As I am sure you are mostly all aware I live in South Africa. A country (in)famous for a tortured history, a country where arbitrary discrimination was not only acceptable but part of the legal framework. Race, religion, ethnicity, gender and sexuality were all regulated and grounds for institutionalised and legalised discrimination and abuse. The state regulated our lives, told us who we could have sexual intercourse with and who we could not. Who could use which public facilities and even who could purchase certain products (alcohol was heavily regulated and certain racial groups could only purchase certain types of alcohol). Forget about riding at the back of a bus, black people could not ride on the same bus as a white person. The races couldn’t even use the same doorways at public buildings.
Once this ridiculous system was overthrown, we got a new constitutional democracy based on human rights and equality. It is not perfect: it has created an oligarchic state with little or no accountability and a deeply flawed electoral process that in my view threatens the democratic principles we espouse, but it has an excellent set of rights. Every South African is constitutionally protected from discrimination, regardless of sex, gender, sexuality, race, political belief, ethnicity etc. The constitution declares that you are to be treated fairly, equally and with dignity regardless of these factors. It is true that this legal framework is well ahead of the societal belief systems in much of South Africa: some communities remain deeply intolerant of non-conforming sexualities and gender identities, whilst inter-racial love is still frowned upon by some people and sadly racism remains a real issue yet to be fully dealt with. But we have always believed that we are guaranteed a degree of protection from the state. We also believed that the constitutional framework adopted by South Africa could one day be used to influence other less enlightened states in Africa and the rest of the world.
It thus came as a bit of surprise to some South Africans when the South African government abstained from supporting the UN resolution to appoint an independent watchdog on sexual orientation. The resolution passed despite the fact that no African country supported it and there was something of an outcry within South Africa as a result of our government’s inability to uphold our values internationally.
I must admit to a degree of cynicism in this regard and I was less surprised than many by the government’s actions. It seems to me that as ever the values espoused by those who founded our constitutional democracy just a a few decades ago have already been discarded in favour of stronger ties to ‘tradition’, ethnicity and old world ‘morality’. However, what did surprise me was what this episode exposed in respect of the attitudes of many people towards our community.
On Thursday I was listening to a ‘liberal’ (in the sense that it is socially and economically liberal, espousing freedom of expression, the importance of the individual etc) local and independent (in South Africa most of the broadcast media is state owned and state controlled) talk radio station. It was at the end of one show and just before the start of the next and the hosts were doing the ‘handover’ discussing what was coming up on the next show in order to try and retain as many listeners as possible. The upcoming host indicated that she was going to have a government official on her show to discuss this issue. The other host expressed his massive surprise that the government had in fact failed to support the resolution. His reaction bordered on outrage. This was perfectly understandable and justifiable to me, but he then, quite quickly, he back-tracked and said that we should wait and see what the government official had to say because there may be (and I paraphrase) ‘some (legitimate?) legal or political reason’ for them not supporting the resolution and that we should ‘wait for the facts’.
Ordinarily waiting for the facts is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It avoids emotional and hyperbolic responses and ensures we understand issues properly and can therefore react properly, appropriately and proportionately. However in this instance I do not believe it is an appropriate response. In fact I think saying that there maybe a legitimate reason for not supporting such a resolution exposes the latent anti-lgbt sentiments that exist in society. I therefore sent a letter (by e-mail) to both hosts as I felt they needed to understand how their little interaction had sounded (at least to me).
Sadly I am yet to receive a response from them or the station, other than an automated e-mail response saying that they cannot reply to individual requests for help. I have therefore decided to reproduce an edited version of the letter below:
I overheard your interaction this morning regarding the scandalous position taken by the SA government with respect to the resolution at the UN on protecting LGBTI people.
Sadly I missed ______’s show on the subject as I have a job to do as well, but I would like to raise your awareness, if I may.
_____, when _____ was promoting her upcoming show and alluded to this piece you were initially (and rightfully) astounded and shocked that our government should be taking this approach. You then backtracked and said something along the lines that there may be a legal or political reason and that we should wait to hear the facts.
This does indeed sound reasonable to those unaffected by the very real dangers that affect LGBTI people around the word everyday. However it is not and cannot be acceptable.
Even in advanced liberal societies being LGBTI is very dangerous and we suffer various forms of discrimination on a daily basis. Trans people have the some of lowest life expectancies of all demographics throughout the world. We are regularly denied access to health care, we are targets of violent crime and murder. An alarming number of people in Gauteng seem to think it is acceptable to assault us just for being who we are. The majority of LGBT people throughout the world (even in the USA, UK etc) are afraid to hold hands with their romantic partners for fear pf provoking an attack, let alone performing other displays of affection in public. Even in the more tolerant sectors of SA society my spouse and I do not kiss or hug because we are afraid.
My point, without going into the many statistics and anecdotes that are out there, our communities in SA and throughout the world are specifically targeted by individuals, governments and society in general. This is true of places such as the USA (where transgender people can be thrown in jail just for using public toilets in some states) as well as less liberal countries where you almost expect the state to discriminate against their non-conforming citizens (Uganda, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia for example are all well known for their anti-LGBTI stance).
The SA constitution gives us some protection and it seems only reasonable that the ANC government should extend its domestic values in the international arena.
What concerns me is that you, _____, almost seemed to think that it would be ok to turn our backs on the LGBTI people if there was a ‘political or legal reason’. I do not think you meant it to come across that way, but that is what I heard.
I submit that if there were a group of people that were habitually targeted, harassed and discriminated against by states, societies and other organisations on a daily basis throughout the world for simply being who they are you would be far less accommodating.
Let’s substitute another identifiable group for ‘LGBTI’:
Would it be acceptable for the SA government to effectively condone the abuse, discrimination and even execution of ‘mentally disabled’ people in other countries because of some real or imagined political or legal issue?
Would it be acceptable for the SA government to effectively condone the abuse, discrimination and even execution of ‘people born with Down Syndrome’ in other countries because of some real or imagined political or legal issue?
Would it be acceptable for the SA government to effectively condone the abuse, discrimination and even execution of ‘left handed’ people in other countries because of some real or imagined political or legal issue?
I cannot believe that anybody would find that kind of thinking acceptable. Why then is it acceptable in the case of LGBTI people? This is a human rights issue, true, but it is also about our basic humanity.
How can we sit by and watch other countries behave so inhumanely towards other people?
It is unacceptable, it is immoral, it is inhumane.