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How do we understand sexuality in South Africa?

South Africa has a complex and diverse history regarding LGBT+ rights. Their legal and social status has been influenced by a combination of traditional South African culture, colonialism and the lingering effects of apartheid. South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. Writer Kgabo Chuene interrogates how far we have really come.

Gender performance, as defined by most scholars, is the idea that gender difference is socially constructed. According to this view, society and culture create gender roles, and these roles are prescribed as ideal or appropriate behaviour for a person of that specific gender. Some argue that the differences in behaviour between men and women are entirely social convention, whereas others believe that behaviour is influenced by biological factors to some extent, with social convention having a major effect on gendered behaviour.

Read: Transgender pregnancy and the contestation of gender identity and norms

We live in a time in which, on one hand, some parents are making the choice to not ‘gender’ their children by choosing not to sway them in a certain direction; for example, not buying dolls for their girls and toy cars for their boys but instead buying them both kinds of toys. On the other hand there is the claim that there is a propagation, by media, of the ‘gay agenda’ – a term introduced by sectors of the Christian right (primarily in the United States) as a disparaging way to describe the advocacy of cultural acceptance and the normalisation of non-heterosexual orientations and relationships through the inclusion or promotion of ‘gayness’ on television programmes.

If the scholars are anything to go by and gender is a social construct, what, then, should be the role of those raising children?

If the scholars are anything to go by and gender is a social construct, what, then, should be the role of those raising children? Are parents supposed to guard their children against so-called ‘gayness’? Is it possible to raise a wholesome human being without focusing so much on just one area of their life as a whole? Please don’t misunderstand this line of questioning as drawing binaries on what is right and wrong – that would not be  advisable given that parenthood or guardianship is a very difficult task on its own, without society and external factors breathing down your neck, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do.

Caster Semenya has been at the centre of South Africa's conversation on gender and sexuality. Photo: Düsseldorf, Allemagne/ Wikimedia Commons
Caster Semenya has been at the centre of South Africa’s conversation on gender and sexuality. Photo: Düsseldorf, Allemagne/ Wikimedia Commons

 

A silent taboo

With our very own athlete Caster Semenya in the spotlight at the recent Olympics in Brazil, it is evident that while she has been supported and defended by South Africans at large for her achievements, we have managed to do so while ignoring her queerness. This, to me, speaks of the silent taboo that homosexuality still is in South Africa. Despite having led the world in the legalities around sexual orientation, social reform seems to be dragging its feet.

“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law. Understand that we are you. Understand that if we decide to have sex, whether safe, safer or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking.” Derek Jarman

I have even seen people who have spoken publicly about being anti-gay, mostly for religious reasons, comment about how Semenya could not have achieved these successes without God. So we see her being acknowledged for her belief in God but ignored for her queerness. Silencing one part of a person while highlighting another is incredibly problematic. Evidently homosexuality still makes South Africans incredibly uncomfortable.

 

How far have we really come?

Lwando Scott wrote last year that we need to find new ways to speak about being gay in South Africa, especially in light of how our vernacular languages have the term ‘gay’ only as a derogatory word, for example, setabane in Setswana or stjuzane in isiZulu. Whether homosexuality is made, chosen or whether people are born with it, we seem to forget that we are talking about real human beings when we engage the subject.

An activist waves a rainbow flag, an international symbol for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Photo: Flickr/See-ming Lee
An activist waves a rainbow flag, an international symbol for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Photo: Flickr/See-ming Lee

A good friend of mine once put it quite simply, saying that people’s sexuality is actually none of anyone’s business, unless those particular people are trying to get together. According to Derek Jarman, it is essential to “understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea. Understand that your morality is not law. Understand that we are you. Understand that if we decide to have sex, whether safe, safer or unsafe, it is our decision and you have no rights in our lovemaking.”  

Read: Changing your gender in South Africa

Karl Lagerfeld put it this way: “When I was a child I asked my mother what homosexuality was about and she said – and this was many years ago in Germany but she was very open-minded – ‘It’s like hair colour. It’s nothing. Some people are blond and some people have dark hair. It’s not a subject.’ This was a very healthy attitude.”

Perhaps sexuality is not different from issues of race, in that the discourses that surround them dictate how minority groups should behave and exist in a space that once excluded them and subjected them to violence. And yet these conversations should be left to those who are actively living the experience. The rest of us should let them lead the discourse on how they would like to be defined and treated.  

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