029_Global12_InSight_GayRights_V4

Global issue 12

Global InsightLGBT Rights is a member of the nation has a right to express their individuality in an affirmative way. Despite one of the most progressive legal frameworks, protecting the rights of gay men and women, homophobia is still prevalent in South Africa. Why has the social acceptance of homosexuality lagged so far behind the legal acceptance? And what do you think can be done to combat homophobia in South Africa? What’s been extraordinary is that since the case striking down sodomy as being unconstitutional, the law has evolved progressively. The rights of same-sex partners have been affirmed – society has accepted it, and parliament, in 2005, passed a law that allowed for same-sex couples to register their unions and say, “I marry you.” It’s been extraordinary, the extent to which same-sex couples can live in South African society as ordinary, free human beings. At the pre-primary school which my son attends, his best friend has two daddies and that’s okay – it’s just part and parcel of the diversity of the school. So in many respects, public acceptance has grown. That’s the positive side. The negative side is that South Africa still has pockets of intense homophobia that are deeply entrenched and express themselves sometimes quite violently in the form of very ugly, vicious attacks – on lesbian women in particular. It’s quite deep in popular culture in certain areas and it’s very saddening. It violates the whole spirit Albie Sachs: “The culture of acceptance is becoming stronger and stronger” of everything that people have been trying to achieve in South Af- rica in the post-apartheid era. cal leaders – and it got a huge majority in parliament. As far as I know, Jacob Zuma voted in favour; he had moved on like so many Do you think that there is a way to make homosexuality more ac- South Africans. There’s a theme of negativity in your questions ceptable in these entrenched pockets of society? that doesn’t correspond to the reality: people feel ambivalent, some Like so many things, there has to be a multi-pronged response. people feel uncomfortable about many laws, but the laws are there Where homophobia takes the form of violent attacks, then the and the laws are functioning. criminal law has to be employed and very firmly. Where it takes I would say, by and large, the culture of acceptance and acknowl- non-violent forms, then the law should also have appropriate rem- edgement is progressively becoming stronger and stronger in respect edies. The best remedy really is debate, example and the public of sexual orientation. And it’s really been extremely rewarding to see affirmation of people’s rights, but if necessary, regulation can the extent to which once one removes the issue from the shadows of certainly be used. Homophobic attacks are cruel, demeaning and criminalisation and fear, how quickly a society can adapt. hurtful, not only to the individual victims but to the whole of our society and to all the people that belong to targeted groups. The question of gay rights in Africa currently seems to be an issue of great concern for the international community. While some Do you think that the introduction of specific hate crime legisla- African leaders, like Joyce Banda in Malawi, are considering tak- tion would be useful in combating homophobic attacks? ing steps to liberalise national laws against homosexuality, others I would love to see an extensive debate about ‘hate’, because it wouldn’t are strengthening them. What lessons do you think can be learned stop simply at homophobia, it would have to deal with misogyny and from the South African experience? with race in particular, which is still very sensitive in South Africa. Well it’s not just for Africa; it’s lessons, I think, for the world. I would Free speech is absolutely fundamental to democracy. But if unlim- say one of the main lessons is to have as much serious, dignified pub- ited, it can lead to genocide and tear a society apart. So international lic debate as possible, and to move step by step to begin with. The law and the courts in many countries accept that legislation must extreme forms of discrimination and the invocation of the criminal be passed to combat racist and sexist propaganda. Sporting bodies law is the first thing that should be dealt with. We must understand are becoming increasingly active in prohibiting insulting language or that what’s involved here is the right to be different, the right to be demeanour. And international law is slowly but definitely moving to- who you are. In South Africa, the theme of difference has had to wards a general protection of minority rights. Yes, the law undoubt- be central to the new nation. So the issue of non-discrimination on edly plays an important role in setting standards for society, and in the grounds of sexual orientation became something of a touchstone providing specific protections for vulnerable groups. But one has to for non-discrimination as a whole. It was really a challenge to the be very careful about using criminal law to deal with hate speech. strength and tenacity of the equality principle and I think that’s what came through the most strongly in our experience. Some MPs who voted for the 2006 Civil Union Act, which legalised And then the second aspect is that once the legal changes are same-sex marriage, have stated that they oppose the law. For made and the issue is brought into the light and out of the shadows, example, Jacob Zuma was reported as saying that same-sex mar- public acceptance can be much quicker than many people would riages are “a disgrace to the nation and to God” – a comment for anticipate. And one can see that as much in Boston as in Cape which he later apologised. How can the spirit of the law be upheld Town – it isn’t a country-specific or continent-specific theme. if the lawmakers themselves don’t really support it? The lawmakers voted for the Civil Union Act – I understand that Interview by Elissa Jobson a very passionate speech was made by one of the ANC politi- globalfourth quarter 2012 www.global-briefing.org l29


Global issue 12
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