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Report details conversion therapy impact on LGBTQ+ South Africans

Country’s lawmakers urged to ban discredited practice

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(Image public domain)

PRETORIA, South Africa — So-called conversion therapy is something which is still widely practiced across South Africa, impacting the well-being of the LGBTQ+ community in the process.

Families, schools, religious sects and peer groups over the years have been used to try and convert those that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community to conform to the heterosexual narrative which is promoted as “homogeneous.” Access-Chapter 2, a South African NGO, in a recent study found conversion therapy is proving to be more harmful towards the society and it could pose serious repercussions in the future if nothing is done to address it.

“The LGBTQIA+ community has historically been a site of erasure, silencing and marginalization in many of our communities. This erasure has been normalized over the history of civilization, particularly in the context of Africa, where most countries still criminalize same-sex desiring. Through this study we see a problematic trajectory regarding this erasure even in contemporary South African societies,” reads the study.

The study notes 50 percent respondents “have reported to have been forced to convert by their families, while 43 percent (of respondents) had a session with a religious representative or institution as intervention by parents, families, or communities.”

“Despite the visible efforts to call out the practices of conversion by LGBTQIA+ pressure groups, these practices are still prevalent. The impact is even more detrimental, with most of our participants directly having experienced discrimination, prejudice, homophobia, transphobia or stigma in the hands of their families, churches, psychosocial service providers, schools, and the rest of the community,” it reads.

A total of 303 respondents participated in an online survey, and the study’s findings were shared with a variety of LGBTQ+ civil society organizations and on social media platforms.

The respondents came from nine provinces: 149 from Gauteng, nine from Mpumalanga, 36 from Free State, 24 from North-West, two from Northern Cape, seven from KwaZulu-Natal, 42 from Eastern Cape, 28 from Western Cape and 14 from Limpopo. Seven respondents identified themselves as White, while five identified as Colored and 209 identified as Black African.

A total of 144 respondents identified as lesbian, while 91 described themselves as gay. Twenty-five respondents identified themselves as bisexual and 31 said they are heterosexual. 183 respondents described themselves as Christian, while 74 said they practice a traditional African religion. Forty respondents said they do not associate with any religion, while one said they are Hindu and one described themselves as Muslim.

“Parents are the main perpetrators of conversion practices and initiators of external sources to fix individuals whose sexual orientation does not align with heterosexuality,” notes the study. “Parents maintain that same-sex sexual and romantic desires is not inborn and therefore engage in efforts to change their child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Some seek professional therapies or religious interventions for a child’s same-sex sexual orientation or non-heterosexual gender identity while other consider traditional remedies. The study raised distinct ethical concerns concerning appropriate consent because parents and authority figures would exert pressure over minors.”

“Despite parental reliance of religion to fix the non-normative sexual orientation and gender expressions, churches outside the request of the family continue to police gender expressions. Participants reported that they were constantly harassed because of the manner of dressing, expression of identity and attractions that did not align with their gender assigned at birth,” it adds. “They could not be open about their romantic partners and LGBTQIA+ friendships. Community members from the same religious organizations would report members who are seen with LGBTQIA+ individuals, and their religious and spiritual standing would instantly be questioned. Participants who pointed out that they had a particular spiritual gift be it singing in the worship team, praying for others or an usher was recalled from such positions as their lifestyles were deemed demonic.”

The study further notes many respondents experienced “engagement with professional psychological services that subjected them to conversion practices.”

“Those who were subjected to psychological services were forced by parents to attend. They reported that parents claimed that it was normal to experience a phase of confusion about sexual orientation and non-normative gender identity and that therapy could help. Participants also reported how therapist appeared to be under pressure to have them fixed as these services are costly. Those who attended therapeutic interventions were subjected to the confusion narrative and at one stage were desperate to be healed from it,” it says. “Families also sought help from traditional healers.”

The study’s respondents reported “they had to be immersed in rivers and dams to be cleansed while others were fed with potions that would enable the release of the demonic spirit.”

“The traditional practices would continue at home with frequent follow up consultations at traditional practitioners,” it says. “While participants were aware that the focus was to heal them from their abnormal sexual orientation, they were not always aware of what substances they were given. Participants were also subjected to violence such as beatings and slaps while undergoing healing processes with traditional healers. They reported that they were put under spells and were not fully aware of all things they were subjected to.”

“Participants, particularly lesbian-identifying individuals, also reported how they live in fear as they are continuously subjected to threats of rape and even killings. As a result, many Lesbian couples cannot embrace their true self and cannot openly and in a safe way express public affection. Participants mentioned the common practice and spades of LGBTQIA+ murders in South Africa and how it forces them to live a hidden lifestyle.”

The study, which is a notable breakthrough in the research for conceptualizing conversion therapy in the context of South Africa and also the first official evidence of the harmfulness of conversion practices across the country, further highlighted on the impact of the conversion therapies, recommendations and on how to avert the despicable acts.

“Participants in this study showed that there are various psychosocial effects on LGBTQIA+ people who were subjected to conversion practices. Social factors such as discrimination, prejudice, homophobia, transphobia and stigma can create hostile and stressful social environments for LGBTQIA+ people,” it notes. “It left individuals experiencing social rejection and feeling forced to hide their identity. In some instances, individuals also adopted unhealthy coping processes and their mental health negatively impacted. Some of the impacts of conversion practices on mental health include depression, social anxiety, substance abuse, thoughts and attempts of suicide, an altered body image as well as other mental health issues. Individuals also experienced shame, guilt, hopelessness, helplessness, increased self-hatred and social withdrawal. Conversion practices are also known too often lead to severe emotional damage.

Participants who experienced conversion while at school mentioned that learning was affected to the point that some dropped out of school. Others indicated risky behaviors such as unprotected sex to develop a sense of belonging while some indulged in excessive alcohol drinking. These experiences left participants vulnerable even in their young adult developments.”

The study also found those who undergo conversion therapy are at higher risk of depression and anxiety and are more likely to die by suicide.

“This study could not identify a single participant that could confirm that conversion therapy has been effective,” it reads.

The study further notes that despite the fact South Africa has “one of the most progressive Constitutions and LGBTQIA+-inclusive legislation in the world, the social reality depicts the complete opposite.”

“Religious, cultural, professional and social scripts still uphold, produce and perpetuate compulsory heteronormativity hence, conversion practices could pass as normal and acceptable in all domains,” it reads. “Conversion practices emanates directly from privileging heterosexuality as the norm and natural. All other forms of expression are deemed unacceptable, sinful and un-African. This is despite the Constitution that affirms and protects diverse sexual orientations, sex and gender expressions.”

“We therefore, call on legislation that would place an urgent ban on conversion practices in the South African context,” said Access-Chapter 2. “Professional institutions such as the medical and psychological fraternity should be educated about the damaging effects of conversion practices. This form of education should form part of in-service and pre-service training. All civil society organizations should be empowered to support individuals who have been subjected to conversion practices. Supported services for recipients of conversion practices should be widely published to create awareness of interventions, care and support.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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Africa

Homophobic attacks persist in South Africa

Mpho Falithenjwa died by suicide after he was bullied for being gay

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Mpho Falithenjwa, 14, died by suicide earlier this month after he was bullied because he was gay. (Photo courtesy of Mpho Falithenjwa's Facebook page)

JOHANNESBURG — Despite having a constitution that explicitly protects LGBTQ+ and intersex South Africans, homophobic attacks remain pervasive in the country.

Mpho Falithenjwa, 14, died by suicide earlier this month after he was bullied because he was gay, according to his sister who spoke with MambaOnline, a local LGBTQ+ and intersex publication. South Africa’s LGBTQ+ and intersex community is wondering how an incident like this can be averted from happening again.

“We believe that the untimely passing of Mpho was mainly because of societal pressure, because of how society made it impossible for Mpho to come out without fear or prejudice, so what happened to Mpho really saddens us as activists it saddens us as Access Chapter 2 but over and above it saddens us as a country that 26 years after officially signing this Constitution as a country, we still have to grapple with issues of addressing the victimization of homophobia and transphobia subjected to the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and it happened a time when we are reflecting and commemorating international Pride,” said Mpho Buntse of Access Chapter 2, a South African LGBTQ+ and intersex rights organization. 

“Moreso, it brings eyes into the country to question the credibility of our Constitution because it cannot be that we have a Constitution that embraces the 2SLGBTQIA+ community yet it still makes it difficult for people to live without prejudice so this was conversion practice in the making because of the pressure that Mpho was given by society to conform to what society believes Mpho is as compared to what Mpho believes he is,” added Buntse. “What happened to self-affirmation? Generally as a country I think we really need to take a stance, a very strong stance in fighting and confronting issues of transphobia and homophobia from a place of policy more than anything.” 

Ruth Maseko of the Triangle Project called for more stringent measures to be taken against any form of bullying.

“There are many forms of bullying, verbally, physically and emotionally, it is abusive and should never be tolerated. Nobody should stand by no matter who you are, what your position is or what your age is and watch another person being bullied,” said Maseko. “Moreover, a deep concern for us is that the ages of perpetrators of hate crimes have been young. What are we passing on to our young people? What messages are we giving them, that makes it okay to start calling people names and excluding people because of who they are?”  

Falithenjwa’s death by suicide is the latest case to send shockwaves across South Africa.

A court in Pretoria in April sentenced two men to life in prison for raping a 19-year-old lesbian in 2020.

Human Rights Watch statistics indicate at least 20 LGBTQ+ and intersex people were reported killed in South Africa between February and October 2021. The international NGO indicates many of them were either beaten or stabbed to death because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We cannot keep losing young lives just based on who they are and how they identify. It’s hard when you are young and feel that you are not accepted and then bullied, and nobody does anything to stop bullying wherever it happens,” said Maseko. “That person then turns that hate inwards and ends their own life before their life has even really begun. Why? Just because of who that person is? Words have the ability to cause this outcome and it is devastating that a young person feels like they can no longer go on because of someone else’s words.”

Maseko added it is “not acceptable and should not be tolerated.” 

“Our children should be learning in their homes that it is never okay to do this to others. Children should not engage in prejudice,” said Maseko. “If they have learnt it, because none of us are born with prejudice, they have the ability to unlearn it. In schools, where it is evident that someone is the target of bullying on any grounds, immediate action should be taken.”

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Mauritius activists await sodomy law ruling

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in country

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PORT LOUIS, Mauritius — Section 250 of Mauritius’ Criminal Code criminalizes sodomy with up to five years in prison. That may soon change after four young LGBTQ+ people challenged the law in the country’s Supreme Court.

The four plaintiffs who come from Hindu, Christian and Muslim backgrounds and are members of the Young Queer Alliance, a Mauritian LGBTQ+ rights group, brought their case in 2019. Three of them are the first public officers to come out as gay, while the fourth plaintiff is an artist.

The Young Queer Alliance in a statement notes two of the plaintiffs have been in a committed relationship for seven years. They and the other two plaintiffs argue Section 250(1) does not have a place in a modern and democratic Mauritius.

“2SLGBTQIA+ people should benefit from the same protection afforded to other citizens such as protection from discrimination and should enjoy the same freedom of expression and right to privacy as them,” says the Young Queer Alliance. “Section 250 is contrary to the values of democracy and treats 2SLGBTQIA+ people as second-class citizens. There is no justifiable reason why section 250(1) should be maintained in our criminal code when it concerns two consenting adults.”

The Young Queer Alliance notes the plaintiffs have requested the Supreme Court to declare that “sexual orientation forms part of and is implied in the definition of sex as enacted under Sections 3, 3 (a) and 16 of the Constitution of Mauritius, a declaration that Section 250 of the Criminal Code Act is unconstitutional and alternatively, a declaration that Section 250 of the Criminal Code does not apply to consensual acts of sodomy performed by consensual adults.”

Jean Daniel Wong of Collectif Arc-en-Ciel, an NGO that focuses on human rights issues in Mauritius, told the Washington Blade the case is a historic moment for the country.

“This was a truly historic moment for our nation, which has always placed equality and non-discrimination at the heart of the very fabric of our society,” said Wong. “Section 250 stands in stark contrast to the ideals of our Constitution. 2SLGBTQIA+ rights are human rights. Who we are and who we love should never be reasons for discrimination or abuse. It is time for our country to provide us with the same legal protections and equality before the law as all citizens of Mauritius.”

The Supreme Court last considered the case on June 1.

If it repeals Section 250(1); Mauritius will join South Africa, Angola, Botswana and other African countries that have decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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Southern Africa LGBTQ development conference sees hundreds attend

Many of those in attendance acknowledged the harsh realities facing community members that include gender-based violence

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Members of the Namibia Diverse Women's Association attended the Other Foundation's biennial convention in Cape Town, South Africa (Photo courtesy of Namibia Diverse Women's Association)

CAPETOWN, South Africa – A number of LGBTQ rights groups from across southern Africa participated in a recent conference in Cape Town, South Africa, that focused on how to advance equality in the region against the backdrop of the pandemic.

More than 300 people participated in the conference, titled Kopano, which means “gathering” in Sesotho, the Other Foundation, an NGO that advances equality and freedom in Southern Africa, organized. The themes were rollbacks, resilience, reinvention, reinventing relationships and renewal of connections.

Many of those in attendance acknowledged the harsh realities facing community members that include gender-based violence and other barriers to making a living.

The Namibia Diverse Women’s Association sent 10 representatives to the conference that ended last week.

“Our diversity in representation manifested the comprehension of our national diversity,” it said. “Kopano continues to empower and critically challenge our ways of working.”

“Delegates raised issues such as the importance of collaboration and inclusion in advocacy work in the 2LGBTQIA+ sector,” said Gender DynamiX. “Discussants flagged concerns about businesses and organizations from other sectors engaging in work for their own financial benefit, rather than addressing the underlying problems affecting community members. The current funding system is problematic, as it seeks to profit with the lives of 2LGBTQIA+ people and makes it difficult for smaller organization to get funding.” 

Gender DynamiX noted its members “suggested an online toolkit for both business and organizations, setting out how partnerships can help support and sustain the cause without exploiting beneficiaries in the process.”

“Nevertheless, 2SLGBTQIA+ people should also be empowered during these business collaborations, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people in workspaces should use their power to push for the representation and values based on inclusion and equity,” said the group. ” 2SLGBTQIA+ organizations also need to hold themselves accountable. Toxic work environments, internal power-plays, overworking, hierarchal flow of work and lack of compensation undermine the wellbeing of 2SLGBTIA+ activists in organizations.”

Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) also welcomed the conference, and even took note of their visit to Robben Island where former South African President Nelson Mandela spent 18 years in prison.

“We had such an eventful day on Africa Day at the Robben Island Museum,” said LEGABIBO. “This visit was a reminder of how Black people have always had to be resilient in the face of adversity, something that black 2SLGBTQIA+ communities can relate with.”

Kopano organizers also thanked those who attended and paid tribute to activists, especially South African advocate Phumi Mtetwa.

“Thank you all, for making Kopano 2022 a great moment to reconnect and renew our movement,” they said. “As Kopano 2022 came to a close, the southern African 2SLGBTQIA+ activist community gathered in Cape Town paid tribute to our living legend, Phumi Mtetwa. There are a few activists about whom this is truer than Phumi. Her entire being sings, vibrates, reverberates with unbridled love for humanity. Never flinching from dissenting or being critical or questioning but always moved by a great love of justice, fairness, and equality, accompanied by huge doses of laughter and a welcoming smile. She represents for many of us, a bridge over troubled waters and always will. Fearlessly but humbly leading from the front, the side and the rear.”

“To know Phumi is to taste, smell and to touch the society so many of us are struggling for,” added the organizers. “From her work in the National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) in South Africa, the Equality Project, and in various international organizations and in her personal relations Phumi tirelessly and relentlessly tries to bring everyone on board, sometimes at great cost and sacrifice to herself and her interests. Self-sacrifice is not what she is known to shy away from, giving, sharing and genuinely caring for her comrades, friends and family is what Phumi excels at. Organizing is in her DNA, so she is never satisfied to stop at merely strategic thinking which she has shown herself to be very capable of. We honor you, Phumi Mtetwa, for all that you have done to advance our organizing freedom and wellbeing in southern Africa as 2SLGBTQIA+ people.”

Jholerina Timbo, co-chair of the Transgender Movement of Namibia, was also honored.

Timbo founded Wings to Transcend Namibia in 2015 and was involved in the creation of the Southern African Trans Forum, the International Trans Forum and the African Trans Network. Timbo has also worked with PEPFAR-funded programs and is currently a senior advisor for groups on how they can expand their health programs to better reflect human rights needs.

“She believes that inclusive societies are the key to success for southern Africa,” said the Other Foundation. “If any country needs to show that they care about their people, it should start with the minority. We honor you, Jholerina Timbo, for all that you have done to advance our organizing freedom, and wellbeing in southern Africa as 2SLGBTQIA+ people.”

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa correspondent.

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