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What South Africans really think about gay rights and homosexuality

The results of a new study, A Survey of South African Attitudes to Homosexuality and Gender Non-Conformity, have just been released. Conducted by The Other Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council the survey provides for the first time “statistically sound, nationally representative data” on the attitudes of South Africans to sexual orientation.

Entitled Progressive Prudes, the report estimates that at least half a million South African adult men and women, of all population groups, both rural and urban dwelling, and across age groups, at all levels of educational attainment and in almost all income groups, self-identify as not being heterosexual. This confirms the country is statistically hardly different from any other country in the world that has conducted surveys to establish the prevalence of homosexuality.

Despite this, more than half the country is homophobic, with three-quarters of South Africans believing there is something morally wrong with homosexuality, even though a slight majority (51%) nonetheless believes that gay people should have the same human rights protections as any other person. Two-thirds believe that the current constitutional right for sexual orientation should remain.

That would appear encouraging. However, the survey found that 27% of those surveyed did not take a firm position on the constitutional protections, and are open to persuasion in either direction. Over half of those interviewed had never heard of the constitutional clause or did not understand it. Only one in five people reported understanding it very well. This is worrying in the light of calls by some to revoke the hard one legal protection gay South Africans possess.

With so many South Africans remaining intolerant of homosexuality and far too many not caring either way, there is no room for complacency about the current constitutional right to sexual orientation.

The study revealed – surprising to many – that the moral prejudice does not necessarily stem from religion. Although 76% of respondents felt “God’s laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late”, moderately religious South Africans are actually the most tolerant of gay and lesbian people, even when compared to the least religious.

The report also claims that the notion that “homosexuality is un-African” may not be as widely held a sentiment amongst the general population as common wisdom would have it. There was majority support among black adults for including gay people in the culture and traditions of the country.

But, most alarmingly, the survey found that 1% admitted that within the last year they had physically harmed women who “dressed and behaved like men in public” or had beaten up men “who dressed and behaved like women”.

The most disapproving demographic are men aged between 45 and 54, which seems to confirm the view that homophobia is an expression of the patriarchy. Men are also more likely to think of homosexuality as an illness. The survey found a significantly higher propensity for violence against gender nonconforming women evident amongst Indian/Asian adults.

Education also plays a role, with two thirds of people who have no schooling believing sex between two men is wrong, compared with less than half of those holding tertiary level

qualifications. A similar profile emerges when looking at income.

The problem appears to be a lack of familiarity with gay people, with only one in four people saying they have a friend or family member they know to be homosexual, and two out five reporting that they did not know any gay people. With such low exposure, ignorance is rife. A third of those interviewed see homosexuality as a lifestyle choice. However, 55% said they would accept a family member who came out as gay.

Familiarity is also generational, with people under the age of 24 being twice as likely to have gay and lesbian friends or family.

Yet most disturbingly, the report found the youngest age group, 16 to 19 years, to be more likely to see homosexuality as ‘wrong’ or ‘disgusting’ and up to three times more likely than any other age category to report on the use of violence, especially towards gender non-conforming women. I suspect this may have to do with the formation of their own sexual identity at this turbulent age and does not necessarily reflect attitudes they will carry through their lives. But clearly, what is urgently needed is the promotion of awareness around sexuality at school level in life orientation classes.

It is familiarity that will lead to acceptance, and it needs to be prioritized as homophobic politicians on the continent ramp up their hatred and the South Africa government appears increasingly to waver on its principled stance.

It certainly helped that at the 2016 Olympics, it was South Africa’s two openly gay athletes, javelin champion Sunette Stella Viljoen and runner Caster Semenya (who was also the country’s flag bearer), who won the nation two of its eight silver and gold medals. There was widespread empathy for Semenya the wake of her persecution by sports officials and commentators with bigoted gender views.

Changes in the law have also had a marked effect. From prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage to today, there has been a tenfold increase in South Africans who “strongly agree” with allowing same-sex marriage and the proportion of people “strongly disagreeing” with gay marriage has halved, down to 23%.

The Other Foundation has embargoed the survey data beyond its initial report for a year, to allow African researchers the opportunity to explore the data first. The authors hope to expand the survey to other countries in the region to craft “our own African narrative about the lived realities of homosexual and bisexual women and men”.

Such studies should prove useful to gauge what is needed to change minds and attitudes, and to counter the narrative that politicians and many foreign observers would have us believe about African perceptions of homosexuality. The picture on the ground is far more varied and nuanced than what meets the eye.

Brent Meersman is the author of 80 Gays Around the World

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