Homophobia is a close cousin to racism

2014-05-18 01:04

May 17th, 2014, marks the ninth annual International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia held in over 120 countries and impacting hundreds of millions of lives. This day of action was created as recently as 2004 and May 17th was chosen to mark the day that the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

Homosexuality is illegal in 38 countries in Africa, with South Africa the only country that recognises gay rights and allows same-sex marriage and I am a proud beneficiary of that right enshrined in our Constitution.  The tragic reality is that most lesbians living in poor townships in South Africa are commonly targeted for attacks known as "corrective rape" by men trying to "cure" their homosexuality. Noxolo Nogwaza, 24, was raped, and stabbed multiple times with glass shards. Her skull was shattered. Her eyes were reportedly gouged from their sockets. According to one study, at least 500 lesbians are victims of ‘corrective’ rape each year. On record, 31 lesbians have been reported murdered in homophobic attacks since 1998, and yet there have only been two convictions. There are at least 10 new cases of corrective rape that occur every week. Despite these staggering statistics, the attackers never really face any legal ramifications. In South Africa 24 of every 25 accused rapists walk free.  Homophobia is generally widespread and understood as hostility towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexed (LGBTI) people. Negative feelings or attitudes towards non-heterosexual behaviour, identity, relationships and community, can lead to homophobic behaviour. This is the root of the discrimination experienced by many LGBTI people. Homophobia manifests itself in different forms, for example homophobic jokes, rape, hate crimes, physical attacks, discrimination in the workplace and negative media representation.

There are many factors that can cause a person to be homophobic. Research has shown that prejudice against gay people and homosexuality can be influenced by the person:

•             Having strong religious beliefs that disapprove of sex and/or homosexuality;

•             Having little/no social contact with lesbian and gay people; and

•             Reporting no homosexual experiences or feelings.

A recent survey around the world of over 37 countries found that over half of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people had experienced bullying in school. During my teen years in high school, I was also a victim of bullying by my peers. I went to an all boys’ school I didn’t participate in sports like rugby therefore I was a subject of ridicule and mockery by some of my school mates.

There are many different ways in which LGBTI people experience homophobia, including malicious gossip, name-calling, intimidating looks, internet bullying, vandalism and theft of property, discrimination at work, isolation and rejection, sexual assault, or even being sentenced to death like it happens in some countries. All forms of homophobia are destructive, not just for people living openly as LGBTI, but for society as a whole.

Personally, I have lived in a homophobic environment that forced me to conceal my sexuality and I always wanted to be seen as “normal.” For people like me who have been brought up to believe that homosexuality is wrong, the realisation that they might be gay can cause feelings of shame and self-loathing, leading to low self-esteem. Suppressing homosexuality involves denying an important part of a person's identity, and can have a serious impact upon their life and relationships.

I strongly believe that schools have an important part to play in challenging homophobia. Homophobia is fuelled by lack of awareness, and educating young people about LGBTI issues is fundamental to overcoming widely accepted prejudice which can closely be associated with racism.

According to research done by Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal; it was found that lesbians, gays, and bisexuals who were out and open about their sexuality had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, and burnout than those who were still closeted to friends and family. LGBTI adults who were out were just as happy, healthy, and satisfied with their jobs as their straight counterparts. Based on this research study, out gay and bisexual men actually had lower rates of depression, and were more physically fit, than straight men.

Despite the laws that protect us as the LGBTI community, we still face many challenges in South Africa. It is important that public figures in our society disclose their sexual status. Public figures and celebrities who happen to be gay have a certain responsibility to the LGBTI community to fully identify as a member of this deeply oppressed minority group. This is because, when people who are respected in the public light make it known that they are homosexual, they add a huge amount of support to LGBTI community and also can curb the stigma around homosexuality and homophobia.

When public figures and celebrities make it known that they are homosexual it inspires young people in rural villages that you can identify as homosexual and still be able to achieve and be successful in your career. In South Africa we lack positive role models who are “openly gay” to reduce the stigma of homosexuality.

American music icon, Frank Ocean came out recently that he was gay and also Prison Break star Wentworth Miller announced he is gay in August 2013, in order to take a public stand against homophobia in Russia.

An American footballer has shattered one of the final taboos in the macho world of American sport after becoming the National Football League's (NFL) first openly gay player. Michael Sam celebrated by kissing his boyfriend on live television after being signed to the NFL's St Louis Rams last week on Saturday. He was congratulated on the achievement by President Barack Obama.

Michael Sam celebrated by kissing his boyfriend on live television.

President Obama and Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, were among those who congratulated the 24-year-old gay football player. In a statement issued by the White House, President Obama said:

"From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Americans prove every day that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are."

This is a step in the right direction and I wish that more of our PSL (Premier Soccer League), rugby and cricket players in South Africa could come out and be open about their sexuality. We need more positive role models like this; to know as a young person that it is possible to be gay and successful is really important to ones sexual identity. If adolescents see being gay as a barrier to being successful; they will detest their true sexual identity. This can all be avoided, if people in the media, public figures and celebrities are able to see open, successful and good people who also happen to be gay and lead a “normal” life. This can also erase the complex of inferiority and the idea that being gay is a deterrent to any person’s success in their career.

Many heterosexual people claim that they do not know any person who is homosexual, and therefore take the stance of neutrality on LGBTI issues (which by the way is just as bad as being against it) because they claim that it does not affect them, so they do not protest/contribute/defend in favour of the LGBTI community.

This reminds me of a poem called, "First they came..." – The origins of this poem first have been traced to a speech given by Pastor Martin Niemöller (14 January 1892 – 6 March 1984) on January 6, 1946, to the representatives of the Confessing Church in Frankfurt.

“First they came for the Jews

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists

and I did not speak out

because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left

to speak out for me.”

It is important for heterosexual people in our society to take a stand against homophobia as well and not just ignore the LGBTI community as though we do not exist. Sitting on the fence on the oppression of gay and lesbian people is as good as perpetuating homophobia in our society.

Being a homosexual myself, I made a personal choice to freely express my sexuality and not hide in any closet. The sad reality in South Africa is that a person who expresses their sexuality may find employment difficult to locate, substandard, stagnated regarding promotions, or under-compensated against similar heterosexual peers. It may mean being an outcast, suffering verbal abuse, or for some even rape or death if you are a lesbian living in a township.

With all the negatives that come with being openly gay and being a gay rights activist simply by living your life, it is something we need in order to not just gain further equality in our deeply homophobic society, but to maintain the few rights we have in South Africa. Closets are for clothes and not for people.

VIDEO: I am an African and I'm gay

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