South Africa has one of the most progressive gay rights constitutions in the world.
Yet, as in many parts of Africa (and the world), homophobia and anti-gay prejudice are rife.
A lethal reality of this in South Africa are the so-called violent and often deadly “corrective rapes” that black lesbians — and in some cases black gay men — are subjected to, to enforce conformity and to “cure” them.
In Durban today, Taylor Ruggles, US Consul General in KwaZulu-Natal, was keynote speaker at the launch of a curriculum for teachers-educators, the result of a United States government-sponsored research project conducted in a partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).
Gay rights is a human rights issue, Ruggles stressed as a panel of researchers and educators discussed the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) training workshop project that saw 800 student teachers, graduate teachers and active teachers sensitized and conscientized to challenge homophobia and take the teaching into the classrooms.
“As your former president and global icon Tata Madiba once said, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,’ Ruggles said in his breakfast keynote presented to academics, media from around South Africa and other invited guests at the Maharani Hotel on the Durban beachfront.
“I’d like to stress that this is a human rights issue people who happen to be LGBTI. We need to find common ground around human rights. I hope the curriculum finds its legs among the broader umbrella of human rights,” he added.
Ruggles recognized the research team present at the event. Namely, research lead Professor Cheryl Potgieter, UKZN’s deputy vice chancellor and head of the College of Humanities; and Dr. Thabo Msibi and Dr. Finn Reygan of UKZN’s School of Education.
“The US State Department has tried to make modest contribution to LGBTI research world-wide,” Ruggles said.
“The opportunity arose in South Africa to see with whom we could partner, country-wide. UKZN rose to the fore,” he said of the partnership.
“It’s great to be here to launch the curriculum development project that the US government is supporting through the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The university has been a long-term partner and continues to be in many fields.
“Today we turn our attention to the important issue of human rights and equality of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex or as we refer it to, LGBTI.
LGBT Pride Month
“Just a little context and why I think it’s fitting we’re meeting at this time.
“Back on May 17th the US recognized International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia, otherwise known as Idaho. And coming up very soon in June is LGBT Pride Month.
“Idaho marks the day in 1990 when the World Health Organization stated publicly that homosexuality is not a disease. It’s quite remarkable when you think about it, that as recently as 1990 it was considered a disease.
“The month of June was originally celebrated as LGBT Pride Month to commemorate the June 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. That marked the modern LGBT civil rights movement in the US and today it is celebrated round the world.
“In 2013 some 40 years after Stonewall, the US Supreme Court overturned Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
“The fact that the Supreme Court ruled and overturned this Act — when the US has a federal system of government so individual states have certain rights and responsibilities the way the Constitution is written — had sweeping significance.
That decision paved the way for programs and policies in the US that support all married couples regardless of their sexual orientation.
“Last September my Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a UN LGBT ministerial event where he affirmed the US’s commitment to promoting and protecting the human rights of all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender.
“Secretary Kerry said and I quote ‘I join with my colleagues at our embassies, consulates and US Aid missions around the world in saying no matter where you are and no matter who you love, we stand with you.’
“Now, SA is a shining example as the first country to legally prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in its 1996 Constitution. SA legal system is one of the most progressive in the world when it comes to protecting the rights of LGBTI individuals.
“SA was the sixth country to legalize same-sex marriage with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2006. It is also one of the first countries to allow adoption by same-sex couples; in-vitro conception by same-sex couples and to legally recognize sex changes.
“For our part, President Obama has made the fight for equal rights for LGBTI people a top priority of his administration.
“While both countries have made strides in the protections, there is still much to be done to apply the law to people’s daily lives. Too frequently we hear of children and adults abused and harassed and sometimes worse because of their sexual orientation.
“The so-called 'corrective rape' to so-called correct lesbian gender identity is anathema to our hard-won freedoms and against our values of human rights for all.
“There is now growing consensus around the world that mainstreaming gender identity education in schools is a key part of the struggle for human rights.
“Schools are critically changing public opinion about human rights and values. Much of this work was done by advocates in the education system.
“In 2011 in the US California became the first state in the US to mandate that primary and secondary school curricula teach children about “the role and contributions” of homosexual American historical figures.
“California law also forbids materials that “contain any matter reflecting adversely” upon gays on the basis of sexual identification.
“In 2013 the National Education Association, the largest US teachers union, endorsed the inclusion of LGBT history and thematic lessons in school curricula.
“The UKZN education module being launched today is a step along the path toward equality for all students and for the broader society.
“This training module intends to introduce more South African to the protections afforded for sexual orientation for all citizens under the South African Constitution. It represents an important contribution to academic studies on the topic and it demonstrates what can be accomplished with the US and South Africa work together on a common cause.
“Hopefully this partnership will will help change not just SA but Africa and the world.”
The curriculum that has been developed will be available to Life Orientation teachers.