Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Queer Futurity Beyond Legal Equality in South Africa

by Alok Vaid-Menon, ’13

I spent the past summer interning and researching in Cape Town, South Africa. These are some of the ideas I hope to explore in my honors thesis on the queer movement in South Africa.

Post-apartheid, South Africa was the first country in the world to incorporate an equality clause in its constitution explicitly prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2006, South Africa became one of the few countries in the world to legalize same-sex marriage. While many have celebrated South Africa’s progressive constitution and culture of human rights, this legal equality has failed to effectively translate into social and moral equality for all LGBTI people in the country. In fact, it has primarily benefitted white, gender-normative, gay males. This is particularly evident in the increased ‘gay tourism’ in South Africa, especially to the newly developing ‘gay village’ of Cape Town known as De Waterkant.

Most LGBTI social movements across the world have prioritized a legal rights framework – appealing to local and national governments for legal recognition of same-sex partnerships and anti-discrimination legislation. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where gay activists – ostensibly – no longer have to appeal to the State. Consequently, the LGBTI sector in South Africa has shifted. Now, the majority of people employed by these NGO’s are a handful of (under-resourced) people of color, gender variant people, working class people and lesbians. This shift in demographics has also translated in a shift in political paradigms from a largely white, apolitical and accomodationist single-issue politics to an intersectional, community-based grassroots activism (largely concentrated in the black poor townships on the outskirts of major cities).

My research was, at its core, fundamentally concerned with the relationship between the ‘State’ as an institution and queer people. I sought to better understand why legal equality has failed to counter intense homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism in the region and has only empowered a relatively small (privileged) group in the community. I wanted to better understand how categories of social difference – including culture, race, gender (identity), class, geographic region – complicate our understanding of ‘gay’ ‘rights’ organizing. Because South African activists no longer have to prioritize legal recognition of relationships and identities, South Africa provides a particularly unique opportunity to explore what kind of activism is now necessary for social and culture change. I hoped that my observations would allow me to better inform other LGBTI social movements across the world that continue to prioritize a largely top-down legal rights strategy and contribute to the development of a new queer political theory – one that is rooted in the experiences of poor queer people of color in the Global South.


What became immediately disconcerting for me as I started interacting with the LGBTI South African community was how eerily similar it was to the LGBTI communities I work with in the United States. I had expected that South Africa would somehow be different, that activists and community members there would be more ‘African’ in their understandings of gender and sexuality. However, I soon realized that actually the very understanding of ‘gay’ ‘lesbian’ ‘bisexual’ ‘transgender’ and ‘intersex’ identities and ‘rights’ were imported from the West. In fact, organizations began using the acronym ‘LGBTI’ even before there were any prominent transgender or intersex people in society. These terms had no history in the African continent, a place where indigenous cultures never conflated one’s practices with their identities. Certainly there have always been men who had sex with men in South Africa and there have always been people who presented as a different gender than their birth gender, but these people were not known as ‘gay’ or ‘transgender.’

One of the biggest challenges facing LGBTI South African activists was the idea that somehow ‘LGBTI’ was unAfrican. This belief has lead to the recent (increased) violence against LGBTI people in the townships. A particularly malicious and unique form of hate crime has emerged in South Africa: corrective rape. Black lesbian women over the past few years have been targeted by men in the townships and raped (and sometimes killed) to make them ‘real’ women again and prove to them that they actually are attracted to men. Many of the perpetrators of rape and violence report that they are angry because lesbianism is a sign of ‘Western decadence’ and something for white women.

One strategy that LGBTI activists have put forth to counter the notion that LGBTI is un-African is by bringing attention to black queer people who fought against the apartheid and by cultivating leadership among black LGBTI people within NGO’s. Some activists point to the importance of sangomas (traditional South African healers), many of whom live openly as lesbians in black townships and receive social acceptance and reverence. These efforts have largely been unsuccessful as the majority of South Africans – I believe close to 80% — still disagree morally with homosexuality (mostly under the idea that it is un-Christian and un-African). Some activists have tried to show how it’s not homosexuality, but rather homophobia that’s a cultural import. They remind the public how missionaries and colonial interpretations of Christianity lead to the development of homophobia in South Africa. They also remind the public that before colonization, South African people were very accepting (and in fact embracing) of sexual diversity. Overwhelmingly the response to the critique that homosexuality is un-African has been outright dismissal. Many gays and lesbians label this type of dialogue ‘hate-speech’ and believe that the government has a role to regulate what people can and cannot say about this.

I felt as if people did not engage with this critique seriously and critically self-reflect on how, in many ways, the way that gay rights community has flourished in South Africa has largely been ‘un-African.’ From my research I determined that an LGBTI identity politics and rights framework arose from a very specific history of economic development, industrialization, and urban development in the United States. Due to colonization and apartheid in South Africa, similar development has unable to occur in the country. Therefore, I would argue, it is antithetical to say that ‘gay people’ are indigenous to South Africa when there hasn’t been enough economic development to truly lead to the evolution of a gay culture. Gay people in the United States were only able to organize by having sufficient class mobility to move out of their homes and create their own subcultures. People who have sex with members of the same sex in the townships do not have similar class mobility. However, people who had sex with the same sex but lived in the urban centers and enjoyed financial privilege (predominantly white Afrikaans or British South Africans) were able to develop and organize around gay identities. Therefore, the more ‘Western’ (racialized, classed, gendered as such) in South Africa were able to recognize (and benefit from) an importation of a gay rights framework from the West.

The importation of this framework affected the very structuring and development of the South African movement. Instead of thinking about strategies that would be applicable to the cultural and economic status of the country (overwhelmingly religious, impoverished, and wary of white supremacy and colonization), prominent gay (white) activists emulated the Western gay rights movement. They South African movement prioritized a strategy for legal equality – one that sought legal recognition from the government – without thinking about how the only people who had access to government resources in the country were predominantly white, upper-middle class people. The movement prioritized a legal checklist strategy that began with decriminalization of sodomy and culminated in the realization of same-sex marriage.

Many black, heterosexual South Africans feel as if gay and lesbian rights in South Africa are ‘special rights’ and that all gay people are white, rich, and from the West. The South African movement’s strategy did little to counter this assumption – in fact, I would argue, it fostered it. By refusing to link oppression on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to a history of oppression from colonization and apartheid, the organizers constructed gay rights as white rights. By focusing on a minority rights model – a model that many South Africans were circumspect of due to a history of being oppressed by a minority white people – gay rights organizers further divided an already poor majority of South Africans. By creating messaging and activism that made black South Africans who had sex with men see themselves as ‘different,’ the movement contributed to tensions among the townships which have culminated in outspread violence and homophobia.

Instead of focusing on how this homophobia and violence stems from lack of education, I feel as if it would be more productive to acknowledge how the movement failed to contextualize gay identities and rights within the context of extreme poverty and marginalization of the majority of South Africans. In pursuing a narrow ‘gay’ ‘rights’ agenda, like that of the West, the South African movement only was able to empower a small percentage of the population did little to counter cultural homophobia. Thus, I was able to determine how gay rights discourse and organizing in South Africa constitutes a new, malignant form of neocolonialism in its inability to contextualize itself, incorporate indigenous ways of knowing, and consider the social and economic climate of Africa.


The history of apartheid in South Africa immediately implicates race in any human rights advocacy. During apartheid, South African people were divided into several (quite arbitrary) racial categories: Native (Black), White (European), Coloured, and Asian. These different racial groups were granted access to different facilities, re-located to move in different spaces in the city, and were afforded different rights. Apartheid constituted one of the grossest instances of institutionalized racism in the world. With the end of apartheid, President Nelson Mandela called for national peace and reconciliation and preached a message of tolerance and acceptance. Mandela felt that South African people of all races could peacefully co-exist.

While this rhetoric is certainly ambitious and eloquent, it created a culture where people are unwilling to speak about the continuing impacts of systemic racism. For example, the majority of white South Africans still live in the racially segregated spaces in the cities that they were placed in during apartheid. White people have maintained the same dominant economic status – only five percent of white people are unemployed, whereas more than 50% of black people are unemployed. Poverty continues to be racialized in the country – black and coloured people find it very difficult to obtain class ascendancy and obtain basic access to resources.

Yet, the gay rights movement (historically) has largely failed to think critically about race. The first gay rights organization in South Africa prior to apartheid, known as the Gay Association of South Africa, refused to take a stance against apartheid because they felt like the issue was “too political.” It wasn’t until the courageous work of black gay activist Simon Nkoli and his plea to international gay rights organizations that GASA began to acknowledge the interconnectivity of racial oppression and gay oppression. However, this acknowledgment proved to be just that – simply acknowledgement, not internalization. After apartheid the first national gay rights organization was established (known as the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality). In its founding charger the organization acknowledged how the majority of gay activists were white and sought to create a movement lead by African queer people and engage in ‘development work’ to help capacitate, educate and prepare this community. This is because during apartheid black South Africans were denied equal education to white South Africans and many of them did not have adequate skills and trainings to conduct such professionalized work. The Coalition then set on a path to obtain legal equality for all ‘gays’ and ‘lesbians’ in South Africa – and was ultimately successful with the realization of same-sex marriage in 2006.

I would argue that the initial activities of the movement reflected the same values of white supremacy that established apartheid. The very assumption that the government could ‘protect’ you reflected white privilege because the government, as an institution, had largely oppressed and disenfranchised people of color in the country. The rhetorical acknowledgment of race by early South African gay rights organizations reflected the logic of colonialism and white supremacy in its idea that it could ‘save’ black gay South Africans from the homophobia of the black gay townships. This is not to suggest that the leaders of the movement were necessarily ‘racist.’ It’s important to acknowledge that prejudice functions at the level of the implicit, the level of the systematic. Racist ideologies and colonial paradigms did not magically disappear with the end of apartheid – they were ingrained in the consciousness and minds of all people, including activists.

Now that legal equality has been obtained in South Africa, it is mostly white LGBTI people who have excavated safe spaces for them. Many of my white participants talked about how they no longer experience any homophobia in their suburbs and it becomes increasingly difficult for them to relate to the plight of their “black brothers and sisters” in the townships. Because of this increasing separation from prejudice, many white gay and lesbian people feel like the movement is confused and uncertain of its future. They acknowledge the importance of a continued LGBTI movement in South Africa, but don’t understand what it would look like or how it would begin to address the “problems of the township.”

My research provides a necessary intervention to the idea of ‘queer solidarity’ or ‘gay community’ – constructs that assume that all LGBTI people are unified by the similar experiences with prejudice on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. These constructs obfuscated the real and material differences that race and class play in the gay community. While black lesbians continue to be raped and murdered in the townships, white gay and lesbian men continue to enjoy a vibrant nightlife. Indeed, I spent a lot of time in De Waterkant observing the gay culture there and was often the only person of color at many of the venues I frequented (in a country where white people only make a little over 9% of the population).

Legal Recognition/Implementation

One of the most salient features from the interviews was the idea that even though gay and lesbian people had obtained legal equality, State institutions continued to be corrupt, homophobic, and insufficient and weren’t actually able to execute these legal mandates. The main issue was that queer people were unable to access their rights because the very criminal justice systems that were put in place to protect them were broken.

I had the privilege to attend the first black lesbian conference in the township of Khayelitsha. One of the main tasks of the conference was to allow black women – many who had been assault or raped on the basis of their identity – a space to speak with police officers. According to these women, police officers had failed to adequately report their rapes, failed to provide protection in communities, failed to punish perpetrators, etc. Judging from this conversation, one would never know that these women had equal rights. They had never been educated about these rights and the very framework of ‘rights’ seemed foolish in the context of such corruption. The conference reflected the idea that the law had really failed to change cultural attitudes and opinions. I also had the privilege to attend a court trial for a lesbian woman who had been brutally killed by a group of men. Zoliswa was killed almost six years ago but her  court case had been delayed over thirty times due to “insufficient evidence.” Attending the court case was heartbreaking because none of the clerks, lawyers, or judges seemed to be taking their jobs seriously. Lack of access to implementation was not only a gay or lesbian issue, this affected all human rights issues and violations in the country.

One particularly salient disconnect between legal rights and actual experiences is the fact that many black South Africans are unable to actually find anyone willing to administer their marriage. Even though they are technically allowed to get married, there is a caveat in the law books that allow marriage officers to “conscientiously object.” Many of my more progressive white respondents admitted that they enjoyed tremendous white privilege and were able to demand access to services and get them.

I began to pick up on the idea that the disconnect between law and reality is racialized, class-based, and gendered. I began to recognize that very particular bodies and subjectivities get privileged by the ‘State’ because State recognition relies on a pre-conceived notion of a ‘citizen.’ The law functions off of the idea of who belongs in society – what sorts of bodies and experiences are legitimated by the culture. Even in a post-apartheid South Africa, white, upper class, males still dominate culture and therefore definitions of who get to ‘belong.’ Transgender people, black people, and other people who threaten these social power structures (or hegemonies) have difficulty accessing these services because they are already constructed as second-class citizens.

The inability to access social services reflects larger systemic issues in South Africa, which mostly stem from incredible unemployment and poverty. It became immediately apparent that the gay movement in South Africa failed to contextualize itself within broader systems of class exploitation and poverty. It’s impossible to separate gay and lesbian issues from the working class. As many of my black respondents told me, the majority of gay and lesbian people in South Africa are poor and working class. Thus, the top down strategy put in place by the movement failed to recognize this. Had the movement tried to sensitize the actual instruments of power, rather than assuming that they would change with legal recognition, experiences of equality would have been obtained by a broader base of the population.

Movement Building

I came to South Africa organizing under the assumption that a strategy that prioritized a legal rights framework was fundamentally wrong. However, many of the activists I spoke with (including activists of color) felt like this rationale was overly simplistic. What they argue that you cannot critique for the movement for simply doing legal rights because these legal rights have in fact benefitted people (no matter how privileged these might have been). These legal rights have ‘shifted the discourse’ so that now community activists can engage effectively with homophobic people and have the State on this side.

While I agree that we cannot deny the importance of legal equality, I disagree with the idea that it sets the terms and is therefore important. The question I ask is – who is left to wage the conversations? My research has shown that a prioritzation of legal equality was at the cost of the development of a mobile and political grassroots movement. As I’ve remarked, in most countries in the world legal victories are the result of grassroots mobilization. By focusing on the courts as a system for justice for LGBTI people, the community itself wasn’t made to fight for its own rights. Crucial connections with other human rights issues and activists were not forged. The (financially significant) white gay middle class was isolated from issues that continue to affect people.

Now, who’s left to actually change culture? Now that terms have been set, who is actually going to fight the battles? Many black queer South Africans are recognizing that an actual movement was never constructed in the country and have begun talks about how to build a contemporary queer movement in South Africa. What does it mean to construct this movement ‘after’ legal equality? Is this movement really going to be a ‘gay’ movement, when it’s mostly going to be focused through maximizing local forces of power within black townships?

With my research I hope to disrupt the myth that legal equality necessarily “trickles down” to social equalities and remind activists of the importance of creating culturally specific strategies to engage with sexuality and gender identity. My experiences in South Africa allow me to ask: what lies beyond the rainbow of LGBT legal equality? South Africa presents a particularly fertile political environment to inform queer political strategies across the world.

Alok is a junior studying queer studies & comparative studies in race and ethnicity. ze can be reached at

Bevington, D. and Dixon, C. (2005) ‘Movement-relevant Theory: Rethinking Social   Movement Scholarship and Activism,’ Social Movement Studies, 4:3, 185-208.
Cock, J. (2003). Engendering gay and lesbian rights: The equality clause in the South African  constitution. Woman’s Studies International Forum, 26(1), 35–45.
Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (1995). Ethnography: Principles in Practice. 2d ed. New York: Routledge.
Reitan, R. (2007). Global activism. London, UK: Routledge.
Weston, K. (1997). Families we choose: Lesbians, gays, kinship (Rev. ed.). New York: Columbia University Press. Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN.
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