Fighting for lesbian and gay rights in South Africa


By Norm Dixon

"In South Africa all issues are linked together. Homophobia is part of discrimination. We can not deal with it in isolation. We are trying to link our struggle with the struggle of the majority of the people against apartheid and racism", Tseko Simon Nkoli explained in an interview with Green Left Weekly.

Nkoli is the coordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand (GLOW) and works for the Township AIDS Project as an AIDS educator. He is also a member of the African National Congress.

"There are lots of lesbians and gay people in South Africa, especially in the big cities. Johannesburg happens to be called 'the gay city' because lots of gay people move there from the other cities and from the countryside because it's quite liberal about homosexuality."

But "homosexuality is still a taboo" in South Africa. "People are still being suppressed", Nkoli points out. Lesbian and gay people "don't get jobs. [If] people 'come out' at work, they get fired. At our last Gay Pride March, we had 27 people who were expelled from jobs because they had been seen on the march or had appeared on television or in the newspapers."

South African law does not mention homosexuality directly. Gay men are arrested under laws which outlaw "sodomy". "Last year 380 people were charged ... and 90% of them were black people."

While there are larger gay and lesbian groups that organise social and sports events, GLOW is the biggest political gay and lesbian organisation in Johannesburg. "Our main work is to mobilise the lesbian and gay community to accept themselves, to come out within their own organisations, and to take up other issues, not only gay issues."

GLOW's membership is 80% black. But this majority has been passive when it comes to campaigning for gay and lesbian rights within the broader political movement. "We have only a few black people, mostly lesbians, who are very active in the ANC, the ANC Women's League and youth groups. The black gay men, however, do lots of work in AIDS education."

After GLOW's formation in 1989, Nkoli said, "we

discussed coming out within our organisations, because a lot of our people were members of the ANC and the Youth Congresses, but they were not known to be gay ... We managed to get some ANC activists, mainly the white gay men and women, to come out openly within the ANC."

GLOW wrote letters to all political organisations asking their views on lesbian and gay rights. "The ANC was very positive and supportive. The AZAPO [Azanian People's Organisation — an organisation that subscribes to the black consciousness ideas of the late Steve Biko] response was 'as long as they keep themselves where they belong'. AZAPO plays an important role, but their response was not very good. The Communist Party was also good and supportive. The Pan Africanist Congress was also fine. The National Party said they do support us as long as we don't molest children. The AWB [the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement] said we could go to the nearest hell. The Conservative Party reminded us about what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah."

Nkoli was cautiously optimistic that a future ANC government would be sympathetic to the interests of gays and lesbians. "[The ANC] said once they are in power they will include everybody, including lesbian and gay people, in decision making. We were involved when they were drafting their [proposed] constitution for a post-apartheid South Africa. They came to us and said 'we can not write it for you, we think you should do it yourself'. What we did then was to consult with other gay and lesbian groups. A survey was sent to find out what they would really like.

"We sent this even to rural areas. We got a very good response. All the gay organisations responded to the ANC call for contributions to their constitution."

The ANC included the main demands of the gay and lesbian charter into a bill of rights which the ANC wants incorporated in the new constitution. It includes clauses which outlaw discrimination on the grounds of gender, single parenthood, legitimacy of birth or sexual orientation. It also puts a responsibility on the media, advertising and social institutions "to discourage sexual and other types of stereotyping".

The ANC national conference also committed itself to give AIDS a high priority. Each ANC branch was asked to appoint an AIDS officer and the ANC National Executive Committee to appoint a subcommittee on AIDS to work with other bodies in the field.

Nkoli added that "we have to follow them up, we have to see to it that it is implemented. We have to continue battling.

"The ANC is not the only organisation. We should lobby other organisations more. We should continue organising, mobilising and fighting within these organisations. Even within the ANC there are lots of people who've got reservations and problems about homosexuality. It's a process."

But should the ANC come to power and implement its promises on lesbian and gay rights "we'd be the first country in the world where a political organisation has really involved lesbians and gays in drawing up the constitution of the country".

The Gay and Lesbian Organisation of Witwatersrand can be contacted by writing to PO Box 23017, Joubert Park 2044, Johannesburg, South Africa.