In South Africa, Queer Marriage Doesn't Necessarily Mean Queer Equality

With homophobia and violence still all too common in the country, there's a lot left to be done.

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Dec 26 2017, 4:47pm

Sindi Magidla-Matiwana (L) and Twiggy Matiwana at their 2015 wedding. Photo courtesy of the subjects

Last year, the Other Foundation, a South African LGBTQ rights NGO, released a nationally comprehensive survey on LGBTQ issues there called "Progressive Prudes." It was so named because of the conflicting nature of queer rights and attitudes in modern South Africa—that when it comes to political and cultural acceptance of homosexuality, many South Africans are as progressive as they are prudish. The report found that 51 percent of South Africans believe in equal rights for LGBTQ people, for example, but that 72 percent found homosexual sex to be "morally wrong."

It's one of a host of contradictory and worrying ways the country approaches LGBTQ people today. In South Africa, many queer people may have rights on paper, but cultural realities are far more complex. More than ten years after South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage, one would hope that queer people here would have freedom to express their sexuality without fear of backlash or violence. But activists and queer South Africans say the country’s culture has yet to catch up with the law.

Les Wright, a gender scholar and teacher at Johannesburg’s Redhill School, said same-sex marriage “has had no impact at all” on the rights of most South Africans, “because they are faced with the day-to-day struggles of survival, safety, economic challenges, and oppression in their homes or workplaces, or because they actively resist 'gay marriage' as a homonormative distraction from true equality through social change.”

“For other people, probably mostly middle class, and possibly mostly white, as I am, the change in marriage laws has meant that I could stand in front of friends and family and pledge to spend my life with the person I love,” she continued. “Because this expression of love was denied to queer people for so long, and still is in so many countries, it feels like a small but significant personal shift.”

Beyond marriage equality, South Africa has many progressive laws to protect the rights of people regardless of sexual orientation; LGBTQ people are allowed to serve openly in the military and LGBTQ people are free to adopt.

Yet for all their rights on paper, many same sex couples still encounter institutional homophobia. For instance, many churches in South Africa still forbid pastors from officiating non-heterosexual wedding ceremonies. According to Wright, their unwillingness is a strong contributor to general homophobia in the country. “If one leader of a church feels it their moral duty not to conduct a same-sex ceremony, the church should provide another leader who will. That should be mandatory,” she said. “The church will only alienate greater numbers of people over time if they persist in violating people's rights and making them unwelcome in the church.”

Church homophobia is something Twiggy Matiwana, a Johannesburg-based filmmaker, knows all too well. Before marrying her spouse, Sindi Magidla-Matiwana, in 2015, she recalled realizing the scope and type of ceremony they could have was limited by prejudice and discrimination. “It was very difficult because we didn’t want to waste time going to churches and venues and trying to convince people to accept us,” she said. “So we had a small ceremony with friends, and I think it was the best thing we could have done for ourselves. Some couples don’t go that route and they end up regretting it when they are rejected by these spaces.”

But anti-LGBTQ discrimination here is often much uglier in practice. It’s still not unusual to hear of incidents where LGBTQ couples or individuals have been attacked, raped, and killed for publicly expressing their sexuality. A national online survey of LGBTQ South Africans conducted last year by Love Not Hate, a coalition of anti-LGBTQ violence programs, revealed that queer South Africans face disturbing rates of discrimination and violence: 41 percent of respondents said they knew of someone who had been murdered because they were or were suspected of being LGBTQ; 39 percent said they'd faced verbal insults due to their being queer; 20 percent said they had been threatened with physical violence, 7 percent said they had been punched, hit, kicked or beaten; and 6 percent said they had been sexually abused or raped.

“People risk their lives whilst expressing their love, so that always makes you pause and be grateful,” said Twiggy. “But it also makes you sick. Like having these laws is an empty victory because people are still being killed simply for who they love.”

In May of this year, Lerato Moloi was walking home from a local tavern. The 27-year-old, who worked as a temp at a stationary company, was openly lesbian and living in the Naledi extension of Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township. According to police reports, she was confronted by two men who she knew, thrown into a bush and raped before being stoned and stabbed to death. She was found the next morning by locals. LGBTQ activists have suggested Moloi's attack was a homophobic hate crime, and that she was possibly the victim of "corrective rape," or rape perpetrators believe can "cure" its victims of their sexual orientation. In South Africa, where sexual assault and rape remain an epidemic, corrective rape is disturbingly common.

It’s one recent incident among many to remind South Africans that marriage equality hasn’t translated to tolerance. “Because of the recent media attention, we know the names of some of these women,” said Dr. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell, who heads the Jesuit Institute South Africa’s School of Spirituality and serves as part of a coalition to help victims of corrective rape with the nonprofit Sonke Gender Justice. “However, this kind of violence is ubiquitous. The situation also points to a moral and spiritual bankruptcy in our society in which the value placed on human life, and women’s lives in particular, has been eroded.”

What’s clear is that while many South Africans still face the danger of gendered violence and more subtle and pervasive forms of homophobia, the future of LGBTQ equality lies far beyond mainstream assimilation and visibility. After all, this is a country where plenty of musicians and public figures are openly gay. For queer South Africans, marriage and laws only go so far—ending homophobia here is a much more complicated issue than that.

Follow Silhe Mthembu on Twitter.

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