Making a statement: Social network users are better able to police their own feeds than a network is to censor the huge amount of content it carries. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Making a statement: Social network users are better able to police their own feeds than a network is to censor the huge amount of content it carries. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The title of the new book by activist, author and adjunct associate professor in the department of public law at the University of Cape Town Melanie Judge is a mouthful, but it captures the essence of what drives the world – power — and how that affects people, especially those known as "the other".

She says the title, Blackwashing Homophobia, is an attempt to think about homophobic violence alongside other types of violence and discrimination — not in isolation, but historically situated in an SA context. "I wanted to know what fuels homophobia," she says. "Given our history, it is impossible to unpack issues of race and sexuality in SA separately — hence the title."

What emerged from her research is how racial and sexual discrimination work with each other to produce very problematic ideas about gay and lesbian people in SA, and about black gay and lesbian people.

As an activist, she wanted to glean and understand the multiple dimensions of the causes and effects of violence and its relationship to race, gender and sexual power.

She notes that violence is always an instrument of power, and a way to exercise it. In SA lesbians are vulnerable to violence— more so than other groups, she found.

Power, Judge explains, is a way to exert control over those who don’t conform to sexual and gender norms. For lesbians, the implication is often that they are not "real women".

In Blackwashing Homophobia, the specific vulnerability lesbians face is described as "double trouble" — they are stigmatised because they are women, and also because they are lesbian, and that spells trouble in a gender system in which straight men are dominant.

Judge points out that in all cultures, sexual and gender diversity is a battleground on which social norms are defined and challenged.

Her book also explores how violence is used to control sexuality and gender. Looking back at colonial and apartheid times, people were governed through violence.

"Violence was used to control," Judge explains, and that continues today. "We are a very violent society, so it makes sense that it continues today."

Her focus is on homophobic violence and how it relates to other forms of violence.

"How, for example, does it intersect with racism?" she asks. Her argument is that violence props up, establishes and maintains systems of inequality. It is also used to maintain the hierarchy between men and women, gay people and straight people, and rears its head where there’s inequality.

It is also important in maintaining the status quo to keep the binaries in place. Lesbians, who cannot be real women, will always be viewed as "lesser than" for not complying with gender norms. And in the end, everyone in society is affected.

"Queer becomes a spectacle," Judge says. "A kind of anomaly to the ‘normal’ that is sometimes tolerated, just as long as it knows its place and doesn’t disrupt too much."

If people from the LGBT community are systematically excluded, it creates a form of marginalisation with which SA society is very familiar.

Judge therefore deemed it important to explore the link between the everyday insults LGBT people face and the more brutal forms of violence to which they are subjected. There is also a social environment that makes more extreme forms of violence possible.

LGBT people who are white and affluent mostly escape some of the targeting that belabours lesbians in the townships. In trying to understand this violence, Judge found that it was often ascribed to blackness. "I find that particularly racist," she says.

There’s a strong discourse that violence is inherent to black people. Judge feels such beliefs need to be problematised because they don’t tell the full, and thus correct, story.

'No-one is naturally bigoted'

"No-one is naturally bigoted, and we must understand the realities facing black LGBT people as a product of centuries of racial and economic oppression and dispossession," she says.

She argues that inequalities in power produce violent outcomes. "People are kept in their place in the social and economic hierarchy through violent means," Judge adds.

She argues strongly that if SA wants to address the violence, the country has to address social injustices.

Violence is all about building an identity and functioning in the world.

Judge says it is time that South Africans stop asserting their right over others in terms of race, gender and sexual superiority. "We have to establish new forms of social relationships," she says. "How empty is your power if it can only hold its own at the cost of the other?"

Binaries were essential during apartheid: blackness and whiteness had to be constantly classified and identified.

"Yet, we never have singular identities," Judge notes.

Some people may be women, they may also be queer or straight and rich or poor — and this will shape their life prospects. It is in that intersection where people connect across difference.

"We have a multiplicity of identities. Some of these give us power and others make us vulnerable," Judge says.

She has discovered powerful and positive resistance against discriminatory social norms, but it remains difficult to erase past patterns of doing and being in relation to others.

"We have to undo everything," says Judge. "It’s about keeping people in positions of inferiority or superiority that lies at the heart of inequality."

But she is excited about the divergence and vibrancy of queer life in SA.

"We are in post-apartheid, and to some extent with huge advances, but the law has largely run its course in how far it can take us towards a more equal society."

Judge believes that with the firm footing of legal equality, the battleground can, and has, shifted to the religious and cultural spheres. "It is important that we change the way we relate to one another, and that we change social structures to be more equitable and inclusive," she says.

"We have to think back before we can go forward. We can’t approach the now if we haven’t dealt with the past."