Until 1990, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder

Members and supporters of the LGBTQ communities are seen gathered outside the Pretoria City Hall where for the first time ever the Pride flag was raised along with the South African flag, 21 March 2018, Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Nelles

The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHTB) draws attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by the LGBT+ community.

 Today is the day the World Health Organisation decided in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

And it is a day many will be quietly celebrating as they simply go on with their lives. However, for just as many, it’s going to be a day like many others and filled with fear and angst.

To raise awareness, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHTB) was created in 2004 to draw the attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexuals, transgender, intersex people and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics, according to may17.org.

“It’s important for people to remember that being a homosexual or transgender was considered a mental disorder,” said Ross Forgan, director and Norton Rose Fulbright South Africa PRIDE Chair.

 “In South Africa it’s important to remember because being homosexual in this country was a crime in recent history. There is real danger in becoming complacent in saying well, we have all the protections on paper, so we really don’t need to do anything more.”

Forgan noted the gay community needed protection because hiding sexual orientation was easy and by making a public stance on IDAHTB, it helped remind people how far the community had come helped memorialise the struggle it had taken to arrive here.

In this regard, NGOs have played a pivotal role, prominent activist Simon Nkoli being one of many.

According to South African History Online: “Nkoli was one of the first Black anti-apartheid activists to publicly identify as gay and HIV-positive. He was diagnosed with HIV whilst in prison and went public with his status in the early 1990s – a time when HIV was stigmatised by White South Africans as divine retribution against homosexuality and perceived among Black South Africans as a European disease. Within this political climate, Nkoli worked with various organisations to educate the populace and to destigmatise HIV/AIDS.

“One of these organisations was the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), of which Nkuli was a founding member. It was the first multiracial gay-rights organisation in South Africa. GLOW organised South Africa’s first ‘Gay Pride’ march in Johannesburg in 1990, and was instrumental in advocating for freedom of discrimination based on sexual orientation in South Africa’s democratic constitution.”

However, with Constitutional protection now in place, it’s the corporates who now have real power to effect change for many caught in a cycle of violence simply for being queer.

Last year, The South African LGTB+ Management Forum launched the South African Workplace Equality Index (SAWEI) to benchmark best practice across corporate South Africa, and identify opportunities on how businesses can improve LGBT+ diversity and inclusion in the workplace and beyond.

“It’s also about creating awareness of a community which can be invisible, it also provides space for someone who is scared to come out of the closet, someone who maybe fears for their life or for their position at work,” Forgan said.

Last year, Norton Rose Fulbright ranked the most LGBT+ friendly law firm in the country where the legal sector is traditionally white male, and not seen to be transformed.

Other winners included Bain & Company, Shell Downstream (PTY) Ltd, South Africa, ABSA – CIB, Accenture South Africa, and Baker McKenzi and Dalberg, to name a few.

Nominations are now open for this year’s index.

Last year, 17 companies took part. There are 361 Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies. Obviously not every corporate company is listed, but it gives an idea of the potential available to create a safe space for the queer community, and empower the adage a happy employee is a productive employee.

“Protection in the workplace for an individual in critical. We spend eight to ten hours in the workplace. Whether people can be themselves at home is something which is potentially out of control of the employer, but at work the employer does have control,” said Forgan.

“Someone who is sitting at their desk preoccupied about how they talk or act for fear of being outed in the workplace is not someone who is focused on their work.”

Forgan said he was not advocating people should come out when they don’t feel the timing was right for them.

“But it should be a very safe option for people to do so. Corporates have a strong voice and if they band together, they can band together and make their voices stronger in a community which still needs protection.”

The Citizen

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