By Pierre Brouard
Do we still need an International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT), to draw attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics? If this year’s events I attended are anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes.
May 17 annually commemorates the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, and IDAHOT is now celebrated in more than 130 countries, including 37 where same-sex acts are illegal.
The theme for this year was “Justice and Protection for All”, as in many places around the world LGBTQIA+ people still face injustice and live in fear and danger. While in some contexts there has been progress in justice, in others there has been a rise in authoritarian and fascist regimes, with a worrying increase in attempts to whip up moral panics and to scapegoat and target LGBTQIA+ people.
I was part of an IDAHOT effort co-ordinated by the Alliance Française in Pretoria – each year it convenes a small team, made up of embassies, high commissions, NGOs and the University of Pretoria (UP: the Centre for Human Rights and the Centre for Sexualities, AIDS and Gender) who work together to run IDAHOT events.
The first I attended was at the Market Theatre on 15 May, a performance of Born Naked sponsored by the Dutch and Irish embassies, followed by a Q and A with the performers and the director. It was a tribute to Thapelo Makhutle who was brutally murdered in Kuruman in 2012 and the piece very movingly reflected small town life for people who challenge gender norms. It somehow managed to be uplifting and tragic at the same time. Because we knew the outcome, the performance evoked tension in the audience, the dramatic ending providing both release and immense sadness.
The Q and A showed that there is meaningful work happening in many contexts to build a more inclusive South Africa, but some cynicism was expressed about the power of our laws to bring justice. There was also an intense debate about who gets to tell the stories of queer people and the politics of representation – this is a debate which needs further airing.
My own Centre organised a panel discussion at UP on 16 May, asking panelists to reflect on whether ‘hearts and minds work’ changes community attitudes, or if legal reform could offer more protection for queer people. While there was no easy consensus it did seem that a combination of grassroots mobilization and assertive and persistent legal work – as described by the OUT LGBT Wellbeing panelist – was desirable. Geoffrey Ogwaro of the Centre for Human Rights spoke to ways in which LGBTIQA+ activists formed support networks in contexts of state oppression, as was his experience in Uganda. Is it strategic to “tone down the gay” when our lives are at stake, he asked?
Finally, an event on 17 May at the Alliance Française, with the participation of the French and German embassies, and the Canadian and Australian High Commissions, effectively used short film screenings and a panel discussion to showcase trans stories of daily challenges. Supported by the NGO Iranti, and the SA Human Rights Commission, the event again suggested justice and protection for all remains an elusive goal, even in South Africa.
For the Sexuality and Gender Division (SGD) of PsySSA, there is a clear take-home message: our work needs to go beyond the therapeutic space and we need a public psychology which has a clear social justice agenda. While queer people are being harmed every day, in streets, schools, clinics and workplaces, we need to address all phobias and prejudices. A more inclusive and welcoming society is good for everyone.
Pierre Brouard is the deputy director of the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria and a member of the Sexuality and Gender Division of the Psychological Society of South Africa