Beyond the Law, Homophobia Remains Pervasive

Cape Times (South Africa), May 17, 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Law, Homophobia Remains Pervasive


Today is International Day against Homophobia and calls for reflection on how far we've come as a country in addressing prejudice and embracing sexual and gender diversity, says Melanie Judge

In keeping with the Constitutional principle of non-discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, the advent of democracy has brought with it great progress towards the achievement of lesbian and gay rights.

Numerous victories have been won through the courts to extend legal protections and benefits to gays and lesbians, including immigration rights, pension benefits, and joint adoption rights for same-sex couples.

The passing of the Civil Union Act in 2006, that enables same-sex couples to marry in law if they so choose, was the culmination of over a decade of legal advocacy by lesbian and gay activists. The achievement of formal equality has pried open possibilities for the recognition of diverse sexualities and relationship forms. Equality before the law also carries immense symbolic weight and has enabled an increased public space for lesbian and gay voices and visibility.

These gains must be celebrated, but they have been largely won through judicial fiat. In the absence of a growing public discourse that it is supportive of gender and sexual diversity, they remain tenuous and largely on paper. Pernicious discrimination on the basis of gender and sexuality illustrates that social justice does not necessarily follow on the heels of legal equality.

The fantasy of living "happily ever after" in the embrace of state sanction can obscure the ongoing oppressions faced by lesbian, gay and transgender people. These oppressions confront South Africans with the wider fractures that exist between formal and substantive equality; between legal rights and justice; and between the right to be treated equally and the realities of difference.

Foreign nationals, lesbian women, gay men, transgender people, and people living with HIV/Aids, are some of the stigmatised groups that are targeted for prejudice-motivated speech and violence. Deeply rooted poverty and a formal economy that continues to exclude the majority of people creates fertile ground for these discriminations to flourish.

Prejudice-motivated violence is a way of articulating very real frustrations by scape-goating already stigmatised groups.

Gender norms in a patriarchal society shape our sexualities. Heterosexuality is a social prescription and is the "normal" and "acceptable" form of sexuality, while deviation from this norm is stigmatised.

Homophobia is not only a hatred of homosexuals, but also a disciplinary strategy to ensure that all social subjects comply with society's preference for heterosexuality. As such, lesbian and gay people are "othered" because they are perceived to disrupt the gender status quo. Through insult and violence against sexualities that don't conform to gender and sexual norms, they are policed or punished. "Corrective rape" of lesbian women is a case in point. Therefore gender norms must be tackled if we are to change sexual prejudices.

The transformation of patriarchal gender and sexual prescriptions will liberate all people - both gay and straight. But challenging homophobia requires changing what it is to be a man or a woman in the world, just as deconstructing racism is about shifting what it means to be white.

Research indicates high levels of hate speech against lesbian and gay people in South Africa. Verbal insult establishes and perpetuates the barriers between the "normal" and the stigmatised. Moreover, hate-motivated attacks against gays and lesbians most often occur in contexts of sustained prejudice, including hate speech and bullying. Such attacks are part of the trajectory of violence that starts with "socially acceptable" name-calling. It is particularly distressing that members of the current government are also guilty of this practice. …

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