Today The Tempest is celebrating Spirit Day in support of queer youth against bullying!
In 1996, South Africa became the first country in the world to constitutionally outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The post-apartheid constitution enshrined a number of progressive anti-discrimination laws, aimed at ensuring equality and freedom for all citizens.
The nation continued on this progressive trajectory, becoming the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2006. Since then, a host of LGBTQ+ rights have been granted, including equitable policies on issues such as adoption and parental leave.
Despite this, anti-LGBT+ sentiments are still exceedingly common. Religion features heavily in our society; it’s not unusual for people to use the excuse of “that’s not what god intended” as a defense for their bigotry. I remember teachers in school promoting these notions by reminding us that it was, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” This tactical rhetoric is particularly problematic because rhymes are intended to stick, especially in the minds of impressionable children.
The worst thing about these types of statements is that they aren’t overt, so nobody can be called out for using discriminatory language. It’s the loophole of all bigots’ dreams – and whoever wrote Facebook’s community standards, apparently.
Fortunately, societal disapproval has failed to influence legislation. In 2009, parliament rejected an application filed by the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, calling for LGBTQ+ rights to be removed from the Constitution.
Given the historical injustice of apartheid, the South African constitution emphatically emphasizes respect of cultural and religious traditions and values. Although unquestionably necessary, this has muddied the grounds on which the protection of LGBTQ+ rights have been opposed.
As such, the government reformed policy to prevent these defenses of discrimination. In 2018, a previous law which allowed for a marriage officer to object to performing a union on the grounds of conscience, religion and belief, was repealed.
Although progress towards the recognition of the LGBTQ+ community has been frustratingly incremental, all moves towards inclusivity deserve to be celebrated. If there are no official measures to safeguard rights, the possibilities for discrimination are endless.
Despite significant pressure, the government has continually defied public opinion in order to maintain its comprehensive anti-discrimination laws. This is testament to the country’s democratic principle that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”
However, this principled approach of freedom and equity has largely failed to translate into society.
While on paper South Africa may appear to be the pinnacle of inclusivity, the reality is decidedly different. LGBTQ+ hate crimes routinely fail to garner the attention or outrage afforded to other instances of discrimination and the laws meant to protect the community often fail to be enforced.
Strong heternormative ideals of familial structure and gender roles continue to hinder public acceptance of queer identity, particularly in Black communities. Black LGBTQ+ people are frequently alienated and excluded, with many being subjected to violent retaliation.
Because LGBTQ+ rights were constitutionalized on the grounds of equality, rather than as a result of public consensus or promotion, the queer community in South Africa continues to be marginalized.
This prevalence of discrimination and hate-crimes serves to highlight the fact that legal protections are only effective if enforced. Such enforcement, however, also begs the question of whether or not certain demographics might be targeted above others.
Nevertheless, LGBTQ+ rights have been hard-won; the fact that they are constitutionally enshrined is a BIG DEAL.
In a time where LGBTQ+ rights are being repealed in countries claiming to be democratic, the significance of protective law is evident. Without official recognition, the door is wide open for abuse without consequence.
It’s undeniable that South Africa still has a lot of work to do. However, the foundations for future progress have already been laid. The current anti-discrimination laws make it clear that anti-queer perspectives stand in opposition to the fundamental principles of our democracy.
The Constitution advocates for equality and freedom, above all else. No citizen is legally allowed to discriminate against any person on the basis of their sexual orientation. And that really does matter.
This Spirit Day, I’m focusing on the wins, however small they may seem.
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