The soul of wit
19 August 2017 02:04 (South Africa)
Opinionista Pierre de Vos

Gay Cabinet ministers: So what’s the big deal?

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

Several media outlets reported this week that Lynne Brown became the first openly lesbian cabinet Minister in South Africa after President Jacob Zuma appointed her as Public Enterprises Minister on Sunday. In an ideal world the sexual orientation of a Cabinet Minister – like that of any other person – would be irrelevant. But we do not live in an ideal world.

I am deeply ambivalent about the ritualised staging of confessions which require some of us to make public declarations about aspects of our lives that are deemed to be different from a deeply entrenched norm.

If you happen to be gay, lesbian or HIV positive, for example, it is widely expected that at some point you will “come out of the closet”, which is often equated with making the requisite tearful “confession” to your family and friends and, later, an endless set of often nervous but dry-eyed declarations to members of the larger community.

Sometimes your “confession” is rejected out of hand or used to vilify and further marginalise you or to discriminate against you. Sometimes the “confession” leads to genuine and heartfelt questions or encouraging comments by well-meaning friends and acquaintances.

It matters not whether those who hear the confession are sympathetic or antagonistic. What matters is that you are prodded into confessing that you are different from the desired norm, from a supposedly coveted standard of human existence.

Much like a devout Catholic who is expected to confess his or her sins to either a stern or sympathetic but always elaborately frocked priest in a confession stall, you are expected to go through the ritual that confirms your difference and inherent peculiarity.

This ritual reinforces and perpetuates deeply held assumptions about being gay or lesbian: that your life is potentially difficult or filled with struggle (in my own case this is an assumption that is spectacularly wrong); that you are either a bad person or strangely brave for being able to deal with this loaded deck of cards that fate had dealt you.

When I am required to “confess” my homosexuality or HIV positive status I am required to play a game that results in me having to confirm that heterosexuality and non-HIV status are “normal” (or at the very least, the norm).

My confession, then, both signals and reinforces my perceived “otherness”. It imbues my invented “otherness” with singular meaning and provides yet another discursive tool that can be used by others to justify my marginalisation and oppression.

That is why I now try to avoid making confessions about these aspects of my identity. Instead, if I think it would be politically important to convey this kind of information about myself (or on a personal level, if I think I need to establish a measure of intimacy with someone else) I “accidentally” drop facts into a conversation that reveal more about who I am.

Talking about rugby with a colleague or acquaintance? Easy to say that although I am not sure whether he is a good fly half, I do think Kurt Coleman is exceedingly attractive, then telling the person about that time my father took me to watch the Springboks play at Ellis Park. Talking about the coming weekend? Easy to mention my romantic dinner with Lwando, then talk about my favourite restaurants.

Complaining to a colleague about being overworked? Easy to mention my visit to the doctor to do my bi-annual blood work or how my ARVs make me dream the most wonderful but tiring dreams, then talk about my computer screen that seems to be on the blink.

In short, I tend to avoid the “confessional” style of talking about my sexual orientation or my HIV status because I fear that the language of confession tends to erase the singularity of my existence as a human being and sets up a hierarchical opposition between “normal” people and poor “abnormal” me.

In an ideal world, this would scarcely have mattered. After all, in an ideal world the only normal thing about any human being would be that none of us are truly normal.

But we do not live in an ideal world.

We live in a world in which heterosexuality is deeply embedded in our culture as both normal and desirable. Conversely, the idea that homosexuality is wrong, shameful, strange or undesirable is also deeply embedded in our culture.

Because the notion that heterosexuality is desirable is so deeply entrenched in our culture, the way it permeates and infiltrates our existence becomes invisible. People tend not to notice how heterosexuality are ceaselessly advertised and promoted (almost always as normal, pure, desirable – few people mention that Adolf Hitler was straight and nod knowingly to imply this says anything about heterosexuals as a group) while homosexuality is silenced or erased, except when it is made visible to try and affirm the belief in its abnormality.

While gay men and lesbians are often told not to “flaunt” their sexuality by, for example, telling others about who they love, who broke their hearts or who they had slept with on the weekend, heterosexuals shamelessly get to “flaunt” their sexuality every day and this is called life.

At shopping malls heterosexual couples walk hand in hand, proudly advertising their heterosexuality. At the office, colleagues out themselves as straight almost as soon as you meet them for the first time, dropping not-so-subtle hints about their husbands or wives or partners in the tearoom or at other informal gatherings.

Politicians, sports stars and actors parade their heterosexuality for all the world to see, having pictures taken at their weddings (apparently You magazine actually pays “celebrities” to have their wedding pictures published) and appearing at the opening of Parliament or a new movie or at an awards ceremony with their different-sex partner on the arm.

This is the world we live in: relentlessly advertising and promoting heterosexuality; relentlessly making the rest of us invisible.

One way of being in the world (one man and one woman in love to the exclusion of all others) is valorised, incessantly promoted and rather optimistically and disingenuously lauded as an ideal that every person should strive for in order to attain eternal or at least temporary happiness.

Other ways of being in the world are vilified or erased through embarrassed or enforced silence, or “othered” by well-meaning people who insist on telling you that they have no problem with homosexuality – thus affirming that they think there is potentially something profoundly disturbing or at least strange about two men or two women loving each other, something that they are broad-minded enough not to have a problem with.

It is exactly because we live in this far from perfect world that it matters profoundly when an openly lesbian politician is appointed to an influential Cabinet position. I am not suggesting that Minister Brown herself should make a big deal out of it.

Because of my ambivalence about the politics of “confession”, of coming out, anything she says on the subject would have the potential to be counter-productive.

But when openly gay or lesbian individuals (or people living with HIV, for that matter) happen to be powerful politicians, sports stars, actors or other influential individuals like judges or business leaders, they become potential role models to others who might have internalised widespread societal prejudices and might previously have believed that being gay, lesbian is somehow shameful, something to hide from others.

Moreover, because such individuals have a distinctive presence in public life and are strongly associated with the characteristics that made them well known (their acting talent, their political acumen, their sporting prowess), people who would usually obsess about their sexual orientation might begin to look past this one aspect of their lives and see more of the whole person there.

When gay men, lesbians are appointed to important positions it also signals to the wider society that there is in fact nothing abnormal, shameful, surprising or undesirable about people who happen to love differently from themselves.

For these reasons I think it is more than noteworthy that Minister Brown has been identified as a lesbian. In another world, a world in which a person’s sexuality (whether he or she is gay, lesbian, bisexual or heterosexual) would be of no interest or importance to anyone in society, it would have been silly to take note of and report on this fact.

In the world we live in, it is far from it. DM

  • Pierre de Vos
    Pierre de vos
    Pierre de Vos

    Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.

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