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LGBTI People are Asking for “Special Treatment”?  Seriously?

Given that Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality” was coined as legal concept, why doesn’t it inform more of our economic policy, political ideologies and legislation?

We tend to think of oppressions as burdens that pile up in the sense that 3 + 3 = 6.  This is odd because however loose or immediate the connection between wealth and privilege, we don’t think of wealth (or lack thereof) as something that merely adds up.  The wealthy expect returns on their investments, not just an accumulation of money they’ve deposited. There’s a Zulu expression for this: imali iya emalini.  Money goes to money.  Debts and costs compound.

However loose or immediate the correlation between wealth and privilege, the effect of multiple oppressions or privileges (if it could be neatly quantified) would surely be more like 3 x 3 = 9 than 3 + 3 = 6, just as the formula for annual compound interest suggests the potential for exponential growth.

As I type this, it’s the eve of the first South African LGBT Business Summit.  This is not an official statement by any of the event organizers. But there was a press release, which in part said, “The summit will position LGBTI economic muscle in the business sphere by making a strong business case for the economic inclusion of LGBTI people”.  Some of the media response to this release was to the effect of, “Why should LGBTI people be given special treatment?”

In You Have To Be Gay To Know God I address the complex relationships amongst perceptions that LGBTI people are overrepresented amongst the wealthy, and the ruling party’s hit-and-miss history with the protection of their rights.  Suffice it to say the Bill of Rights has a comprehensive non-discrimination clause and a Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act, an Employment Equity Act and a Skills Development Act to give that clause teeth where apartheid’s legacy of institutionalised racism (and, to some extent, of sexism) is concerned.

In line with the Constitution’s acknowledgement of past injustices, we knew that the State’s obligation to not unfairly discriminate against any particular person would be tantamount to neutrality in the face of discrimination already historically and systemically perpetrated, unless such laws were put in to substantiate the Constitution’s acknowledgement of past injustices as more than just lip service to the notion of justice.

But up until recently, there have been very few policy tools to ensure that neither the State, nor its citizens, nor its servants, would unfairly discriminate against sexual minorities and gender-diverse persons.  It’s almost as though urgently alleviating the effects of racism has been prioritised ahead of solving the effects of sexism and heterosexism. As though the interlocking racism and homophobia and sexism facing black lesbians isn’t qualitatively more vicious than sexism, homophobia and structural racism would be by themselves.  Think “corrective rape”.


There are work opportunities that may be missed by members of this community because of gender stereotypes.  Consider the that the first thing that popped out of the surprised mouth of a gentleman’s mother when he came out to her was, “But gay people can’t be pilots!”; when an old lady saw a petite black woman drive a massive work truck, she exclaimed, “What’s that tiny black girl doing with that big truck?”  Bigotry has economic consequences; the legacy of interlocking discriminations can have compounded economic consequences.

There are dozens of gay overachievers who deal with internalised homophobia by overcompensating for the sense that they are not good enough by doing more than enough — often at cost to their health.  Do they have a choice, though? I knew someone whose boss said something to the effect of, “You’re black and you’re gay; like, could you be a lesser creature?” though he would not fire him because the guy produced results.  Then there are the psychological effects of the Imposter Syndrome. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, I have to both run towards it and run away from the shadow about to catch me and catch me out from around the corner.  When I try telling myself it’s in my head, that shadow superimposes itself over the people around me, causing me to imagine that the way they’re playing their roles in my professional life will expose some deep, dark secret about how I infiltrated spaces I was never supposed to access.  As though they’re out to sabotage or punish me. That’s how I make them out to be the enemy without realising it until it’s too late. And I can’t bring myself to look up details of the Serena Williams story yet.

I know an IT whizz who was thrown out by his family when they found out he was gay in his teens.  I don’t know how he completed his education. I know a transgender woman who gets through a normal workday by remembering thousands of little things like holding her fingers over her access card just over the sex category when she’s showing it to security staff.  I listened to someone describe how the respective parents’ economic power played a role in deciding which sex would be chosen, given this someone was an intersexed birth. Special treatment?  Really? Really?  

Siya KhumaloComment