Massacres, gays and religion - SA still a miracle nation

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While Sunday’s massacre of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Florida in the United States - in which the gunman pledged allegiance to Islamic State, although his sincerity is questionable - may seem far away for South Africans, it throws into relief things that are reasonably on track in this country, despite the cacophony of political noise suggesting everything is falling apart.
by Geoff Sifrin | Jun 15, 2016

Taking Issue

One is the protection of LGBT rights - including recognition of same-sex marriage - deriving from the constitutional prohibition of discrimination based on sexual orientation. This is not to say there is no prejudice against gay people, but it is a refreshing contrast to most African countries, where such rights are scarce.

The International Gay and Lesbian Association says that of 55 African states recognised by the United Nations or African Union or both, homosexuality is outlawed in 34.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, for example, rigidly opposes LGBT rights, referring to lesbians and gays as being "worse than dogs and pigs".

In South Africa, on the other hand, a public figure who denigrates gay people would be publically castigated and possibly taken to the Human Rights Commission. A furore similar to the social media firestorms which erupt around expressions of racism, might follow.

There is, however, a much uglier side to parts of South African society, as seen in the long tradition of “corrective” rape of lesbian women in black townships. Sadly, this outrageous practice still continues.

We don’t see in South Africa the kind of radical religious extremism - such as jihadist Islam - which is proliferating elsewhere and which violently opposes gay rights. Interfaith relations have also always been relatively good between Muslims, Jews, Christians and others. We need to keep it that way.

In Israel too, there is a relatively high tolerance of gay rights, despite opposition from ultra-Orthodox Jews such as the Shas party. Recent polls indicate a majority of Israelis support same-sex marriage.

When a radical ultra-Orthodox Jew last year stabbed six people at a gay parade in Jerusalem - one of them, teenager Shira Banki, later died of her wounds - he was vehemently condemned by society at large and most politicians.

Tel Aviv has frequently been referred to as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world, known for its massive annual Pride Parade. Political leaders have consistently defended gay rights, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former President Shimon Peres. A monument dedicated to gay victims of the Holocaust was erected in Tel Aviv in 2014.

Last month, in a historic visit, over 100 leaders of the American LGBT community came to Israel on a trip called "Visiting Israel with Pride" to express solidarity with the Israeli LGBT community. They met with President Reuven Rivlin and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who hosted them at their homes in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Rivlin told them he had received the first ever LGBT delegation to the Knesset 23 years ago and later when he was chosen to become president, had welcomed a similar group.

Gay-bashing has usually been justified by longstanding religious traditions which see themselves as the guardians of morality and demonise anyone who is “other”. It is hard for them to change, even under massive societal pressure. In the Jewish world, formal recognition by ultra-Orthodox Jews of gay rights is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Could what took place in Florida also happen here? We shouldn’t be complacent. We have witnessed horrendous outbreaks of xenophobia against foreign nationals - the “other” - despite our fine Constitution. Hopefully, the gay rights message has become so deeply embedded in our society that such a thing is inconceivable.


Read Geoff Sifrin’s regular columns on his blog


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