Queer representation: knowledge, attitude and practices

Mothusi Mokalane

The queer community includes marginalised groups across the globe, and despite the continuous transitions in countries’ constitutions, the community is often still kept aside and stereotyped against by non-queer people. Equal and fair representation is vital, as it ensures visibility. Therefore, in a world with various platforms of knowledge production that continuously influence how people think, it is important to advocate for fair and sufficient representation of queer lives and experiences.

As South Africa’s media landscape changes and develops, there is also an increasing awareness of the need to ensure diversity of stories covered and voices heard, and access to the media. In many respects, the media has recognised that it has a role to play in helping build a healthy society. There is increasing media representation of women and people of different races, and coverage around complex issues such as HIV/AIDS.

How the media portrays queer groups influences how society thinks of them. Coverage that is negative, stereotyped, or even non-existent, impacts the way in which the community is viewed and received. Media – as a tool of knowledge production and influence – has the ability to increase understanding – or the power to re-enforce negative perceptions that contribute to discrimination. UP’s queer society, Tuks UP&OUT, explains that representations of queer life in the media, like movies or series, are “about queer ‘struggles’”, and that a “lot of queer media that’s considered ‘good’ by critics involves at least some elements of violence”, and is not limited to physical violence. UP&OUT explains that media representation is important in reflecting that “queer life doesn’t need to be a struggle”.

Head of Public Relations and Influencer Partnerships at an advertising and marketing agency, RAPT Creative, and Masters candidate, Khangelani Dziba, states that there is lack of awareness and consideration of queer voices in the work done by brands and media development. “Whilst the industry purports its support for the community in parts, a lot of the work being produced is still done by cis people who do not always fully grasp the complexity of the community and produce it with a heteronormative lens that centres [on] their comfort more than that of [queer people]” said Dziba. This act only adds to the stereotypes, and these actors remain unaware they ma be harming instead of aiding the community. UP&OUT adds that “the quickest way it will change is by queer actors, directors, and producers finding their way into the industry”, but that this “isn’t easy at all”.

Media representation is important in reflecting that “queer life doesn’t need to be a struggle”

“Out in the media?” is a research study conducted by director of Community Media for Development (CMFD), Deborah Walter et.al. The study reported that poor coverage has a negative impact on how people relate to the queer community. Some people are consequently ashamed of openly expressing their sexuality, because the media is portraying the community from a linear angle that limits diversity and is essentially stereotyped. The study also showed that negative or false coverage results in strained relationships between queer people and their families and friends. Negative media reinforces negative attitudes within social structures, resulting in hampered acceptance, respect, and understanding. “Can the media do better to cover the sector? Yes. Are there committed content producers out there who are interested in learning more? Absolutely. Does the community itself have to demand fair representation? Most certainly”, wrote Walter.

The lack of African content that is inclusive of queer people and their lives is an issue that prevails. This is because of the often quoted notion of homosexuality as “un-African”. Among many of the myths created about Africa, the belief that homosexuality is absent in Africa or incidental, is one of the oldest and most enduring. African leaders, historians, anthropologists, clergy, authors, and contemporary Africans alike have denied, overlooked or actively opposed homosexuality or same-sex relationships and persistently claim that such patterns were introduced by Europeans. In his book “The Pink Line: Journeys Across the World’s Queer Frontiers”, South African author, Mark Gevisser, shares an example from Nigeria’s leader of the Senate, David Mark. Mark, who Gevisser explains is responsible for Nigeria’s anti-queer legislation, said in 2013 that “there are many good values we can copy from other societies but certainly not this one [of decriminalising homosexuality]”. Gevisser further cites a 2016 survey by the Human Sciences Research Council on attitudes towards queer people in South Africa, and reports that 72% of respondents disapproved of “homosexual activity”, with some citing queerness as “un-African”. These attitudes result in slow progress in queer rights, which allows discrimination and violence against queer people to continue – or even be condoned by legislation. While South Africa has progressive and inclusive legislation for queer people, Gevisser discusses anti-queer laws and movements in countries such as Uganda, where Stephan Langa, a pastor who hosted a seminar in 2009 to “expose the ‘Homosexual’s Agenda’”, wrote that he promised to “help Africans protect themselves” from queer people and communities. These discourses continue across Africa as queerness is denied or oppressed, and the lived experiences of queer people negated. Such negation further excludes queer lives from representation in African media, entertainment, education, and social content.

South African Telenovela productions could also do better to represent the queer community fairly. Often when a queer storyline is introduced to a soapie, it is made into an event, written from a “taboo” angle, and used as a burning issue that will draw in large viewership for presumed shock value. Once the objective is achieved, the characters are pushed back into the closet. This misrepresentation sends a negative message to the masses, as the storylines usually are about, amongst others, rejection, hate, and suicide. These are things that might follow once one comes out; however, there are other positive narratives that can be written into storylines. A bad storyline might make it justifiable to treat queer people badly, as rejection and hate are the only narratives that are on television. The insufficiency of long-standing queer characters in telenovelas makes queerness look like a “temporary” thing which then feeds into the societal belief that queerness could be a passing phase. What media representation could include are characters playing queer couples, building careers, and expressing masculinity or femininity openly in weekly soapies so that viewers can see the variety of characters in the queer community. On representations of queerness in film and tv, Tuks UP&OUT says that stories can “go beyond queer people coming out or experienc[ing] violence or some combination of the two”, and show an experience beyond suffering.

A lack of adequate education to inform children from primary and secondary levels is another thing that feeds into the misrepresentation of queer people. Subjects such as Life Orientation and Life Skills are not informative enough about queer experiences. Sex education and preparation is an “awkward right of passage” that “queer students need […] just as much as straight students do“, explains UP&OUT. The problem arises as “many queer students fresh from high school don’t have even the most basic queer sex ed, or what they know they know from porn or erotica”, as “there’s so little genuine information that’s easily accessible”. UP&OUT suggests attending the CSA&G talks or checking out the resources in their Google Drive at @tuks_upandout. Just like the media, education curriculums influence our philosophies. If a subject aimed at teaching pupils about life and its diversity overlooks societal aspects such as sexuality and sexual orientation – then schools are not adequately teaching against homophobia and transphobia. Dziba, of RAPT Creative, adds that the Life Orientation curriculum has to be reviewed. “This will help avoid ignorance and grooming of children who are homophobic and do not know much about queer communities”, explained Dziba.

In trying to bring about the necessary information that will shape the narrative of queer experiences, Dziba is currently working on his Masters at Vega School of Advertising on the representation of queer people in the advertising industry. The inspiration for Dziba came from the ignorance the he found in the advertising industry relating to the queer community. “I was frustrated with the lens at which we were being positioned in ads and I wanted to see an immediate change”. The thesis is a critical qualitative investigation of the South African advertising industry as it relates to brand resonance and queer representation. It draws on theories produced by queer scholars and brand leadership scholars around the world. Dziba’s argument is one which aims to reveal the influence that our upbringing has on how we come to understand key constructs relating to gender identity and sexuality, which ultimately impacts our approach on how we are inclusive (or dismissive) of queer identities in South African advertising.

Transgender men and women fight twice the battle for fair representation. It is very important for all citizens in a country to have accurate and clear identification. For a trans man or woman to get an ID that reflects their identity in South Africa is often an impossible mission. This is because of the transphobic attitudes that the Home Affairs officials subject trans people to. Often we read in news publications that trans people are given a run around by the Department of Home Affairs with regard to the issuing of their new identity particulars. This sometimes leads to trans people being unable to work because the IDs they have do not reflect the persons they present themselves to be. In a media release, after Intersex South Africa and Gender Dynamix reported the discrimination that its officials subject transgender and intersex people to with regard to getting new Identity Documents, the Department of Home Affairs stated that they do not condone such conduct and that those officials will be attended to. The Department further indicated that, according to Section 7.2 of the Birth and Death Act 51 of 1992, the rights of a citizen to change their gender status is recognised, however, this is applicable only in instances where the parents registered the wrong gender of a child. With regard to transgender persons, the law requires applicants to provide two letters from the referring doctor and a specialist who either performed gender reassignment surgery or oversaw gender affirming treatments like hormone replacement therapy. The Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act states that any person whose sexual characterestics have been altered by surgical treatment or by evolvement through natural developments resulting in gender affirmation, or any person who is intersex, may apply to the Director General of the National Department of Home Affairs for the alteration of the sex discription on his or her birth register. This procedure looks good on paper and sounds very simple, but it is not the lived experience of many trans people.

“This will help avoid ignorance and grooming of children who are homophobic and do not know much about queer communities”, explained Dziba.

The SAPS’s job is to serve and protect, yet queer people are still victims of corrective rape, assault, sexual harassment, and even police brutality. Freelance writer and founder of BARE Stories (that celebrates the lives and stories of queer individuals), and a prospective PhD student at the University of Pretoria, Welcome Mandla, was recently allegedly sexually harassed by a male business partner on a business trip at Magaliesburg, and was allegedly threatened by the perpetrator after the trip. Mandla went to the following police stations to get a restraining order, of which he claims none assisted him; Brixton, Brooklyn, and Garsfontein. “The police don’t really care for queer people. There was an element of homophobia in dealing with my case because they made me feel like I am demanding, being a brat, and unreasonable”, Mandla said. After getting the restraining order, the police allegedly failed to deliver it to the perpetrator as they could not find him the first time they went to deliver it. After this, Mandla was told that for the sheriff to deliver the order, Mandla would be required to pay R800. After this, he was told that his case is being moved to Magaliesburg, where the incident took place. At the time of writing, the restraining order has still not been served. “I urge all queer people facing the same difficulties as me to speak out about their perpetrators and the unfair, discriminatory treatment that the police subjects queer people to” motivated Mandla.

The University of Pretoria has an Anti-Discrimination Policy (ADP) which seeks to protect all students and staff members against any form of discrimination and abuse. If anyone of the UP community is discriminated against, harassed or assaulted, they can contact the transformation Office Director, Nontsikelelo Loteni, at ntsikie.loteni@up.ac.za, or transformation Office Manager, Sarah Matseke, at sarah.matseke@up.ac.za, as well as the Brooklyn SAPS at 012 366 1700.

Image: Cletus Mulaudi 

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