“I’ve never come out of the closet because I’ve never been in it,” says Dirk Slater of his openness as a homosexual man. Growing up in California, in the United States of America, Slater says that he was always comfortable and conscious of his gayness and was never pressured to make an effort to conceal it. He was in his teens when the first cases of Karposi’s sarcoma – the first known symptom of what was later to be termed AIDS – were observed among American homosexual men in, 1981. At this time, homosexuality was heavily stigmatised and seen as the cause of this outbreak. “It was a scary time,” confesses Slater, now 44. “There was this gay cancer going around and a lot of people died from it, including my own friends.” Yet even through all that fear and lack of understanding, Slater was able to live openly as a gay man. “If you are in a big city (like California), it’s usually okay,” he says of the prevailingly tolerant environment that large cities offer to people with alternative sexual preferences in the US. “A gay couple can often show public affection and not get into trouble for this, but this is not the same in smaller towns.”
And it is usually not the same in other countries where homosexuality is openly condemned and criminalised. In some parts of the world, penalties against homosexual practice are as extreme as the death penalty. And while efforts have been made to decriminalise homosexuality, globally, same-sex couples do not often enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples. In many countries, gay partners can neither marry legally nor adopt children.
South Africa, however, shows signs of change and optimism for the homosexual community. In 2006, South Africa became the first African country to give same-sex couples the right to marry. The Civil Union Act – the piece of legislation passed to endorse this – offers gay couples the same rights and recognition as heterosexuals.
But, as Sally-Jean Shackleton, Executive Director of Women’s Net, a South African gender NGO, points out, “There is positive legislation but the negative side of this is that in practice, the lives of those who challenge the binary construct of gender are still very much in danger.”
Along with facing acts of violence, Shackleton feels that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and intersexual people (or LGBTI) are often marginalised in HIV programming. “Only LGBTI groups are driving the process,” she states, citing examples of the unavailability of dental dams – for protection during oral sex between women – as a way that the HIV protection needs of lesbians were not being met. Dental dams are thin, square pieces of latex that are used for oral-vaginal or oral-anal sex and are also usually used in dental procedures, hence their name. “Men can protect themselves with condoms but the same is not true for women.”
Shackleton also states the fact that mainstream healthcare providers are often not places where LGBTI can get information on HIV prevention tools that suit their needs. Also, the double stigma of being termed sexually non-conformist, as well as HIV positive, is noted as a deterrent for many in seeking HIV prevention, treatment, care and support options. “People are afraid to be visible,” adds Slater. “It’s ten times harder to come forward if you are HIV positive and homosexual, at the same time.”
Amy, not her real name, is a 24-year old Lebanese woman who echoes Shackleton’s sentiments. “Society tends to classify LGBTI all the same,” she says. This, she feels generalises the different issues they face individually, and does not adequately address the specific needs and services that they require.
Amy classifies herself as ‘queer’ and says that for herself, there is no such concept as being a man or a woman. As such, she does classify herself, or her sexual preferences, by this dual system.
“People see us as perverts and think that they need to ‘heal’ people like me and others, by correcting us through hormone injections or a sex change,” adds Amy.
Slater mentions that homosexuals also tend to be commodified as ‘wedges’ used in electoral campaigns to either win or lose votes. “(George) Bush used the fact that candidates like (Al)Gore and (John) Kerry were tolerant of homosexual issues as a way to scare away conservatives from voting for them,” he states of the previous US president’s election campaigns.
It is thus respect for different beliefs, as well as enactment and implementation of enabling legislation that Slater, Shackleton and Amy all wish for. “We need to support alternative ideas around masculinity and promote alternative role models as a means of creating an enabling environment for all to freely express themselves,” says Shackleton.
“Governments need to stop being stupid!” states Slater. “And cultures need to stop ostracising people who are different. “