Opinionista Pierre De Vos 2 May 2021

The religious fig leaf that conceals the justification of hate crimes against the LGBTQ community

Over the past few weeks, at least seven gay men and lesbians have been brutally murdered in South Africa in what appears to have been homophobic hate crimes. This statistic does not begin to capture the magnitude of the hate and violence faced by some LGBTQ people in South Africa. This homophobic and transphobic hate (if not always the violence that flows from it) is often justified on religious grounds. But religious beliefs can never justify homophobia and transphobia. It is time for religious leaders and all believers to reject the use of religion to justify bigotry.

We do not know how many LGBTQ people are violently attacked or murdered in South Africa each year in homophobic or transphobic hate crimes. The South African Police Service (SAPS) does not keep statistics on hate crimes, and even if it did, many homophobic and transphobic hate crimes would not be classified as such because of the reluctance of the authorities to acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic motivation behind many of these attacks. (Similarly, authorities seem to be reluctant to acknowledge that attacks on many foreigners are fuelled by xenophobia.) 

We do know that several LGBTQ individuals have been brutally murdered over the past few weeks because some news outlets have reported on at least some of these murders. The victims include Bonang Gaele, Nonhlanhla Kunene, Sphamandla Khoza, Nathaniel  “SpokGoane” Mbele, Andile “Lulu” Nthuthela, Lonwabo Jack, Buhle Phoswa and Lucky Kleinboy Motshabi. These murders sparked nationwide protests from some members of the queer South African community, who are demanding justice for those murdered because of their queer identity. 

There is a real and justifiable fear that not all these murders will be properly investigated and that some of the perpetrators will never be prosecuted and convicted. Fewer than 20% of the estimated 21,000 cases of murder committed in the country annually end up in court, due to poor investigations and botch-ups by prosecutors. Additionally, homophobia and transphobia within the ranks of the SAPS, and police indifference towards the lives of black South Africans who are not wealthy or famous, make it even less likely that all these cases (and all the cases that may not have been reported) will be tackled with the necessary urgency. 

But even if the perpetrators of the reported murders are all brought to book, the assault and murder of LGBTQ individuals are likely to continue, because in South Africa our lives do not matter, or matter less because of our sexuality or gender identity. (Of course, how little or how much our lives do matter depends to some extent on our race, class, and gender identity, with middle-class, cisgender, white men far less likely to be the victims of violent attacks, protected as we are by our social and economic status and privilege.) 

One of the most powerful sources of homophobic and transphobic hatred in our society remains the homophobia and transphobia endorsed and promoted by religious groups in the name of their religion. In extreme cases, religious leaders wilfully encourage hatred and physical attacks on members of the LGBTQ community.

A notorious example is that of “pastor” Oscar Bougardt, who cheered on the news that members of the Islamic State (Isis) in Syria had executed nine men and a boy for homosexuality. Bougardt commented online that, “We need Isis to come to countries that are homosexual-friendly. Isis please come rid South Africa of the homosexual curse.” This was in breach of a previous court order and Bougardt was subsequently found to be in contempt of court, the High Court ruling that his supposed religious beliefs did not justify his contempt of court.

But in most cases, homophobic and transphobic religious institutions do not wilfully encourage physical attacks on LGBTQ people. Instead, most of these religious groups provide a religious justification for the homophobia and transphobia of their members, by arguing that the duty to discriminate against LGBTQ people is an ethical imperative flowing from their faith.

None of the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church who decided that apartheid was biblically justified, shot and killed protesters at Sharpville or tortured Steve Biko to death. But they did provide apartheid oppressors with a religious justification for their crimes.

When some of their followers then invoke these religious teachings to justify verbal or physical attacks on LGBTQ people, the religious institutions quickly wash their hands of responsibility, much like Pontius Pilate allegedly did. (How one could ever respect or follow a faith premised on the hatred of others and on the belief that one’s God requires one to discriminate against others based on who they love, is not immediately clear to me.)

There are, of course, religious groups who have rejected the homophobic and transphobic aspects of their faith, but the teachings of the religious homophobes and transphobes continue to provide cover for those who wish us harm. Much like the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church before 1990 – which claimed that apartheid was biblically justified – provided “religious cover” for white Afrikaners who subjected black South Africans to the most extreme kinds of indignities and violence, religious teachings on sexuality and gender now provide religious cover for the indignities visited on LGBTQ people. 

When confronted by the corrosive impact of these religious teachings and the harm caused by them, religious leaders and followers tend to argue that because these homophobic and transphobic views are religiously inspired, and because religion is a personal choice protected by the right to freedom of religion, this must mean that their hateful and immoral views cannot be criticised. To criticise these views, so they say, is to attack their faith and thus infringes on their right to religious freedom. 

This is, of course, self-serving nonsense. The right to freedom of religion does not include a right not to have your religious views criticised or even mocked, just as your right to freedom of conscience does not include a right not to have your atheism criticised or mocked. But the argument is also dangerous to the extent that it allows individuals to escape censure for their outrageous and harmful views, merely because these are couched in religious terms. 

Moreover, it is not as if the argument has not been widely rejected when applied to religiously inspired racism. In 2018 in Isimangaliso Wetland Park and Another v Sodwana Bay Guest Lodge and Another, the KwaZulu-Natal High Court confirmed that André Slade, the owner of  Sodwana Bay Guest House, unfairly discriminated against black people by banning them from making use of the guest house.

Slade justified this racist policy by invoking his purported religious beliefs, arguing that the Bible “required racial discrimination” because according to the Bible black people are “classified as animals” and are therefore “not people”.

Not many South Africans will publicly defend Slade because his racist views are grounded in his religious beliefs and that we are obliged to give such religious beliefs a free pass in order to respect his right to freedom of religion. (What might happen in private is, of course, another matter.) The obvious reason for this is that most South Africans will agree (at least in public) that racism is despicable and that the racist religious beliefs used by Slade to justify his racist views are also despicable. 

The fact that many South Africans will not similarly agree that homophobia and transphobia are despicable, perhaps says less about their religious views and more about how committed they are to hold on to their homophobic and transphobic views. Individuals who accept that religiously inspired racial prejudices are unacceptable, accept that religion is not infallible and that some religiously inspired views are immoral and harmful. The fact that they cannot accept that religiously inspired homophobia or transphobia are immoral and harmful, constitutes a catastrophic moral failure on their part.

None of the ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church who decided that apartheid was biblically justified, shot and killed protesters at Sharpville or tortured Steve Biko to death. But they did provide apartheid oppressors with a religious justification for their crimes.

Similarly, as far as we know, none of the religious leaders who endorse and promote homophobia and transphobia was involved in the murders of Bonang Gaele, Nonhlanhla Kunene, Sphamandla Khoza, Nathaniel “SpokGoane” Mbele, Andile “Lulu” Nthuthela, Lonwabo Jack, Buhle Phoswa and Lucky Kleinboy Motshabi. Yet, in sometimes subtle and not so subtle ways, their teachings provide a religious fig leaf for the discrimination, abuse and murder faced by members of the LGBTQ community.

Religious leaders and their followers who condemn LGBTQ people as immoral or sinful on religious grounds probably believe that they are putting LGBTQ people in the dock and exposing our “immorality”. Instead, they are putting their religion in the dock by exposing its immorality. It is time for such religious leaders and their followers to save their religion from the taint of immorality by rejecting the use of religion to justify homophobic and transphobic bigotry. DM

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All Comments 8

  • Who gives a rat’s rear end whether the guy/girl sitting next to you has a different sexual preference to you. Does it affect you? NO!

    Leave them alone if they don’t bother you.

  • You’re absolutely right Pierre. Religion(s), being man’s construction of who and what he should worship has, and still is, a big problem. However, Jesus Christ did not come to offer mankind another “religion”, but rather to offer us a relationship with himself. The proof of that relationship is manifested in loving all people unconditionally, and unjudgementally (“as I have loved you”) – given that we are all flawed, i.e. so and so’s sins are manifest but my own are still concealed. Further, proper or perfect “morality” is not something that corrupted mankind is qualified to define. Only a perfectly righteous and loving God can define the standard – which all of mankind falls short of. For those who choose to believe in a loving God and that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, immorality and its eternal consequences, particularly from God’s new covenant perspective, are clearly defined.

  • Great article thank you Pierre and spot on. The same religious blanket provided justification for the killings of the Crusades. It is sad that Christianity claimed Jesus as their leader and in that way limited the message of his life to their fundamentalist approach. The message of his life which is a universal message of love, unity
    and humility and not the fabricated doctrine around his words, can never be used as a blanket to cover any division, entitlement, superiority, and especially contempt for those who are different.

  • A phobia is an abnormal fear or dislike of something. One can disapprove of homosexuality without having an abnormal fear or dislike of homosexuality.

  • Brilliant article, Pierre. You have eloquently exposed the total hypocrisy and immorality of religious leaders who continue to justify homophobic and transphobic bigotry in the name of their “loving” God that is a very transparent veil for their own blatant prejudices.

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