About one in every ten people in South Africa is gay. In other words, three and a half million South Africans prefer to make love with someone of their own sex. Even though there are so many gay people, they still suffer much oppression…
The telephone rings. Simon Nkoli answers. “Hello, Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand. Can I help you?”
The person on the other side speaks. He tells Simon that he is sixteen years old and he thinks he is gay. “I don’t know what to do. I feel so alone. I feel that I’m the only one who is gay.”
Simon tells the youth not to worry — he is not the only one, because he is speaking to Simon, who is also gay! Simon promises to send the youth a membership form and invites him to come to the next meeting of GLOW.
In another part of Johannesburg, at the magistrate’s court, a 40 year-old man is found guilty of having sex with a man of 18. The law says that if one of the men is under 19 years, he is committing a crime. The 40 year-old man is worried that he will get fired from his job, because in the eyes of the courts, he is a criminal.”
In Soweto, a young girl has tried to kill herself. She was afraid to tell her parents that she loves women, not men. These are just a few examples of the troubles that gay people experience.
JUST THE SAME
Learn and Teach spoke to Simon Nkoli, who is a founder member of GLOW. Simon is also a political activist who was one of the accused in the famous Delmas treason trial. We began by asking him what it means to be gay.
“A gay person is someone who is attracted to another person of the same sex,” he said. “Part of that attraction is sexual. This does not mean that a gay man does not like women or that a gay woman does not like men — I have many women friends.”
Unfortunately, many straight people cannot understand gay love. They cannot understand that a man can love another man, or a woman can love another woman. Some straight people tease gay people. There are cases where gay people have been assaulted — just because of their sexual preference.
FINDING A “CURE”
It is especially hard for parents to accept that their child is gay. Simon remembers when he told his parents that he was gay: “They thought I was bewitched. They sent me to prophets, to traditional healers, to western psychologists. They all tried to “cure” me, but of course, there is no cure, because being gay is not a sickness.”
But many gay people suffer terribly because other people think they are not “normal”. Simon says that he knows many young people who hate themselves because they are told that they are “sick”. Some people cannot cope with the pain and they land up in a mental hospital or commit suicide.
“There is so much pressure on men and women to get married and have children,” he said. “People ask you all the time: ‘When are you going to settle down?’ You don’t know how to answer. You don’t want to hurt those who love you, but you know that if you get married, your life will be a big lie. But many gay people do get married and then they cheat on their husbands and wives.”
The law in South Africa also makes life hard for gay people — especially gay men. There are two laws in South Africa about sex between two men. One law says that sex between two men is a crime, even if they both want to have sex. This law is almost never enforced, but it is still an ugly threat.
Another law says that it is a criminal offence for a gay person — a man or a woman — to have homosexual sex with someone who is younger than 19. Gay activists say that these laws are unfair. A heterosexual person can have sex legally at the age of 16. Why do gay people have to wait until they are 19?
For gay people, the thought of being charged in court and given a criminal record is terrifying. They can be fired from their jobs. Their story may be written in the newspapers. Gay activists say that what goes on in the bedrooms of two adult people who agree to have sex is a private matter and should be legal.
There are other laws that are unfair to gay people. Gays are not allowed to get married. A gay couple are not allowed to adopt children, even if they have a long relationship and can give the child a good home. Gay couples are also denied benefits such as insurance and pensions. All this causes great sadness and anger to gay people.
GOD MADE US ALL
Until recently, there was no help from the church either because the church also saw gay people as “abnormal” and “sinful”. Today, the official attitude of the Catholic, Anglican and Dutch Reform Church is that it’s okay to be gay, but you must not have sex.
Many gay Christians are not happy with the church’s attitude. One gay minister, Heinrich Pretorius from Pretoria, recently resigned from the Dutch Reform church, saying that he couldn’t preach in a church that sees homosexual love as a sin.
Some gay Christians have formed organisations where they can pray together and help each other. One such organisation is the Gay Community Centre, which has branches all over the country and is non-denominational and non-racial.
Learn and Teach spoke to the leader of one of the GCC’s branches, who asked us not to give her name. “I would like the church to accept committed gay relationships. By “committed” I mean serious loving relationships. Many gay couples have long relationships, just like a marriage. They make promises and vows to each other. I believe that the church should accept these relationships, including the sexual part,” she said.
The GCC leader does not believe that the church should accept gay marriage, however. “Marriage is for having children,” she said. She also said that the church should not accept promiscuous sex — like ‘one night stands.’ “The church doesn’t accept promiscuity in straight people, so it shouldn’t with gays. But it should apply the same values and standards to all relationships.”
She ended by saying: “God made all people — gays and non-gays. We are born as we are. So if God allowed us to be born as we are, God loves us all.”
A SLOW STRUGGLE
On October 12 this year, a “Gay Pride” march was held in Johannesburg. It was the first ever gay march in South Africa. In overseas countries, gays have been having gay marches and fighting for gay rights for many years. We asked Simon why South African gays have been so slow in taking up the fight.
“There are many reasons,” he said. “Firstly, there is the political situation. For many years, we have only been able to concentrate on one thing — freedom from political oppression. So other struggles — such as gay rights, women’s issues, the environment and so on — have taken second place.
“Secondly, black and white gay people never met because of apartheid laws like the Group Areas Act and the Immorality Act. So there was no unity. Today, many gay organisations are non-racial and are struggling for gay rights together.”
We asked Simon what gay rights and demands are. In reply, he gave us GLOW’S manifesto which demands among other things:
that parliament changes the law so that two adult gays who agree to have sex together can no longer be prosecuted
that the law gives long-standing gay relationships the same benefits that heterosexual couples get, like pensions and insurance
that political organisations adopt a Bill of Rights to protect gay people from discrimination
that the liberation movement includes gay liberation as part of its struggle for freedom from all oppression
that religious traditions accept their gay members without conditions
that newspapers, television and the radio show gay people in a good light
that employers give gay people the same chances as straight people
“As a non-racial organisation fighting for democracy in our country, GLOW encourages its members to join anti-apartheid organisations so that we also make a contribution to the struggle. We have been silent for too long and it’s time that society learnt that gay people are also human,” Simon said.
“We want people to know that a gay relationship is just as beautiful and wonderful as the relationship between a man and a woman and that we deserve the same respect as any other person. It is not just the laws of the country and the attitude of the church that must change. It is especially important that the attitudes of people change,” he ended.
If you’ve ever thought badly about gays or made a cruel joke, now is the time to think again about your behaviour.
Those of us who are struggling for a new South Africa — a South Africa that is free from oppression and where everyone can live in peace — must make a special effort to think about the suffering of a people who are also oppressed — and to help them find acceptance by society and our courts of law. Let it not be said of us that we ourselves have oppressed!
There are many words to describe people who are attracted to the same sex as themselves. In our story, we have mostly used the word “gay”, which can refer to both men and women. Here are some others: The word “homosexual” comes from Latin, and means love of one man for another. The word “lesbian” comes from the Greek island Lesbos where the poetess Sappho, who loved women, used to live. The word lesbian can only be used to talk about gay women, not men. The word “heterosexual” is used to talk about sex between a man and a woman. Gay people talk about heterosexual people as “straight”.