Jon Qwelane & President Jacob Zuma.

There are at least two kinds of homophobes. There are violent, conservative homophobes and non- violent, progressive ones. We tend to use the label “homophobia” mostly in relation to violent prejudice against gay men and women.

So unless a lesbian is raped to “correct” her sexual preferences or unless Jon Qwelane spreads hate speech in a column, we ease back into what we believe are benign conservative views.

Homophobia is in fact common even among self-confessed progressives, including those most vehemently criticising Qwelane’s reported appointment as our next high commissioner to that human rights-averse outpost of Uganda. Make no mistake, Qwelane is a homophobe and his pending appointment is a moral and political blunder. However, I want to out progressive homophobes who pretend they are liberal because, well, some of their best friends are gay.

A progressive homophobe is someone who thinks Qwelane should be allowed to hold his hateful views and be assessed on mysterious other qualities for his fitness to be a diplomat. The progressive homophobe claims it would be against the spirit of liberal pluralism to bar someone from representing SA just because he hates gay people.

Some of my best friends and media colleagues are progressive homophobes. Unlike President Jacob Zuma, they would not have klapped a gay person when they were younger. Unlike Qwelane, they would never compare gays with dogs and pigs. And so, because they stop short of the abuse perpetrated by their brethren, they imagine themselves to be progressive and rather “nuanced” in their disagreement with others who think Qwelane’s beliefs should disqualify him from diplomatic posting.

This is all pseudo-intellectual nonsense. The reality is that progressive homophobes believe in a hierarchy of discrimination. Some forms of discrimination — typically, racial discrimination — are more serious than others, such as homophobia or ageism.

The reason is simple. We care more about issues that affect our own personal interests and identities than those that affect those who are different from us. This is why progressive homophobes could almost be forgiven for not appreciating that their views are just as morally insulting to gay persons as those of more honest homophobes. The progressives’ selective acknowledgment of others’ rights shows a moral inconsistency. Racism and classism is out; homophobia not so much.

Here is a hypothetical test case. Imagine Qwelane’s writing on homosexuality had dealt with race instead. Imagine he had called white people immoral creatures and those in interracial relationships dogs and pigs. Imagine he had called for them to be arrested . How would you react?

“We care more about issues that affect our own personal interests and identities than those that affect those who are different from us…”

Would you still regard such beliefs as irrelevant when assessing whether the man should be the diplomatic face of the country abroad? I think not.

The moral can be stated bluntly: homophobia is less touchy for many progressives than is racism. They compare and contrast different forms of discrimination. This is why very few newspapers, political parties, public institutions and “eminent South Africans” have been speaking out on the impending Qwelane appointment. Your silence leaves me cold.

It is also the reason African National Congress spokesman Jackson Mthembu can get away with his insensitive and ignorant claim that there is no “scientific proof” that Qwelane is a homophobe. This is a bit like asking for scientific proof that Verwoerd was racist. What do you want us to do, Mr Mthembu? Get a urine sample and have it analysed at the lab? Homophobia is the hatred of gay persons. It is typically expressed in beliefs and actions that undermine the self-worth of gay persons. That is an apt summary of Qwelane’s beliefs. No further proof is needed than his hate speech against gay people.

Why did you not ask for “scientific proof” that former Sunday Times columnist David Bullard was racist by virtue of the content of views he had put on paper? This is a revealing case of ethical double standards. Sorry, I forget — Qwelane’s homophobia is excusable on grounds of sucking up to Zuma, right?

We can only hope that Mthembu is misrepresenting the governing party’s understanding of these issues. But that might be a generous assumption in the absence of comrades having the ethical balls to stand up and articulate a contrary view.

In the end, however, it is the comfortable silence of many progressives or the progressive homophobia of those who do speak that enable idiotic defences such as those of Mthembu to slip into the marketplace of ideas without immediate intellectual and moral censor by his fellow comrades.

This silence would have been unthinkable if this were an appointment overlaid with racism rather than homophobia. Why are gays less worthy of protection than pre- democracy blacks or post-democracy whites? Why are the black liberation guardians so silent? Equally, why are the overzealous “human rights activists” fighting for white minority rights quiet too? Where is your moral consistency? Are some prejudices less uncool than others? I urge progressive homophobes to sleep on these questions.

This article was originally published in Business Day.

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