When South Africa legalised gay marriage in 2006, it became just the fifth country in the world to do so, and the first on the African continent. Local members of the LGBTQIA community rejoiced at the passing of the landmark bill, but it’s easy to forget the years of struggling for equality that preceded it.
Let’s take a look back at the history of LGBTQ equality in South Africa.
First off: Despite homosexuality often being referred to as “un-African”, homosexual behaviour and relationships have always been present on the African continent, just as it has been elsewhere in the world. In fact, South Africa’s First People, the Khoisan, had terminology describing homosexuality in their indigenous language: koetsire referred to men who were sexually receptive to other men, while the word soregus was used to describe a friendship which involved same-sex masturbation.
Furthermore, the importance of ancestral spirits in traditional African healing practices includes an approach to alternative sexual orientations and gender expressions, although not all traditional healers ascribe to sexual orientations that are not heterosexual, or have a gender identity that differs from their assigned gender at birth. According to traditional beliefs, ancestral spirits may possess izangoma (traditional healers) in five different ways:
- A female ancestral spirit possessing a female sangoma.
- A male and female ancestral spirit possessing a female sangoma.
- A male ancestral spirit possessing a female sangoma.
- An authoritative male ancestral spirit possessing a female sangoma.
- A female spirit possessing a male sangoma.
This view is not unlike the attributes of the Two Spirit people in Native American culture. This umbrella term encompasses many gender identities and expressions and sexual orientations and allows individuals to see life from the perspective of both genders.
There is evidence of homosexual behaviour being a part of many South African indigenous cultural groups, although it was mostly not seen as being in direct opposition to heterosexuality, but rather as additional liberty that all people in the group were entitled to.
The backlash against homosexual behaviour in South Africa came with the adoption of Roman-Dutch Law when Dutch settlers founded the Cape Colony, and sodomy would remain a common-law offence in South Africa until 1998.
1907: The Taberer Report
In 1907, the Taberer Report, compiled by the magistrate J. Glenn Leary and Henry M. Taberer, a member of the Native Affairs Department, demonstrates evidence of same-sex relationships among males working in the goldmines near Johannesburg. The report describes this activity as “loathsome” and “disgusting”.
1966 and 1969: The Forest Town Raid and the Immorality Amendment Act
When police raid a party attended by mostly gay people in Forest Town, a Johannesburg suburb, the attention attracted by the raid leads to the Immorality Amendment Act three years later. Section 20A also called the “men at a party” clause, which criminalised all sexual acts between men at a party (with “party” referring to a gathering of more than two people) is passed in 1969. The amendment also raises the age of consent for male homosexual activity from 16 to 19, with sodomy remaining a criminal activity.
1971 to 1989: The Aversion Project
Between 1971 and 1989, the South African Defence Force subjects homosexual and transgender members to aversion therapy, which includes electric shock treatment and chemical castration. This is done because homosexuality is deemed “subversive”.
1982: The Gay Association of South Africa (GASA) is founded
The first major gay organisation is founded in 1982 but would be expelled from the International Gay and Lesbian Association in 1987, due to its refusal to condemn Apartheid. GASA was a white organisation that preferred to be seen as non-political.
1988: Lesbians and the Immorality Amendment Act and the founding of GLOW
The Immorality Amendment Act of 1988 introduces an age of consent for lesbian sex (19, unlike the age of consent for heterosexual sex, which was 16), which had not been regulated by law up to that point.
The Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) was also founded in 1988. Unlike its predecessor, GLOW associates itself with anti-apartheid groups like the ANC and the UDF and is explicitly racially and politically inclusive.
1990: The first Pride
The first pride parade in South Africa’s history is held in Johannesburg on 13 October 1990.
1997 and 1998: Anti-discrimination laws are introduced
Following the adoption of the Interim Constitution on 4 February 1994, the newly adopted Constitution of South Africa is hailed internationally for its inclusiveness, also toward members of the LGBT community. Legal protection for the LGBT community becomes law for the first time with a clause that explicitly prohibits any form of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 1998, the case of National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality v Minister of Justice came before the court, ultimately leading to section 20A of the Sexual Offences Act being considered unconstitutional, and decriminalising homosexual acts once and for all.
The Employment Equity Act 55 of 1988 also makes it illegal to discriminate against a person based on sexual orientation when they apply for employment.
2002 and 2003: The issue of the family comes to the fore
In 2002, many court cases lay the groundwork for marriage equality a few years later. Satchwell v President of the Republic of South Africa and Du Toit v Minister of Welfare and Population Development in 2001 respectively grant same-sex life partners of judges the same benefits as life partners of the opposite sex and allow same-sex partners to adopt children and adopt each other’s children jointly.
In 2003, the decision of the High Court in J and B v Director General, Department of Home Affairs were confirmed by the Constitutional Court, legally regarding both partners as the natural parents of a child born to a lesbian couple.
2004: Additional rights for the trans community
The Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act is adopted, allowing intersex and trans people to change their gender legally.
2006: The legalisation of same-sex marriage
Following the case of Fourie v Minister of Home Affairs in 2002, in which it is ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, the Civil Union Act of 2006 is signed into law by acting president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka on 29 November 2006. On 1 December 2006, Vernon Gibbs-Halls and Tony Halls-Gibbs become the first gay couple to be legally married in South Africa.
2008: The age of consent
The age of consent for homosexual sexual activity is equalised with its heterosexual counterpart at 16 years when the Constitutional Court confirms the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2007.
2010: The South African Pride Flag
The South African Gay Pride Flag is flown over Cape Town for the first time at the Mother City Queer Project. The flag was designed by Eugene Brockman and has been officially registered as the heraldic flag of the GLBTI Association of South Africa.
2014: A National Task Team, the first openly gay cabinet member and MP, and the freedom to donate blood
Following a spate of hate crimes and the establishment of a National Task Team to address crimes against the LGBTQIA community in South Africa, the National Intervention Strategy for the LGBTI Sector is launched by the then Minister of Justice, Jeff Radebe.
In the same year, Lynne Brown becomes the first openly gay person in any African government to be appointed to a cabinet post, and Zakhele Mbhele of the DA becomes the first openly gay black member of parliament.
The South African National Blood Service lifts a ban prohibiting gay men from donating blood.
2018: The Civil Union Amendment Bill is passed
Parliament’s National Assembly passes the Civil Union Amendment Bill, which aims to remove section 6 of the Civil Union Act, making it illegal for Home Affairs officials to refuse to marry same-sex couples based on conscience, religion or belief. (The legislation will next go to the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). If and when it is passed by the NCOP, the Bill will then be sent to President Cyril Ramaphosa to sign it into law.)
The struggle continues
Looking back at the history of equality in South Africa, one is allowed to feel proud of the progress that has been made.
The road to equality for LGBTQIA people has been a long and arduous one, but with hate crimes against the community still a common occurrence, it is far from over.
Even if the law makes discrimination illegal, there remains work to be done to dispel the archaic attitudes that are still present among many members of the public. A luta continua!