliswa Nonkonyana, was clubbed, kicked and beaten to death by a mob of around twenty young men in Khayeltisha. Zoliswa had been accosted while walking with her partner and had been taunted because she was a lesbian. While the perpetrators are yet to appear in court, her terrified friend is still in hiding.

While Cupido's statement may not have directly had anything to do with Zoliswa's murder, it could have been interpreted by some as an endorsement of their homoprejudice.

At the time, Zoliswa's murder also served to highlight the continuing violence many lesbian and gay people in this country still face. It spotlighted also that police in townships often do not follow up reports and in some cases refuse to help lesbian or gay victims of violence.

If the perpetrators of violence somehow feel their actions are justified and indeed sanctioned by a specific, narrow and self-serving interpretation religion or culture - the massive gains we have made politically and as a democratic society are in danger of being eroded.

Deeply significant

So the statement by the 500 prominent South Africans including Allan and Elna Boesak, Steve Hofmeyer, Rhoda Kadalie, Deputy Minister of Justice Johnny de Lange and others is deeply significant.

It is so not only because of the fact that it reaches out to Christian lesbians and gays, but because the Dutch Reformed Church played a central role in supporting and promoting apartheid.

"We realised many gay members were being marginalised and made to feel unwelcome in the church. This is a test case for how the church which has its roots in apartheid history, feels about marginalised people in general. We are challenging the church to take a lead against discrimination of any kind," said theologian Dr Carel Anthonissen who penned the letter with retired Cape Town dominee, Frits Gaum.

It is a truly Christian gesture and it reflects a decency and understanding we hope the General Synod that meets in Boksburg next week will consider seriously.

The statement the South African Council of Churches submitted to the hearings into the Civil Union Bill earlier this year reflected a similar position on homosexuals.

To deny lesbians and gay men their right to God, their right to worship and their right to believe and to exist fully as human beings is not only anti-democratic but it goes against the very principles the Christ stood for - the embracing of the poor, the marginalised and the shunned.

Send your comments to Marianne.

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