LGBT Rights and Integration into Society in South Africa

LGBT rights and acception into society in South Africa.

South African Pride Flag
South African Pride Flag by Smath.

Treatment of LGBT in the past

Throughout South Africa’s history, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community faced much scrutiny and resistance forcing many to live in secrecy. This is due to the strong emphasis on Christian values during the colonial and Apartheid eras.  Colonial missionary schools played a major part in this change. Placing emphasis on heterosexual relationships that are monogamous as being the norm and acceptable according to religious teachings. Further reinforcement came from the Apartheid government which regarded homosexuality as being immoral, unnatural and an unwanted trait diminishing the value of the individual. Various acts were passed in an attempt to prevent homosexuality (South African History Online, 2014).

Current treatment

Colonialism and Apartheid has had a lasting effect on the public opinion on homosexuality with a large number of individuals indicating that it is not normal, “disgusting” and immoral. With this, households continue to enforce patriarchal ideologies on family structure and relationships. Parents of LGBT youth have varying responses which can also lead to rejection and emotional isolation. For the youth, the responses of their parents have great emotional effect. In the schooling environment, Life Orientation educators do not include homosexuality in the curriculum and do not discuss sexual orientation which can lead to a better understanding and acceptance of LGBT individuals (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

School policies do not specifically provide protection towards LGBT students deterring harassment and bullying. Schools continue to be areas which promote patriarchal heterosexual values and fail to consider the needs of their LGBT students. Religion does not view homosexuality as a normal act. Christian churches view it as a disease that must be cured and preach that same-sex marriages cannot be allowed. This has a strong effect by alienating their LGBT members who are already battling in other parts of the societal structure. Sexual violence is a prominent issue with 1 in 10 individuals between 16 to 24 years report experiencing rape or sexual abuse. An overall of 3.7% of South Africans between 2002 and 2004 reported experiencing sexual abuse (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

Working class and poor black LGBT individuals in townships and rural areas are at greater risk of homophobic crimes. This is worsened by the inability for them to gain access to protection due to the lack of resources. A prominent homophobic crime is rape. This issue affects lesbians greatly due to both their biological gender and their sexual orientation. Many do not report these crimes because of concerns of being ignored by the police based on their sexual orientation. Lesbians report being refused medical treatment while dressed in clothing associated with heterosexual men. Violent acts against members of the LGBT community have not only been through physical abuse such as stripping the clothes off an individual and stretches to violent deaths. Many live in fear of being harassed, physically assaulted or even killed on the basis of their sexual orientation (Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D., 2019).

Soweto Pride 2012 - Charles Haynes
Photo of Soweto Pride by Charles Haynes.

Impact of negative treatment towards LGBT individuals

As a result of the negative outlook towards the LGBT community, many individuals experience discrimination, abuse and ill-treatment by the public. LGBT individuals have more difficulty obtaining employment and receive less income than their heterosexual counterparts. LGBT individuals have more difficulty gaining the same level of healthcare access as their heterosexual peers. This is partially due to public opinion among health workers regarding LGBT individuals as not being normal. These factors have resulted in LGBT individuals fearing attacks due to their gender as well as some reporting experiencing suicidal thoughts and attempts. Among the LGBT youth, verbal insults and violent acts toward them have resulted in a drop in academic performance. This affects these individuals as it lowers their chances of obtaining proper education and later on, higher paying occupations (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011 ; Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D., 2019).

The effect of this has resulted in a greater level of depression, anxiety and stress among LGBT individuals than with heterosexual individuals. These factors increase the chances of suicide attempts to 8 times greater than that of heterosexual individuals with transgender individuals displaying greater levels of suicidal ideation than other LGBT individuals. Adolescents have a high risk of facing depression, social isolation and suicide. This is due to them going through physical and social changes as well as dealing with a hidden personality due to the heteronormative view of society and bullying. Individuals attending tertiary education also report a sense of feeling lonely, rejected and being excluded (Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D., 2019).

The social attitude towards members of the LGBT community may force individuals to feel out of place and restrict themselves in the workplace. This would result in these individuals taking on lower paying jobs. This effects these households in such a manner that they earn a lower income. They also face devaluation when compared to heterosexual households. Furthermore, LGBT individuals experiencing discrimination during recruitment can cause them to eliminate themselves from the process, getting different treatment or being rejected based on their sexual orientation (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

Methods applied to combat aggression towards LGBT individuals

In the years after Apartheid, LGBT groups continued to face opposition in the scrapping of laws making homosexuality illegal. Among the changes, was the constitution preventing the discrimination of individuals based on various characteristics including their sexual orientation. In 2018, the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill was passed which aimed at preventing hate speech against individuals based on a number of characteristics which they may display (Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D., 2019).

Further laws against the discrimination of individuals include the Employment Equity Act no.55 of 1998, Labour Relations Act of 1999 which prevent the discrimination of individuals in the workplace and The South African Housing and Rental Act of 1999, preventing discrimination on an individual by a landlord. While the Civil Union Act No.17 of 2006 allows for same-sex marriage, marriage officers have the right not to solemnise a civil union. The Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act no.49 of 2003 allows individuals to undergo gender marker alterations. The limitations to this Act are that transgender individuals give up the privacy of their medical records and are forced to be diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder (Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D., 2019).

Various organizations have formed to provide support and a voice for the LGBT community. These organizations help LGBT individuals gain the courage to come out. It is also a place for individuals to meet, be themselves and share their stories in a safe environment. A number of groups, such as the Forum for the Empowerment of Women, provide programs in which victims of violence against homosexuals. Members of these groups have the ability to organize themselves in various ways. These include protests, printing posters and t-shirts and having public talks (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

Festivals create awareness of the struggle against homophobia. Organizations perform campaigns which educate individuals on the prevention of HIV and AIDS. Pageants provide a means for LGBT individuals to gain more self-confidence. Pride Parade is an annual festival which celebrates the diversity of the LGBT community. LGBT churches provide a safe space for individuals to openly be homosexual and still practice their religion. It also enables them to continue to gain spiritual guidance. These churches act as a place for the LGBT community to feel welcomed and that they belong (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

In 2011, the National Task Team on Gender and Sexual Orientation-Based Violence Perpetrated Against LGBTI Persons was formed. This was in response to the increasing number of homophobic rape cases. This was extended to include gender-based violent crimes and sexual orientation-based crimes. The aim is to create a strategy to prevent gender and sexual orientation-based crimes and develop an improved method to handle such issues (Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, 2014).

In March 2020, the first Queer Wellness Centre was opened. It focuses on providing healthcare specifically for members of the LGBT community. This provides an environment where individuals can receive medical care without the stigma linked to their sexual orientation. Medical treatments are focused to address the issues commonly faced by LGBT individuals, such as the effects of certain medication with hormone treatments (Harrisberg, K., 2020).

A way forward and the significance in anthropology

Limpopo Pride by Charles Haynes.
Charles Haynes from Hobart, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

A great struggle for LGBT individuals is educating heterosexual individuals. Being homosexual does not mean that an individual has a disease that needs curing. It is not something which is disgusting or unnatural. Nor is it something that we should shy away from. South Africa has come a long way in creating an open environment for homosexuals. There is, however, still space for improvement. People need to feel safe enough to openly talk about being homosexual. This should not only remain within the boundaries of LGBT organisations. It should expand to public areas. In doing so, heterosexual individuals will be able to gain a better understanding of what it means to be homosexual. Openly talking about being homosexual allows individuals to gain a greater amount of self-respect. It also provides a platform for them to feel included.

While there are many LGBT organizations, they remain tucked away within society. They remain hidden from the greater public. Currently, safe spaces for LGBT individuals remain within organizations. Changing this will require changing the mindset of the South African society. This remains a challenge as Apartheid has had a lasting effect on the South African society as a whole. The Christian patriarchal heterosexual ideologies of the Apartheid regime still remains within important parts of society.

The South African constitution has paved the way for a great number of Acts. These all act as a form of protection for the LGBT community. It is a start and much more is needed to be done. Laws alone cannot change the way in which homosexuals are treated. They need to be enforced by individual members of the public in order to truly create a difference (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

In the schooling environment, specific policies on sexual orientation and related bullying may help lessen the stress placed on young homosexuals. This is the period where youths have difficulty with issues surrounding sexuality. Ensuring that sexual orientation is not at risk of being exposed helps create a safer space. Openly conversing around sexual orientation will open discussion and create a platform for understanding. The inclusion of queer role models in the curriculum and discuss whether sexual orientation played a role. Images of families in illustrations should include those that are not the traditional heterosexual family structure. Allowing students to come out on their own time without being coerced adds to the creating of a safe space. Focus should also be placed on the promotion of rights, equality and respect for others irrespective of their background or who they are (Nell, M. & Shapiro, J., 2011).

Training for emergency personnel in providing unbiased aid to LGBT individuals would ensure that these individuals gain the required help in times of need. To allow same-sex couples the right to marriage, marriage officers need to be open and willing to the idea of homosexuality. Normalizing homosexuality among healthcare providers is required in order for LGBT individuals to gain access to proper healthcare facilities. Homosexual individuals should not be excluded from job applications based on their sexual orientation. Policies promoting fairness and respect in working environments help prevent discrimination in the workplace (Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D., 2019).


Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. (2014). Terms of Reference for National Task Team on Gender and Sexual Orientation-Based Violence Perpetrated Against LGBTI Persons.

Harrisberg, K. (2020). South Africa opens continent’s first Queer Wellness Centre. Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Nell, M. & Shapiro, J. (2011). OUT OF THE BOX: Queer youth in South Africa today. The Atlantic Philanthropies.

Nyeck, S.N. & Shepherd, D. (2019). The Economic Cost of LGBT Stigma and Discrimination in South Africa. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute.

South African History Online. (2014). The History of LGBT legislation.

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