OPINION: Battle for acceptance of homosexuality in universities

By Brian Tebogo Mashego, third year BA student

Last week Thursday I was chilling with a group of friends at the Matrix building at Wits University, and hell broke loose when one of my friends made a reckless statement about a fellow gay student.

Within a wink of an eye we then interrogated his thinking around the issue of homosexuality, and as we were having this conversation I realised that although our South African Constitution theoretically ensure equality for all, social acceptance of homosexuality and homosexuals is generally lacking especially by those of us who grew up in traditional and religious families.

The discussion reminded me of a heart breaking event that happened to a fellow student, Thabiso; who was a colleague of mine when I was studying at the Vaal University of Technology.

Thabiso was contesting the student elections when his opponents found out that he was gay. The entire election campaign then became focused around his sexuality, throwing his campaign into chaos. By the time voting began students didn’t want anything to do with him. My heart was broken because students didn’t judge him on the basis of his competent leadership skills, but on his sexuality.

That event robbed us of a having a potentially talented student leader. As I began the discussion of the unfair treatment of Thabiso at my old campus I was met with criticism, losing some of my friends along the way.

Many talented students who are capable of leading the student community are denied that opportunity based on their sexuality.

Our discussion at the matrix continued to raise questions about the prejudices that prevail today, especially amongst the student community.

Chunks of the student population on our campuses still embrace hostile attitudes and unfair treatment towards gay students.

Of greater concern than the utterance of my friends’ homophobic remarks, is the fact that – like Thabiso – many talented students who are capable of leading the student community are denied that opportunity based on their sexuality. Our broader society has not only influenced this negative thinking, but have also lead us as students to belittle and disqualify them based on their sexual orientation. We are told that it is “immoral” and “unafrican” to be gay or lesbian. Our selective morality is revealing.

I think we are facing a challenge of creating a supportive society that is inclusive and respectful of gays and lesbians.

Homosexuality is a topic around which our culture still gets awfully skittish. This became visible to me when I was talking to a few homosexual students. Most of them feel that greater hostility is shown to them by ‘traditional’ and religious people.

Thabiso’s case teaches us that there is a great need for our student communities to begin embracing sexual diveristy on our campuses. This must start with our student leadership.

They must breakthrough barriers and speak out against this unjust treatment on behalf of gay and lesbian students. They must do this because it’s their obligation as student leaders and are supposed to represent the entire student body.

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The gay-friendly Catholic church

IN A rare display of commitment to gay people, a Catholic church in Braamfontein has opened its doors to a homosexual support group.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) support group has been meeting fortnightly at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church near Wits to talk about their concerns and struggles and to give each other emotional support from a Christian perspective.

Outside Holy Trinity Church. Photo:Leigh-ann Carey

Outside Holy Trinity Church. Photo:Leigh-ann Carey

“The LGBTI group was formed five years ago when some parishioners came to tell me that do I know that there were gay people coming here and they feel marginalised and could we do something for them,” said Father Russell Pollitt, head parish priest at the church.

Group co-ordinator Dumisani Dube said they are not a “charity organisation” and the main aim of the group was to provide emotional support.

According to Pollitt, the Catholic Church is “quite traditional” in its views of homosexuality. However, he said there is a diversity of views within the church.

The Catholic Church has no issues with homosexual orientation, but it does not accept the “practice or lifestyle of homosexuality, i.e. any physical activity is taboo and not acceptable,” said Pollitt.

He adds: “I think the problem with religion is that we don’t think things through. We tend to think things in black and white…whereas human life is really grey.”

Pollitt also said there are discrepancies between what religion upholds and experiences of people.

Finding refuge in the church

Zacharia Kudumela, a member of the support group, recently discovered Holy Trinity after visiting “every church you could think of”.

“I found out about the church weeks ago and I liked it as they accept the LGBTI community. I felt that I belonged at the church. Most churches do not accept the LGBTI community and look down upon us and accuse us of sexual immorality.”

Kudumela said other churches he has visited avoided the topic of homosexuality.

“I’ve had good and bad experiences. At Holy Trinity, I have found a home. I feel like I can now hear the gospel of God, without any judgement.”

Resistance to the church

Pollitt said the road to embracing the LGBTI group at the church was met with anxiety. There was conflict with some church authorities and in some instances he received letters from people who disapproved or denounced the church’s stance on homosexuality.

“People were initially afraid…one or two people decided to go somewhere else because they felt I was trying to make this into a gay church… This place looks after many marginalised people…people left out from churches, because there is some stigma attached to them,” Pollitt said.

Dube said that people came to terms with the existence of the group and supported their cause as the “ministry is getting stronger by the day”.

Perception shift towards homosexuality

Pollitt said there has been a shift in perceptions on homosexuality as people would be uncomfortable if the words “gay and lesbian” were mentioned at his church years ago.  But attitudes were changing and homosexuality “is not a big deal” anymore.

“Some people still feel uncomfortable. There was a guy who walked out of the church recently when he saw pamphlets at the door. He said it’s disgusting [that this] was happening in the church,” he said.

Pollitt said he would be happy to share the LGBTI programme for other congregations to also welcome homosexual people. However, he said no other Catholic church has approached him yet.

He does not believe the Catholic Church would change its opinion on homosexuality, as the church’s definition of marriage is that it is between a man and woman and “any sexual activity should be in the context of marriage”.