South African homophobia goes to parliament

Are postapartheid norms against open homophobia in party politics eroding in South Africa?

Via Flickr.

A bully in my Standard 5 class used to mock me by calling me “sisi bhuti.” Although not fluent in Xhosa, it was obvious to me what the “sisi” in the phrase signified. The term—which evoked much laughter—meant “a boy who is a sissy.”

Interestingly, the bully never hit me. He didn’t need to—the verbal abuse was effective enough. It sent me to the music room during breaks. I would seek refuge there, staying away from further taunts on the playground.

This didn’t only happen at school. At home, if I cried, for whatever reason—as children do—some or other adult would also think it helpful to try stop the tears by saying something like “Hou op soos ‘n vrou aangaan!” (“Stop behaving like a woman!”), or hurling variations on that theme. So I learned very quickly that not being as strong, burly and athletic as the other boys, was a defect.

I would sometimes close the door in one of the rooms at home, and practice keeping my wrists straight, even though I desperately wanted them to just flap!

At school, there was a year in which ballet classes were on offer. A boy called Desmond opted to do ballet. Desmond was not effeminate and so he was not teased. I was secretly jealous of him. I wanted to sign up for ballet also but I didn’t because I knew it would just confirm what the bullies were saying. I signed up for piano instead, mainly because the lessons were private. I could practice the piano away from the gaze of bullies.

Almost every gay man I know has stories of this kind from his childhood. These tales are all too familiar.

The bully understood one thing very clearly. He knew that being compared to a woman—being reduced to a woman—was the ultimate insult a male could receive. As a gay teenager I internalized the belief that to be female, to be feminine, to be a woman was to be less than a man. Like so many other gay teenagers I prayed desperately for my voice to break, for my body to catch up to those of the bigger boys in our class. I did not want my body to be like that of a woman. I did not in any way want to be like a woman.

In this sense, the internalized homophobia of many gay men unites us with homophobic straight men. The glue that binds men—regardless of their sexual orientation—is disdain for women. This feeling often moves beyond disdain, into the terrain of (usually unacknowledged) hatred of women.

This is why you cannot, even today, assume that a gay man’s painful experiences of homophobia guarantee that he will be empathetic with women’s experiences of misogyny. Homophobia is dependent on misogyny; it feeds off it and relies on its key elements in order to survive. Women and gays are seen as essentially effeminate, representing the opposite of the ideal human who is always male, and often pale.

That constructed ideal attributes reason, steady emotion, strength and virtue to these men, contrasting that with an operating assumption that women and gays invariably lack reason, are hysterical, physically weak, and full of vice. That is why until very recently even our law regarded the testimony of women as no more believable than naughty children prone to myth making.

One of the democratic achievements of which I am most proud of as a South African, is the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Thus far it is a document that has stood us in good stead even as we constantly need to mind the gap between lofty constitutional visions and bigoted daily realities. The constitution asserts, as a founding value that is inviolable, the inherent self-worth of every South African.

When politicians are elected as members of parliament, they pledge to uphold the Constitution and its values at all times. This includes social media which constitutes a critical part of real life in modern society. Political parties cannot be silent when violations of Constitutional rights and values happen. They must act—and be seen to act—swiftly and decisively, in the direction of justice.

We also need to go beyond legal definitions of harm and talk honestly about how we hurt each other in the public domain regardless of what the courts say about the legal threshold for hate speech or discrimination. The law is useful. It is also, however, imperfect when it comes to eliminating hateful ways of thinking and harmful ways of acting. To be sure, Twitter is probably not the best place to resolve these sorts of questions, but increasingly important public discussions are conducted on social media and so these spaces must become healthier.

As a broadcaster, I am often in conversation with various members of political parties. I have been openly gay for the duration of my professional life, and while I have faced homophobia, our main political parties have generally done well to buck the populist trend elsewhere.

For this reason, I was surprised when Ghaleb Cachalia, a member of parliament representing the Democratic Alliance (the DA is the official opposition party) referred to me in homophobic terms this week. In calling me “a woman scorned,” Cachalia departed from an important political consensus in South Africa. This consensus cannot be taken for granted by the way: former president Jacob Zuma once proudly recalled his childhood homophobia with no examination of how he might have chipped away at his own bigotry; the African Christian Democratic Party will have more seats in the next parliament; they think homosexuality is wrong and advocate for public policies that are socially conservative; and the Democratic Alliance itself infamously allowed their MPs a vote of conscience on whether gay people deserve full marital equality with heterosexual couples, thereby sacrificing the liberal ideal of substantive equality at the altar of pragmatism. It is crucial therefore that we be vigilant about the creep of illiberalism even as we celebrate our progressive jurisprudence on gay rights.

It bears remembering that homosexuality is illegal in two thirds of the countries on our continent, and is punishable by death in a handful.

South Africa prides itself in having defined itself on the opposite end of this spectrum. Cachalia’s comments then—and his subsequent defense of them—are a particularly sharp departure from the liberal ideal at heart of the DA’s political ideology.

The notion that I am a woman, or like a woman does not in itself offend me. How could it? I am very happy to be compared to women because women rock. Any group that has endured an ongoing global history of misogyny and has continued to survive and thrive is resilient  and excellent. I should be so lucky to be compared to women, “scorned” or not.

So the mere comparison with women isn’t a problem. What is problematic is the purpose of the slur in terms of its socio-linguistic and political history. That matters. Cachalia is instinctively drawing from the old well of insults that aim to mock gay men by feminizing them. Cachalia, just like the bully who called me “sisi-bhuti”—is making his point by killing two birds with one stone.

Homophobia, like misogyny, is so normalized that Cachalia and many others will be baffled by this criticism. After all, wouldn’t you be baffled too if someone criticized you for something and, as far as you are concerned, what you had uttered was as uncontroversial as saying “one plus one equal two?” The naturalization of hatred against certain groups makes it especially hard to eliminate the hatred. This is exactly why normalized hatred—otherwise known as casual homophobia—needs to be pointed out and elevated when it happens.

Cachalia was roasted by a number of people who tried to engage him on Twitter. He dug in his toxic heels, pretending that he was being attacked for not being politically correct. This rejoinder, too, is revealing. When groups whose dignities are routinely trampled on push back against hatred, it is convenient to mislabel legitimate criticism, often by changing the subject. Cachalia was actually simply being asked, by those who criticized him, to be decent. But of course, “real men” do not self-examine, right? Real men stand their ground.

I expect better from elected public officials, and influential public figures. We have duties to consider and reconsider our speech acts. Being unintentionally hurtful is one thing; refusing to apologize for bigotry when it is pointed out simply reveals a vicious character at work.

I know many gay people who do not live openly. They are harmed by the burden of secrecy. Secrecy is a horrid choice for many in the face of public homophobia. Even among our political parties, including in the DA, there are men and women who are scared of the impact that homophobia might have on their careers, and personal and family life. I know several DA politicians who wish they could be as visible about their sexual orientation as me.

Bigotry like that tweeted by Cachalia, encourages secrecy and fear. I am glad I chose, early in my life, to not overthink the horror of homophobia. Attitudes like those displayed by Cachalia aren’t just horrible for me as an individual. When they happen in the public domain—as his did—they have a chilling effect. Many of his colleagues, and girls and boys in his family and friendship networks, are harmed by that kind of speech.

What does it say of a political party that it is prepared to entrust this kind of person with important positions of public power? The DA purports to value fairness. Its leaders speak often and eloquently about the need to protect the rights of individuals and minorities against the tyranny of the majority. The party surely should very quickly nip the tyranny of homophobia in the bud.

Despite the fact that Cachalia’s comments took place in public, on a platform in which many DA leaders are active and vocal, the party and its senior officials have maintained a strange public silence on this matter even as the story grows legs across the blogosphere.

Imagine if Cachalia had said that one Eusebius McKaiser was angry “like a darkie scorned”? The DA would have been forced to announce a disciplinary process even before a journalist made inquiries and many more people would have ensured he trended until he apologized, bathing him in necessary shame and regret.

Unfortunately, when it comes to women, and sexual minorities, cowardice sets in. Discrimination against gay people is either greeted with silence or is rationalized as “complex.” Racism, on the other hand, is always black and white. We may struggle to eliminate hatred based on skin color, but we have no qualms naming it.

Cachalia’s attempt to play the school-yard bully was largely ignored by the most senior leaders of his party. Is the the DA truly committed to liberalism if it ignores speech acts that reduce freedom and undermine the right to dignity?

Our moral inconsistencies ultimately indict us all.

Further Reading

Friends in a Ship

“It was a lifetime performance of lies and false living. I played the role of a homophobic straight guy while I craved to hold the hands of a guy. I worshipped at the temple of homophobes while I prayed for a man to call my own.”

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