NEWS
27/04/2018 05:50 BST | Updated 27/04/2018 06:54 BST

Freedom For The Queer Community: 'I Struggle To Imagine A Safe Space'

What does Freedom Day mean to the marginalised? HuffPost spoke to LGBTI+ South Africans who say "freedom" has come only for cisgender heterosexuals.

24 years into our democracy, South Africans in the LGBTI+ community are still asking what it truly means to be free. In many parts of the country, they and other marginalised groups are simply not free to be who they are.

This historic day should celebrate the end of oppression — but injustices continue to manifest through different forms of discrimination. LGBTI+ rights in South Africa are based on section 9 of the Constitution, which forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or sexual orientation, among other distinctions, and applies to government as well as private parties.

I cannot be 24 years into our democracy, and experience problems at home affairs, police stations and clinics. It should not be happening.Yaya Mavundla

South Africa's Constitution is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world — partially because it explicitly includes LGBTI+ protections and came in the wake of legally enshrined homophobia under apartheid, appearing to bear out the ANC's promise of "freedom for all".

But the lived reality proves very different. Many LGBTI+ South Africans feel completely erased by their lack of social acceptance.

What does it mean to be free?

Activist Yaya Mavundla, who identifies as transgender, says sadly that freedom to her is almost comical — she can vote, but what does her vote do, if she cannot be herself?

"I can say that I am free when I at home, but once I leave that space, it is a different story," she says. ''It's unfortunate that we have rights in our Constitution, but not in reality."

I heard someone say, 'Omigosh, that's a man!' And I just thought, 'Wow! Do I really want to be here?Glowmammii

Mavundla says that government, frustratingly, has not lived up to its constitutional responsibility, because government-administered spaces prove a consistent challenge to her community.

"I cannot be 24 years into our democracy, and experience problems at home affairs, police stations and clinics. It should not be happening."

Public spaces: neither free nor safe

Unless you're cisgender and heterosexual, a vast range of South African public environments can be a harrowing experience — from schools, to police stations, to public hospitals. These are all spaces that are required by law to afford LGBTI+ people their right to a safe environment, but frequently leave them vulnerable.

Everyone who sat down with HuffPost for this story had humiliating incidents to relate.

Transgender artist Glowmammii recalls how a night out was transformed instantly by a stranger's remark: "I was with my friends at a bar in Maboneng, and I heard someone say, 'Omigosh, that's a man!' And I just thought, 'Wow! Do I really want to be here? This is such a trigger, in the worst way — [to insist] we are actually assigned our genders; we do not get to decide for ourselves... [it's frightening] to hear someone's ideas being projected onto you in a very aggressive and harmful way."

[I struggle] to imagine what a safe space for the queer community would be, because I do not know what that feels like.Mawethu Nkosana

Mavundla was shocked when a person who was appointed to protect people harassed her: "I was accompanying one of my friends, and I was actually attacked by a security guard. This was so weird to me — he's placed there for security reasons, but he's harassing me? I have a right to be myself, but he thinks I shouldn't.''

LGBTI+ people are subjected to treatment like this on a daily basis. Activist Mawethu Nkosana says, "To be free means to fully be, right? To fully self-actualise." However, he struggles "to imagine what a safe space for the queer community would be, because I do not know what that feels like''.

So whose freedom are we celebrating?

South Africa's dark past is redolent with crimes against humanity, and considering that past, it's painful to see the current political dispensation allow this discrimination of a vulnerable group to continue.

Transgender Intersex Africa director Tebogo Nkoane says that both government and society will have to work together to end discrimination against LGBTI+ South Africans. "The country as a whole needs to check if they are doing everything that they said they would do in terms of the Constitution — and that includes ensuring the rights of [marginalised communities] are protected."

LGBTI+ citizens and taxpayers trying to access a police station or home affairs office could be met with incompetent officials who mock the vulnerable and turn them away.

So as you light your Freedom Day fire and enjoy a cooldrink while you wait to get the meat on the grill, remember that four out of ten LGBTI+ South Africans know of someone who has been murdered "for being or suspected of being" lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Remember that LGBTI+ citizens and taxpayers trying to access government services like a police station or home affairs office could be met with incompetent officials who mock the vulnerable and turn them away — and suffer no consequences for doing so.

Remember that intersex infants can routinely have their gender "decided" at birth and be subjected to surgery to make them "conform" to an exclusive, binary gender option.

Remember that a transgender individual may not be afforded healthcare to transition for up to 25 years.

Remember that a gender nonconforming child can be turned away from school because they refuse to wear a certain uniform.

Remember that an employee of the state can refuse to provide the secular state service of civil, non-religious marriage to a same-sex couple on the grounds of "religious belief".

Remember that "the society" that consistently fails LGBTI+ and other vulnerable citizens is made up of people just like you — "society" won't start standing up for the rights of the marginalised until enough individuals do.

Happy Freedom Day. May it come soon.