Like many minority groups in South Africa, the LGBT community continues to be subject to discrimination and marginalization, perhaps even to a greater extent than other minority groups. In fact one might be compelled to argue that the discrimination against individuals who are in same sex relationships or who are merely attracted to people of the same sex has become normative. While prejudice and discrimination against other minority groups in South Africa – be it racial, cultural or religious is frowned upon, it seems that discrimination against LGBT people is an exception and is collectively accepted and in other instances even enforced. This is quite disturbing given that fact that South Africa has the most progressive constitution with regard to rights and freedom of expression. In this democratic country, people enjoy freedom of expression, or so it may seem, and when that right is infringed on, political parties and other organizations take to the street in protest and advocacy.
However it is very disappointing that when freedom to choose and express one’s sexual orientation is subjugated as is almost always the case, no one dares to take to the street and fight for that right except for the gay organizations. In essence, the argument raised here is that the gay community still lives under the ruins of oppression and discrimination, and whenever a person or a group of people is subject to prejudice, labelling and stereotyping is almost always guaranteed to be part of the package. This then brings me to the topic at hand, What does it really mean to be gay? Many notions and beliefs about the gay identity exist, some unfounded and some have an element of truth in them. I will focus on a few stereotypes that I have frequently encountered within the gay community as well as from the heterosexual community which I have understood to bear both elements of true and false.
Many people hold the belief that the principal characteristic of being gay is that of engaging in promiscuous sexual relations, and that characteristic eventually becomes assimilated to the gay identity and becomes the gay identity. But is this true? Well one might agree with this stereotype and say that it is true, however one far-reaching reality has to be taken into consideration: heterosexual people also engage in promiscuous sexual relations, perhaps even more than gay people, but why is the heterosexual or the ‘straight’ identity not recognized as primarily characterized by promiscuity? To most people, it almost always comes naturally to blurt out that gay people are promiscuous, essentially implying that the gay identity is that of promiscuity, but why is it not equally natural or collectively acceptable to say that ‘straight’ people are promiscuous and that the essence of the ‘straight’ identity is that of promiscuity? Is it possible that this label is avoided for the latter group because even if they do engage in this practice, hope still remains for their redemption while the gay community is seen as a lost cause with no hope for any redemption? The answer does not come easy, however one thing stands out, that labelling and stereotyping is a form of power play where the marginalized and/or oppressed get assigned labels that act to further marginalize them. Critiques might then ask the question ‘are gay people not promiscuous?’ The answer is of course they are; some of them that is. The counter question then is ‘are ‘straight’ people not promiscuous? The likely response is that they are, some of them that is. Then why are we splitting hairs!
Another common but frequently overlooked stereotype is that the gay identity is something that can be easily and freely obtained and discarded at any time. The belief is that anyone can be gay or lesbian if they choose to and that when they do not feel like it they can swiftly change back to being ‘straight’. In other instances, being gay is recognized as a passing stage that the individual will grow out of. In the religious community it is seen as some sort of possession by evil spirits and hence can be healed by prayer or by performing certain rituals. Essentially, these beliefs suggest that the gay identity is an illusion, that it does truly exist. This stereotype is typically spread by the homophobic heterosexual community; however gay people cannot be exempt from the blame as well. Some people are gay today and ‘straight’ tomorrow, some are known for having lived a heterosexual life and all of a sudden divorce their partners and take on a gay or lesbian cloak, this only serves to strengthen the stereotype and sends confusing messages to the general public. Of course one has to appreciate the cultural and religious push and pulls that lead other people to take on a fake sexual orientation identity so as to please the demanding society, however it is that giving in that work to keep the gay community in the fringes of society. This then means that we, as gay and lesbian people have to re-evaluate our own positions and convictions if we are to strengthen advocacy of LGBT rights in South Africa.
I believe I have raised a relevant argument, this article is not necessarily about whether promiscuity is associated with being gay or not, it is not about whether the gay identity if fluid or fixed, but it is about the religion and politics of homosexuality, it is about the popular opinions of the homophobic community and how all these work together to oppress and marginalize those individuals who identify themselves either as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. I have used the stereotypes as examples to illustrate how little and seemingly harmless labels can be used as weapons of mass destruction, or in this case of gay identity destruction.
I believe that an identity is a powerful socio-political and psychosocial tool; it gives one (or a group) a place in the larger scheme of things, it conveys certain characteristics and attributes of the individual or the group. When that identity is tarnished, the entire being or life form of the individual or group or community becomes tarnished and loses its credibility and good social standing, and after the tarnishing comes the ridicule, then the oppression and discrimination. Where we stand, the gay identity has been tarnished and hence the marginalization of the gay community, but were are not beyond reparation – how do we go about repairing our bulldozed identity, well for me it starts with accepting, nurturing and embracing my own identity as a gay person before attending to the group identity.
What does it really mean than to be gay? Well different people hold different notions and subjective beliefs of what it really means to be gay. For me it means being ME! It is not necessarily a separate identity or an identity that I can put on and take off like a hat, it simply means being me. If I am a good person, gentle at heart, conservative, religious and kind, then for me being gay is that. If I am an outgoing, extroverted and fun loving person, than for me, being gay is that. If I am an intellectual, successful professional, than being gay for me is that. For gay people, the gay identity is their own identity; it is their persona, who they truly are to others and to themselves, that is the gay identity. It is not separate nor does it stand out, but it’s just part of the package.