Making space for LGBTQI people where the street and constitution diverge

The Constitution of South Africa was the first in the world to outlaw unfair discrimination on the basis of sex, gender and/or sexual orientation. And yet, members of the LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex) community, like Mongezi Mkhondo, live in constant fear of prejudice, discrimination and verbal and physical assault. BONGIWE TUTU argues that it is up to all of us to help create safe spaces and support LGBTQI individuals and communities.

A 2008 survey found that 84% of South Africans said homosexual sexual behaviour is always wrong, compared with 8% who said that it is not wrong at all. Not much has changed over the years – a 2013 survey found 61% of South Africans would not accept homosexuality

“With so many hateful and aggressive people out there, we have to tiptoe around them just to be safe,” Mkhondo told me.

Mkhondo is one of many people in South Africa who are marginalised if their sexual identities do not fit the norm, people who live under societal constraints, always fearing for their safety.

It is unacceptable that people in South Africa have to live this way. And yet so many still do.

In 2013, a 17-year-old transgender boy from Johannesburg committed suicide after being repeatedly turned away from the Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital where he had sought to have gender-reassignment surgery

Perhaps his death could have been averted. Research has shown that when parents accept, or simply remain neutral about their children’s sexual orientation, the suicide rate among LGBTQI youth drops.

And in a well-known case, Eudy Simelane, the former star of South Africa’s Banyana Banyana national football team, who was found in a creek in a park in Kwa Thema on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Simelane had been gang raped, stabbed 25 times in the face, chest and legs, and left lying half-naked in a ditch to die.

The convictions attained in this case were commendable, but the attitude of the presiding judge says much about attitudes towards homosexuality in South African. Judge Ratha Mokgoathleng was reportedly uncomfortable using the word “lesbian” during the trial and had asked the prosecutor, “Is there another word you can use instead of lesbian?”

There are no reliable statistics on hate crimes against people who identify as members of the LGBTQI community, but anecdotal evidence is so overwhelming that civil-society groups have banded together to try to raise the issue with government.

With little help from family and community, and in the face of such prejudice, Mongezi is bravely trying to overcome these societal constraints and to live his life without hiding his identity. But we need to meet him halfway. As a society, we must recognise our shortcomings and seek to address them. We must uphold human rights and, as citizens, live up to our constitution.

– Featured image of Mongezi Mkhondo by Kevin Radebe