In March, a principal in Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, forced 38 girls to tell their parents they were gay, an incident which shows just how unsafe public spaces can be for young people who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
According to a 2016 study by the Love Not Hate campaign, 44% of the LGBTQIA+ community in South Africa have experienced discrimination due to their sexuality. Those numbers are higher among LGBTQIA+ students in school.
*Mary James (16) from KwaZulu-Natal, who identifies as being pansexual, told The Daily Vox that if she had had a safe place to turn to for support and advice when she began to question her sexuality, she could have headed off many problems later in life.
“If I had a safe space to go to, it could have prevented a lot of depression and self-harm,” she said.
LGBTQIA+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the Trevor Project, a programme that provides crisis intervention services for young people in the US.
In addition to dealing with questions of identity, young LGBTQIA+ people also face discrimination in their communities.
James said there have been times when she’s feared for her safety after people learned about her sexuality. “I’ve had an incident where a boy got really disgusted with me and kind of marched off and went to go talk to another group of boys. I actually got scared that they were going to come and do something [to me].”
Rights on paper, but not in practice
Section 9 of the constitution forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or sexual orientation. But this isn’t guaranteed. The Love Not Hate campaign found that 55% of South Africans who identify as LGBT fear being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
Keval Harie, director of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (Gala) says that despite what the constitution says, these rights haven’t been afforded to everyone in practice. “Many aren’t safe within their community and within their family structures,” he said.
One way to counter this, says Harie, is for organisations to reach out to those in the LGBTQIA+ community and to offer safe spaces for support and counselling.
Gala, which is based in Johannesburg, hosts a youth forum every Thursday that is open to students at Wits University and other universities, as another way of opening up safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth particularly.
*Lila Edwards, a learner from KwaZulu Natal, who identifies as lesbian, said it’s important for safe spaces to be accessible. “It’s no good if it’s only for over 18s or if you have to pay to be able to go there. It should be a place where you can go where your support is guaranteed,” she said.
Finding sanctuary in church
One area where young LGBTQIA+ people have particularly struggled to find solace is in religious spaces.
Earlier this year, Idols judge Somizi Mhlongo walked out of a sermon at Grace Bible Church when a visiting preacher made homophobic remarks at the podium.
He posted a video on social media shortly afterwards, asking why he should have to compromise on either his faith or his sexuality. “I am not going to sit here and listen to someone offend me. This is who I am. I am a gay man I will remain gay for the rest of my life. Let God deal with me,” he said in the video.
Some religious spaces can be openly hostile to people who identify as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. But this is slowly changing. The Holy Trinity Church in Braamfontein is known for making inroads in this area.
Last year, the church provided a place of refuge for students supporting the #FeesMustFall movement. It holds a clinic every Monday where Wits medical students provide medical support for homeless people and refugees. And, in an attempt to bridge the gap between sexuality and religion, twice a month it also provides a safe space for members of the LGBTQ+ community to host a support group.
“We welcome everyone,” says Dumisani Dube, the co-ordinator of the LGBTQ+ forum at the Holy Trinity Church. “We have members from many different religious settings. We have got people from Islam and we have got people from other churches, even Pentecostal churches. We are open to everybody.”
Dube said they set up the forum to break preconceived ideas of the LGBTQIA+ community in the church. The forum has been running for the past eight years now. LGBTQIA+ people who attend the church are active members who contribute meaningfully to and are recognised by the community.
“We are not hidden,” said Dube. “We are visible within the church and we are a part of the church community.” he said.
This, he said, is helping to change perceptions and to show that identifying as both LGBTQIA+ and as a Christian can work without bringing conflict to the individual.
“And that, I believe, is the most important thing,” said James. “Creating awareness that there, funnily enough, are people like us who exist and that we have feelings.”
*Editors’ note: names have been changed and amended.