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Homophobia: What can South Africa learn from Philadelphia?

In 1994, South Africa became the first country in the world to protect sexual orientation as a human right in its Constitution. Unfortunately, however, twenty years later, despite our liberal Constitution and a number of remarkable legal successes, South African homosexuals continue to be the victims of extreme violence and discrimination.

According to the South African Human Rights Commission’s 2012 annual Equality Report, “alarming levels of homophobia and unacceptably high rates of attacks on individuals who are homosexual, or who have a non-normative gender presentation have persisted” even though the country’s legal system has done its best to defend them. The report highlights the virulently homophobic act of “corrective rape” and the widespread notion in South Africa that homosexuals are un-African and un-Christian, an attitude perpetuated by the regions’ politicians and public figures.

In America, where homosexuals still don’t have the same legal rights as they do in South Africa,  such obvious and violent homophobia is socially unacceptable. Americans, recognising the dehumanising effects of this irrational phobia, have been publicly confronting it for twenty years. The fight against homophobia in the country began by many estimates with the 1993 Oscar-winning picture Philadelphia, which marks its 20th anniversary this year. The film, which is about an HIV positive gay lawyer who loses his job because of his sexual orientation and HIV status, came out at a time when discrimination against homosexuals was at an all-time high. In the early 1990s, HIV was primarily a gay disease and this exacerbated homophobia. It was a time when HIV positive gay men all over the country were losing their friends, their jobs and their reputations to prejudice and misconception. Gay men were considered paedophiles, sexual deviants and filthy criminals who deserved to die of AIDS, a death sentence in the 90s.

Speaking at the anniversary panel discussion in New York City last week, Philadelphia’s director Jonathan Demme opened with the words, “I made the film for all those people who thought they didn’t know someone who was gay.” He, along with the screen writer and the film producer, spoke passionately about how it would have been irresponsible for them to make a film about anything else in ’93. Gay issues and HIV stigma were issues very close to the hearts and minds of all those involved with the project. Demme and his colleagues had friends and family die of AIDS that year and by the time the film was released, forty-seven out of the fifty-one extras had died of the disease. So, having won an Oscar for directing Silence of the Lambs in 1991, Demme had Hollywood’s “magic wand”, the fame and the credibility to make a film about anything he wanted, and he bravely decided on Philadelphia.

Of course he couldn’t have done it alone, and Demme knew his “magic wand” wasn’t enough to get homophobes, his target audience, to see a movie about a “sick faggot.” He needed some big Hollywood names. As it turned out, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Antonio Banderas had similar concerns for a rising homophobic culture and the stigmatisation of AIDS and saw Philadelphia as an opportunity to challenge Americans to confront their fears. However, Demme still wasn’t satisfied. He thought a film about such difficult issues needed a compelling score to get audiences emotionally involved with the characters and motivated by the message. Bruce Springsteen, an artist already known for his commitment to social issues, agreed to write an original track for the movie. With such big names on board, Demme’s incredible project was ready to challenge American homophobia and combat the stigma of AIDS on a scale that had not yet been done. By encouraging audiences to see themselves in the position of a victim through the remarkable performances of actors they loved and admired, the film encouraged a generation of Americans to rethink their prejudices.

It is not true to say that Philadelphia changed everyone’s mind. Not everyone went to see the film, nor was every person who watched it persuaded by the human rights message. But at least in 2013 America can mark twenty years of challenging destructive homophobic attitudes and calling on their social and political leaders to recognise homosexuals as equal people. At least America can say it has a powerful history of fighting for gay rights. At least there is a history to reflect on.

In South Africa, we can say no such thing. While our extraordinary Constitution marks its twentieth anniversary of tolerance and equality next year, South Africans certainly can’t congratulate themselves for living up to it and neither can our leaders, who have given their tacit consent to homophobia. It’s time we as South Africans ask ourselves what we are so scared of. It’s time we consider that homophobic attitudes have real life consequences. It’s time we call on our leaders and our newspapers to publically condemn “corrective rape” and homophobia in every form.

The SAHC 2012 Equality Report has gone some way to explaining the country’s poor gay rights record. The document suggests homophobic attitudes in South Africa are caused by a “crisis of masculinity” resulting from high rates of unemployment and low levels of education, and that the “corrective rape culture” may stem from “consumer culture which objectifies women.” The report also suggests that “conservative religious views which declare homosexuality sinful and punishable”, and a society in which “successful business men eating sushi off women’s bodies is idolised” may be to blame. Whatever the root of these dangerous attitudes, the report encourages ordinary people, the press and politicians alike to act. It concludes by saying that, “When media portrayals and reports fail to challenge stereotypes, or when homophobia is given a popular and unchallenged voice, an enabling space may be created for men to feel they can act with impunity.”

We can no longer allow homophobic South Africans this “space”. While American students, academics, artists and leaders mark twenty years of fighting homophobia, we in South Africa need to get started. DM