Thorne Godinho
Thorne Godinho

A queer understanding of community?

By Matthew Clayton* & Thorne Godinho**

It should come as no surprise that South Africa’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex community is stratified along similar race and class lines as the rest of South African society. The big umbrella that is the LGBTI term actually falls short of being big enough to cover white gay men in suburbs on one side and black lesbian women in townships on the other — for example. Class and race divisions cut deep into the heart of this community, and people on the one side — and one side in particular — of this umbrella are getting wet because of it.

There have been several events that bring this divide within the “community” sharply into focus; not least the violent clashes that occurred between black lesbian activists and mostly white Joburg Pride goers in 2012. But the events of the last week have shown that when it comes to interests and shared experiences, this can only be called a community in abstract terms. The reality is that there is no central concern or unity in this grouping — a grouping lumped together on the basis that they deviate from the heterosexual norm.

In the past week the Kilcairn Farm wedding venue in the Riebeek Valley reportedly denied a lesbian couple the right to host their wedding there because they were same-sex.

This so roused the spirits of the LGBTI community, that the Kilcairn venue abandoned its online presence within a matter of hours — the Twitter and Facebook pages and business website were taken down. The denial of the couple’s rights has been reported on widely and received attention from the SA Human Rights Commission . The online backlash was so strong that another story had to be published asking people not to attack innocent parties named in the article and even those who had similar names to guilty parties named.

While one section of the community was fighting against discrimination on one side of the Western Cape, a grotesque hate crime was allegedly taking place in Ceres. Here, a 21-year-old man was allegedly tortured before being beaten to death. The man who killed him had allegedly invited a group of nearby teenagers to come and watch him kill a moffie. The group duly complied and watched the murder – only informing someone of this attack the following day.

This delay and the compliance of the onlookers points to the reality that some members of our society aren’t seen as worth anything — they don’t need your protection, and you don’t want to give it to them because they aren’t the same as you. This whole incident indicates the violence of heterosexism, of a culture of homophobia that exists among straight South Africans.

While middle-class liberals and queers took on the actions of a wedding venue, a member from a different section of this community was having their skull bashed in while the world looked on. In fact, the homophobic South Africans involved in that attack (and this more recent hate crime) represented more of a political community — unified in the act of homophobic hatred — than the LGBTI community itself.

Aside from the fact that the heterosexual world is by and large complicit in the continued assault on the dignity of people who identify as LGBTI, the community itself devalues its political fight for equality by allowing for class and race divisions to take hold.

Where one section is fighting for their rights on paper and another is literally fighting for its life, does it stop being helpful to refer to this as a “community” — a political grouping united in action against homophobia? In the same way that it is unhelpful to speak about women or black people as having shared interests, is it time to acknowledge that LGBTI people in South Africa are not a collective?

There is a deep need for collective action and a politicised war against the daily oppression of LGBTI individuals in this country. But the LGBTI community in South Africa is more of a group united in its deviation from a standard determined by a straight, male world, than a group united in the fight for equality. This collective isn’t supporting itself; it’s supporting certain sectors of the community and that just defeats the entire point of collective action for equality.

*Matthew Clayton is studying towards his MA in political studies through Wits, having completed his BA in international relations and LLB at UJ. He currently works as a freelance researcher, with a focus on the LGBTI community.

**Thorne Godinho is reading towards his LLB at the University of Pretoria. He is an editor of the Pretoria Student Law Review.

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    • Nate Thomas

      Brilliantly written.
      I am currently investigating instances of internalized homophobia and prejudice within the gay ‘community’ – and to know someone else feels the same way is refreshing.

    • Momma Cyndi

      I like vanilla icecream. That would not automatically make me wish to be part of (or agree with) any group of people who like vanilla icecream. Gay and lesbian people, in my experience, are not clones. They are individuals with vastly different interests and priorities. Accountants don’t all think the same and politicians in the same organisations disagree with eachother, so why would this group all of a twice be expected to be ‘the same’?

      The media coverage is part of the reason that people give more attention to one wrong than they do to another. I doubt that many people had heard of the horrific murder (I hadn’t) but the media made a meal out of the wedding reception.

    • hippiegoth

      Thank you for this article.

      I’m disturbed by the lack of solidarity in the queer “community.”

    • Ang

      YES. Thank you for articulating these divides, this misnomer of ‘community’, so clearly. I am a white, middle class queer woman. The only ‘outrage’ I have is getting the odd skeef look. Yet black lesbians have to deal with that pesky matter of life and death. I have a constant internal fight with myself about this – how dare I praise South Africa and the freedoms it allows me, while others are denied it? And what am I doing about it? What are we doing about it? Thank you for this piece, Thorne.

    • Germaine de Larch

      My thoughts exactly about the whole Kilcairn farm wedding venue debacle. Really? We’re going to get all up in arms because one little farm in the middle of nowhere doesn’t want to marry you, while gay and trans people are being beaten, raped and murdered all over the country?! You’re going to rally together and actually get justice served over the homophobic matter of where you get to wear your wedding gown and yet there are only a handful of activists, specifically Inkanyiso, actually doing something about horrifying and violent homo- and transphobia? Get your priorities straight (so to speak), queers….

    • Brianb

      The constitution protects the rights of all regardless of background or sexual orientation.

      This of course is undermined by the lack of adequate law and order.

      Its a pity because there is a huge body of South Africans who have largely overcome their prejudices.

      Some discrimination appears to be endemic and needs to be eradicated.

      Be wary of citing certain stereotypes and ghastly incidents and proclaiming them as the trend.

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    • Mpumelelo Qiniso

      South Africa should not pretend as though it has overcome certain prejudices just because there is a presence of a democracy. The reality is that some prejudices are more dominant than others. Racial, economic and even ideological inequalities will always have their influence on the LGBT community. To say that the LGBT community is securlarly united through sexual-preferenced marginalisation is ignorant. When we can begin to acknowledge and discuss the fact that there are racial, class and ideological divisions which exist in the LGBT community, is when true progress can be made.

    • Jacqui

      A very telling and necessary article to deal with what is the biggest misnomer – the notion of community simply because of a string of [varied] letters LGBTIAQ.

      This is no different from what is going on in the broader South African context, where race and class still bring about divides, and truth be told, will continue to do so for at least another 2 generations. We can’t escape our past. Nor should we. We can however be informed by it.

      What could make a difference in bringing about a transformation in all of this, is dialogue – not just any dialogue, but the kind of straight talking communication where individuals stand up and own who they are and who they are not, and listen as others across the table from them do the same. And then, when that is out the way, the creation of a common purpose to rally behind. A purpose that will by its nature be inclusive thereby fulfilling everyone’s needs. Even the rampant homophobe whose fear of the unknown misguides their belief and views, to consider us as some kind of threat versus a fellow member of the same society.

      The pre-requisite for such a dialogue – an agreement not to finger point. You only look and deal with yourself with regards to the issues on the table. The role you play in it. Then we can start to make a real difference. Otherwise it’s just more talk…

    • Crawl Evans

      These words scrawled across this page do not say anything new about queerness and the divide….here to be understood as the race, class and political divisions that persist and are re-inscribed in this ‘piece’. Queers are no different to the rest of society…we imagine ourselves as others and therefore perhaps not tainted by systemic racism etc. Queer mirrors society it is society – and when we wield ‘queer’ who do we speak for? Who do we claim to be? Queer darlings is the racist moffie, the outrageous drag, dyke biker, the chem’ed out sex pig and the street walking rent boy. Do we believe that queer is a homogenous group all on the same page? Speak for yourself – Steven Cohen so eloquently wrote in retaliation to the queers who were horrified by his “Mothers bring us your children what we cant eat we will fuck”

      It disingenuous to argue that ‘a’ is not as serious as ‘b’ or vice versa. And pointing it out does not absolve us from being complicit in privileging race and class, sitting here in our comfort preaching to the converted and talking about ‘them’. Both these acts are an attack on a political collective of racist, non racist, etc queer community. We recoil in horror at the murder and so we should, but violence against the queer is both in deed and word.

      A unified collective queer army won’t win the battle…the community of Ceres did not take to the streets and we must ask ourselves why? Activism is at the heart of the problem…what kind,…