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Fantasies of binaries: Why are we so uncomfortable with difference?

By Pierre Brouard

By Sunday May 17 I would have participated in a panel discussion on LGBTI migrants and asylum seekers at an Idahot event organised by the Alliance Francaise in Sunnyside, Pretoria. Idahot is the International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and is intended to celebrate sexual and gender diversity. This celebratory spin is recognised by the Alliance, which has also arranged music and art as part of the event, but it begs the question as to whether there is much to celebrate, and whose job it is to keep the idea of such diversity alive and meaningful.

Tolerance vs celebration
In some ways the Alliance office represents a pocket of defiance and resistance in Sunnyside, a mixed inner-city community, which foreigners and locals of all persuasions call home. It is not located in a glossy, electric-fenced suburb, rather it seems determined to reach out to Francophone Africans.

Notable for its lack of significant hostility in the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, Sunnyside is densely populated and abuzz with accents, clothes, food and worship from around the continent. You can buy almost anything you want, including drugs, sex and anonymity, and queer people of all persuasions, from many countries, live here. The Pretoria Art Museum on its periphery may not be well patronised, but its lawns on a weekend are. Soccer, courting couples and informal picnics find a place there.

I’ve painted a picture of Sunnyside as a small island of tolerance but tolerance is a far cry from celebration of diversity. We tolerate what we don’t like, and can accommodate it, but there is almost always an element of reluctance to this. My sense, in reflecting on how we think of, and react to, all kinds of difference in South Africa, is that we are reluctant. We are grudging in our attitudes towards foreigners, when we are not killing them. We often stick to our own kind in social spaces. We have learned to live with, but not always love, people living with HIV. And we resent a constitution that has ushered in queer rights and gay marriage. And I’m sure many a believer prays every day that sex work will not be decriminalised. As a Wits student once said in a Drama for Life workshop on race, yes we have the rainbow nation but we stick to our own colour lanes in South Africa.

A gay rights activist sets up rainbow-coloured dominoes to spell the acronym Idahot for a rally marking the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in Hong Kong on May 17, 2014. (AFP)
A gay rights activist sets up rainbow-coloured dominoes to spell the acronym Idahot for a rally marking the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia in Hong Kong on May 17, 2014. (AFP)

Towards inclusive citizenship
In a sense we have failed to develop a practice around inclusive citizenship. The rhetoric is sometimes there (though it has to be said we are getting mixed messages from the state on this) but we are fooling ourselves if we believe we are a country that welcomes and celebrates diversity. Naila Kabeer says that inclusive citizenship is based on the notion of universal human rights, and from this flows recognition of all people, in all their differences, as being a legitimate part of society, being able to participate in the life of that society, and as having some agency. But, historically, citizenship has been as much about exclusion as inclusion.

Writers on HIV stigma have noted that there are two major thrusts in this phenomenon, together serving psychological and sociological functions. Instrumental stigma serves pragmatic ends: for example excluding and distancing strategies create the illusion of safety from infection. They address individual and social fear and anxiety. Symbolic stigma colludes with and co-creates the discourse of moral weakness and anti-sociality in people living with HIV, having the effect of blaming and justifying harm towards such persons. It also reinforces scripts about who is a good citizen and acts to exclude heterogeneity and reinforce heteropatriarchal norms and systems.

I would argue that homophobia, transphobia and biphobia similarly attempt to separate and exclude, and prop up heteronormativity and patriarchal privilege. They have at their heart a denial of the notion of inclusive citizenship. When this denial is aimed at adults, that is bad enough, but when children and young people are discriminated against and made vulnerable because of social attitudes to sexuality and gender, it is especially heart-breaking.

How do we treat our LGBTI children?
For Idahot 2015, the special focus by a group of United Nations and international human rights experts is discrimination and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) youth and children.

Violence and discrimination against LGBTI children and young people take place at home, in schools and in institutions. Rejection and disapproval often result in high rates of homelessness, social exclusion, school drop-out and poverty. In some countries, young LGBTI persons are subjected to harmful so-called “therapies” intended to “modify” their orientation or identity. Such therapies are unethical, unscientific and ineffective and may be tantamount to torture. Young transgender people also lack access to recognition of their gender identity, and are subjected to abusive procedures, such as sterilisation or forced treatment.

In addition, intersex children and young people may be subjected to medically unnecessary, irreversible surgery and treatment, with major long-term effects, without their free and informed consent.

It is worth asking how we treat LGBTI children and young people in South Africa, in our homes, schools and faith spaces, and if the message we are sending them is that we embrace diversity (even in its emergent forms) or we fear it.

Beyond fantasies of binaries
So whose job is it to challenge these forms of social control that aim to create, or return to a fantasy of, a society that is heteronormative and patriarchal, in the service of ensuring rigid gender binaries? Beyond the therapeutic space, which is a key opportunity to challenge narrow ideas of the “ideal citizen”, the psychological profession (and the academy) needs to unmask, interrogate and challenge broader social forces that are at play.

All state institutions and civil-society actors should be challenged to drag our Constitution off the page and into the streets of educational, social, political and judicial activity. And we need significant mobilisation of the public imagination to co-create a vision of an inclusive citizenship, where diversity is seen as enriching rather than threatening.

Pierre Brouard is a clinical psychologist and the co-director of the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria. He is secretary and an executive member of PsySSA’s Sexuality and Gender Division and takes inspiration from Ru Paul’s maxim that “we are all born naked, everything else is drag”. He can be contacted at [email protected] or on twitter @Piebro1959. In 2013, PsySSA formally endorsed an affirmative stance towards sexual and gender diversity.


  • PsySSA, the Psychological Society of South Africa, is the national professional body for psychology. Committed to transforming and developing psychological theory and practice in South Africa, PsySSA strives to serve the needs and interests of a post-apartheid country by advancing psychology as a science, profession and as a means of promoting human well-being. This blog hopes to engage psychologists and citizens in debating issues, from mental health to the socio-political. Visit


  1. Rory Short Rory Short 19 May 2015

    Sexuality in any form is actually not accepted by society, it is expected to stay under cover. But at the same time as suppressing sexuality society has, schizophrenically, allowed certain discrete expressions of sexuality provided that they are hetero-sexual in nature, otherwise we would cease to exist. We need to work for public acceptance of the fact that as human beings we are essentially sexual creatures right from our inception right through until our deaths.

  2. Jon Quirk Jon Quirk 20 May 2015

    We are indeed intolerant of ALL difference. We like to think that all are the same, all have the same potential and ignore self-evident differences such as West African peoples can run faster, that East African peoples can run faster for longer, that Asians have a higher IQ, followed by Europeans with Africans languishing significantly far behind.

    We are uncomfortable with differences and seek to both legislate and manipulate societies into an homogenous sameness when we should rather be celebrating diversities and individual talents and allowing all to flourish for the greater good and progress of all humanity.

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