South Africa's gays enjoy new freedom after apartheid but are still vulnerable
March 12 2004 1:00 AM ET
South Africa's urban gays are enjoying a new era of freedom 10 years after the end of apartheid, but minority gays in townships and villages are still victims of discrimination and hate attacks.
Evert Knoesen from the Lesbian and Gay Equality Project said that although South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, signed three years after the first multiracial elections in 1994, had been a landmark for gay rights, the situation of poor gay men and lesbians had not changed much. "In the apartheid days we would wear brown paper bags on our heads when we held protest marches because it was illegal for men to have sex with each other," he said. "Now that we have the constitution protecting us, our challenge is to look at how gay rights in South Africa translates into real life for people living in rural areas and townships."
The new constitution was signed in 1997 by then-president Nelson Mandela and was hailed as being one of the most liberal in the world. Gays celebrated a clause in the constitution that made discrimination based on sexual identity illegal. Various rulings by South Africa's Constitutional Court, including one allowing gay couples to adopt children, have since been added.
However, the new legislation does not translate into reality for many. Dawn Betteridge, a member of the Triangle Project, which provides counseling to gays, said most hate attacks take place in rural areas and townships and are never reported. "The city-based attacks receive press coverage, while other attacks are unknown," she said, adding that township dwellers face "far more active and violent discrimination.
However, the well-heeled urbanites are basking in their new freedom. The scenic city of Cape Town, with its large array of gay nightclubs, beaches, and guest houses has become widely known as the country's gay capital. Revelry at a dance hall in a posh suburb of Cape Town, drawing mainly Afrikaans-speaking gay and lesbian couples, shows how far things have come in this traditionally conservative community. The bash includes pop songs, crisps and cider, and a traditional long-arm dance. "In the apartheid days this type of party would never have happened; now we hold them regularly," said the party's organizer, Deon Nagel.