Written by Patrick Mthombeni of Access Chapter 2
Over the past twenty years South Africa has experienced an improved attitude from mainstream society towards the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI+) community. However, this improvement rarely embraces the social realities of the LGBTI+ persons who on a daily basis have to negotiate their social existence based on their sexuality. Simultaneously, South Africa holds a globally-recognised Constitution which protects the human rights of LGBTI+ persons not to be discriminated based on their sexual orientation. LGBTI+ persons in reality still face an enormous battle in their everyday lived experiences. One of the battles LGBTI+ persons face in South Africa which is not legally recognised is Conversion Therapy (CT). Conversion Therapy (CT) also referred to as Reparative Therapy (RT) is the pseudoscientific practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual using psychological, spiritual, traditional/cultural or religious interventions.
As highlighted above, CT is not formally/legally recognised as a practice in South Africa, the correct or most used term for this is ‘reparative therapy’ and there are no specific laws regulating or dealing with any acts or activities which can be characterised as ‘reparative therapy’. In the South African context, CT takes different formats such as Cognitive Therapy (psychological) which has focused on changing “irrational [cognitive] blocks against heterosexuality” and Behavioural Interventions (religious, sexual assaults/ harassment such as corrective rapes, and/or traditional/cultural interventions and in some cases also family interventions.
Broadly, how do CT practical formats look like in South Africa? Firstly, Psychological CT in South Africa: many LGBTI+ persons are secretly forced to go to therapy to seek help/counselling in hope of curing their sexuality. Such interventions may cause a mental breakdown on an individual. Secondly, Religious practices such as CT in South Africa: most religious spheres do not advocate for acceptance and normalisation of homosexuality or bisexuality as sexual difference. The leading conception is that homosexuality is a sinful act that does not fit within the religious rubric/matrix. Thus, in South Africa most LGBTI+ persons experience religious spaces as a very unwelcoming environment and as extremely judgemental and discriminatory on sexual diversity. In most cases, once religious leaders discover an individual’s same- sex orientation, the LGBTI+ person automatically gets ostracised from that particular space and sometimes both with their family; if they hold a prominent position, in some cases, they are then asked to step down in order to shame them and their families. Thirdly, Sexual assaults or harassment as CT in South Africa, ‘corrective rape’ is used as a way to change an individual’s sexual
orientation. Lesbians are raped by straight men who believe that they will be cured and become straight women because it is believed that they are lesbian because they have not experienced sex with men or with the right men and so once they are raped they will have this experience which will lead them to being attracted to men. Many LGBTI+ persons face sexual harassment, intimidation, and humiliation in the society from people who want to shame and change them into another sexual orientation. Fourthly, South African traditional/cultural practices as a form of Conversion Therapy: (a) Arranged/Forced Marriages: our cultures do not recognise same-sex relationships as normal and valid. Therefore, for instance, if a male can be seen to be having interest in other men, the family in some cases will arrange a female for him to marry and bare kids for him so that he can become a “man”. (b) Initiation schools as a practice of CT, if a boy or man can be seen to having characteristics or behaviour which shows that he is gay or feminine, the individual in some families in South Africa is then forced to go initiation school and be socialised and trained on how to be a “straight man” and ultimately change his sexuality. Lastly, another example of practices of Conversion Therapy in the South African context include single-sex boot camps where young LGBTI+ persons are taken through various initiations as a form of punishment and corrective measures in order to change their sexuality.
Moving forward and given the various changes in the last twenty years regarding the acceptance of the LGBT+ community in South Africa, the objective in ensuring the protection of LGBTI+ human rights rests in banning any acts or activities which can be characterised as an attempt to change any South African individual based on their sexual orientation. We need to acknowledge sexual difference as a social-reality in South Africa and from a sociological perspective as a social-performativity in the everyday lived experiences of LGBTI+ persons. In understanding Conversion Therapy from both elements as the actual social-reality and a hidden social-performativity, we then aim to understand and appreciate the harmful nature and the hidden wounds it creates internally amongst the LGBTI+ persons.
We urge and appeal to the South African Parliament to consider banning any acts or activities which aim at changing or converting the sexual orientation of any South African citizen irrespective of their age, race, sex, gender, cultural background, religious affiliation or geographical location.