Voices against discrimination in the workplace: sexual orientation, gender identity and expression (South African Labour Bulletin, Vol. 39, No. 2, April/May 2015, pp. 15 to 20)
The four pieces below were written during a writing workshop I facilitated held on 22 - 23 November and 6 December 2014. The workshop dealt with topics that cover daily experiences of lesbians, bisexual and gender-nonconforming women but the pieces below are extracts focused on their experiences in the workplace. The aim of the workshop was to facilitate the writing of personal stories that would allow participants to reflect on experiences, voice concerns and think through strategies of addressing homophobia and transphobia in the workplace.
The writing workshop is one component of a larger joint project between Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) and Labour Research Services (LRS) and funded by International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC). The project emerged from the growing concern both in South Africa and internationally about the discrimination, marginalisation, harassment and violence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people face in the workplace. The project has four components: research; a discussion paper entitled Workplace protection for lesbian, bisexual and gender-nonconforming women in South Africa: myth or reality?; a booklet on guidelines for employers, trade unionist and workers; and the writing workshop.
The decision to focus on lesbians, bisexual and gender-nonconforming women was guided by the recognition of the patriarchal context within which women live and work. Gender- based violence, intimate-partner violence, domestic violence, sexual harassment are notoriously common in South Africa and this is over and above the day-to-day sexism that takes on a variety of forms. Workplaces are no different. The many sexist ways of treating women filter into the workplace and this becomes an added burden for women who are lesbian, bisexual and or gender-nonconforming.
The Equality clause of the Bill of Rights states categorically that neither the state nor any person may “unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including, race ender, sex pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”
In the context of a progressive constitution, it is an additional concern that many lesbian, bisexual and gender non-conforming women may not fully know their rights and sometimes when they do, the work environment does not make is easy to claim these rights. The stories below show the many ways in which women are psychologically affected by homophobia and transphobia at work and the different ways in which they assert their rights.
The stories by Maleshoane Motaung, Libuseng B. M. Khantsi-Lesipi, Jennifer Ayebazibwe and Tebogo Makha Makhalenela were selected because of the varying aspects of homophobia and transphobia that they exemplify as well as the varied ways in which they handled the situations. The common thread in these stories reminds us of the now often quoted words by Caribbean-American lesbian and prolific writer and poet Audre Lorde “Your silence will not protect you.” The writing workshop was just one of the ways in which women were encouraged to use writing as a tool for speaking out for themselves. We also hope that readers will reflect on their own silence, as well as that of their colleagues, whenever homophobia and transphobia are voiced.
Makhosazana Xaba is a Writing and Documentation Fellow at GALA
A Collective hatred and its individual victims
I love Kanyi. She’s the boss that I chose. We rarely ever get the opportunity to choose our bosses, and I did. Driven by boredom and rewarded by luck, I, as a student ambassador, got to choose my boss. In an office full of bosses, I chose the one who was least loved, but generally feared. I suppose, in hindsight, I saw a glimpse of the kind of Black woman (navigating a corporate world) I would one day like to be. And so it began-this relationship that was cultivated from the clots of boredom and turned into a sister-like relationship. I didn’t plan for it, but like the bad and messy bits of life, one never truly gets to plan for the good bits. Not many people are divinely rewarded with the privilege of liking their bosses, let alone loving them, and it was this last bit that made our relationship trickier to manage, at least from my vantage point.
Kanyi was my immediate boss, but I also looked to her as something that resembled an older sister. Our particular arrangement bore the trademarks of a supervisor-minion relationship, but there was also another level, where we both regarded and respected each other as human first. This made our working relationship easier to bear and also opened up channels of communication which we wouldn’t otherwise had. And on a day to day basis, we worked like a well-oiled machine. She did have to pull rank on me every now and then, but the feelings of animosity that often arise in such situations were mitigated by this added layer of affect. It was, however, this affective layer that complicated the “peripheral” aspects of our relationship.
She is a staunch Christian and as is often (not always) the case, her Christian inclinations carried the yoke of homophobia. Hers was a tolerating kind of homophobia, bordering on acceptance, but homophobic nevertheless. It was often punctuated by sweeping generalizations and unchecked stereotypes, but took its true shape and form in emotional outbursts and rants. These were often directed at my other boss, albeit behind his back, and at face value could be read/interpreted as someone “letting off steam”. She would often argue (when I called her out of it) that these rants were not a reflection of how she felt about me-my individual sexuality, but I knew better.
I admit that a part of me tried to (childishly and affectionately) entertain and accept her reasoning, but I couldn’t. Kanyi couldn’t, or rather, didn’t want to see how her rants could and did affect the way I felt about our relationship…about her. I could’ve easily dealt with them (her rants) and the emotions they evoked professionally, through official channels or easily dismissed them, because one can dismiss the idiotic rants of a boss. It’s much harder to do that when you’ve formed a familial bond with your boss. It’s harder to dismiss them when you respect and admire the boss in question. It was the aforementioned affective layer of our relationship that made this hard to do.
This also highlights the tricky and somewhat sinister nature of homophobia-the way it can become both a collective and individualized hatred. The former is easily recognized and is accompanied by words like, “these/those people” or sweeping (often dehumanizing) generalizations. The latter, however, is hardly ever recognized because we think that we can separate the person from people. Homophobia is a collective hatred that makes individuals feel small. Like most of our prejudices, it cannot and shouldn’t be viewed as an individualized phenomenon, even if/when it is directed at one person. Kanyi didn’t get that.
At hand, I had several options that would have helped me resolve the matter quickly, and to a certain extent, painlessly. But these were clinical, sterile options that would’ve worked if Kanyi and I had a purely professional relationship. Those options never crossed my mind either. There is no human resources for sister-like relationships. Therapy, maybe, but even I knew the limits of our special work relationship.
I tried to speak to her about it, but these “interventions” are always hard, especially if they’re meant for someone you look up to…and if that person is your immediate boss. Clinically, HR would’ve have effectively dealt with the latter incarnation of Kanyi HR would’ve effectively dealt with (swept under the carpet) the collective hatred, but it would’ve have failed to deal with the individual. Two individuals to be precise: Kanyi, who didn’t see me as part of “those people”, and who, as a result, individualized my sexuality, and me. The other person, who, it could be argued, experienced their sexuality in particular, individual ways, but still felt the slap of her collective hatred. This was my conundrum.
I never got to resolve this conundrum because the school term had started, and to be honest, I think I ran away from the problem. I was younger, with very little life experience to help me navigate that particular situation.
I still see Kanyi. I pop by the office every now and then to say hi, chat and enquire about her life and she reciprocates in kind. The upside to not working with her anymore is that I am spared her rants. The downside is that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to address her homophobia.
In hindsight, I realize our relationship allowed/gave her the freedom to voice those homophobic thoughts (cruel irony!), and yet, on the other hand, it made it harder for me to address them. It was a generalized hatred with specific individuals.
Maleshoane Motaung is a Wits graduate, a full time feminist and part time ghost.
Fighting the urge to just slap them: sexual harassment at work
Libuseng BM Khantsi-Lebipi
On average a person working from eight to four in a government admin and support department, spends eight to nine hours of their time, every single day of the week, from Monday to Friday, at their workplace. A place filled with people with different personalities and vast amounts of beliefs and attitudes. Gossip and conflict are just unavoidable. News of my sexuality spread like wildfire, as much as I wasn’t in the closet, I didn’t make my sexuality the centre of who I am nor a centre of my career.
One person had their suspicions and asked; one or two more followed suit and I didn’t deny that I am a lesbian. I remember whispers behind my back, goose-bumps on my skin as I sensed eyes following my every move in our open plan office, awkward silences as I walk in on conversations during comfort breaks in our shared facilities, quick exists from the ladies restrooms as I enter, avoided eye contact and noticeable fake and hidden curious smiles as I made conversation with colleagues; and I knew it had started. I just didn’t know what to expect, but I knew I had to be ready for it. Unlike the previous HIV, AIDS, STI and TB department – known as the HAST department where I had previously worked, where my sexuality was of no interest at all, it seemed a bit odd that such a thing as natural as breathing would cause such a stir.
Ever since people in H.R, actually most people ko open plan found that I’m lesbian, their attitude and behaviour towards me has changed. They look at me like I’m an alien or iets, something-nyana se unnatural, not their colleague. The other day one of them was brave enough to come ask me how it felt like to be with a woman. I couldn’t breathe, my cheeks went hot and felt a bit of anger rising. “Ok”, I casually told her, trying to calm down and not to give it too much thought. I sensed that she wanted to know more, the sexual bits of my relationship, but I ignored her. However the question was asked loud enough for everyone to hear. It felt like an open invitation for the less brave to eventually approach me, an entrée from what has been discussed about me behind my back.
“But… you…have… been with a man…, married and had kids, did something happen to make you lesbian. When did you become a lesbian? How do you… (shifty eyes)... you know… do it. Maybe you didn’t have the right man in your life. Who is the man in your relationship? There is a biblical name for your condition; you are possessed by such and such a demon”. I have heard them all and knew them well -these tiresome, ill-disposed, somewhat crude remarks, just a tip of the many more I have had thrown at me. The unease, teeth chattering anger, and irritation they brought always beat within me like a second hidden heart. The words themselves unlike in the past no longer moved me, but the attitudes and self-righteous manner in which they have been said rubbed me the wrong way. So when the attitudes towards me changed, I knew these - the questions, comments, degrading judgmental words and religious attacks were coming and had prepared myself for them, but nonetheless I found the entire ordeal very draining.
Bazalwane ba teng also saw this as an opportunity to make their holier than thou presence felt. “You know homosexuality is a sin, it is written in the Bible and you’re going to hell if you don’t change your ways” they stated. “Oh really!” I responded, “Well, you and your kids will be there with me, I told one of them. Sex before marriage is also a sin and you have two illegitimate children, who according to that same Bible are not supposed to enter houses of prayer. So, brace yourself and live well because you and I will be dancing together in hell.” Day by day the comments kept on coming; I gave them a piece of my mind until they subsided.
Now the one who opened this gateway of verbal harassment, advanced to physical harassment, grabbing my ass whenever she passed by as well as whenever the opportunity presented itself. The others followed suit, asking if I felt anything – implying if their actions awakened any sexual arousal in me. The only emotion aroused was that of anger and irritation. I had to fight the urge to just slap them. After telling them that I would lay a charge of sexual harassment against them, one of them retaliated “What would you say? You feel offended when a woman touches your butt? We are all women here and your charge won’t bear any weight.” I reported them to Labour Relations nonetheless, and as she had stated, the incidents were not given much needed attention.
It was when the one who had opened this chain of subtle but very prominent harassment, when I least expected it; chatting with one of my colleagues, deliberately walked straight up to me brushed her hand across my pubic area on top of my pants, looking at me straight in the eye and asked how it felt like, before passing by leaving me stunned; that I then decided to give them a taste of their own medicine.
When an opportunity presented itself, and I was sure I would get away with it, one by one I pinned them to a wall, invaded their personal space and made them feel utterly sexually uncomfortable. When they threatened to report me, I gave them a go ahead, reminding them that I am also but a woman and their charge won’t be taken seriously.
After that incident the harassment stopped, but I still feel that our labour relations act has really failed me in this regard. I also noticed that reporting our labour relations officer’s negligence to the H.R Assistant director would be futile as our H. R. Assistant Director entirely depends on her on labour issues. The only thing I could do at that point was to empower her to restudy the Bill of Rights where sexuality is addressed and know how to handle cases in this regard should they present themselves in the future. I can only say I am glad she was keen to learn and implement change where she could. However the change is still to be felt.
Our health institutions really need training on same sex issues. I feel emotionally drained and in need of a pick me up, Magnum milkshake will do, pretty please!
Libuseng B. M. Khantsi-Lebipi is a quiet, peaceful and free spirited H R practitioner at one of the Department of Health institutions who enjoys sending time capturing unassuming and gay pieces of her varying personalities and experiences in a journal.
Proud of Myself
So today Ben asked me how we do it. I swear if someone asks me that question again I will commit murder. They were all standing there waiting for my answer and then Khosi, with all the smartness of an ass threw in another one, said all who had wives or girlfriends should keep them far away from me, (like the sky – I can’t be trusted, I can be good and evil at the same time.)
This was the reason why I didn't usually have my lunch at the Arena; to spare myself from having to hear these guys go on about lesbians as if we were to blame for world hunger and global warming. It was a pity, because the view was amazing from the rooftop where the Arena was, one could see the better part of Pretoria East from up there, it was one of the nicer things about working as a waitress.
They started sharing stories of some lesbian they knew (they all knew one) who slept with a friend’s woman (never theirs) and how the friend almost lost it. Andrew the genius of the group then came up with a fantastic idea, could they see my fake penis?! Was it hidden somewhere in my under garments ready to be whipped out and used on an unsuspecting female? I must have one, otherwise how was it possible that a woman and a woman could have sex and like it sans phallus. He then reached for me and I slapped his hand off, which caused the lot to burst out in raucous laughter. Oh and were my breasts real?! Did I have chest hair, perhaps I had two parts they said, you could never know with these people, anything is possible – someone went. The most amazing thing was that all these were young people, most putting themselves through varsity by working as waiters, I didn't expect this kind of homophobia and bigotry from them.
I was fuming. I could not believe the ignorance and stupidity on show. You know what I did? I took it upon myself to educate those idiots, that’s what I did, after all, what other cure is there for ignorance. So I asked them to ask me whatever questions their little ignorant minds could think of. You would not believe the stuff that came out of these men’s mouths; terribly depressing! If I wasn’t the kind of person that I am, I swear I would have been forced to quit or something, which would have no doubt pleased them. They went on about Adam and Eve and not Steve; wasn’t I scared of hell? What would the ancestors think?!
First I asked them to choose one, either religion or African Traditions as the two were mutually exclusive. That shut some of them up, then I went on to tell them about research that shows that LGBTI people were actually accepted and welcomed in most African traditions before the coming of religion through colonialism, I then asked them to refrain from quoting the bible to me as I had nothing to do with it being an Agnostic Theist.
I pointed out some articles and literature I had read debunking the idea that homosexuality was un-African by researching LGBT occurrences in pre-colonial African communities and how they were accommodated; I backed it up with proof and asked them to share some research which contradicted me if they had any. One of the books I found very useful was: Boy-wives and Female Husbands: Studies of African Homosexualities (2001). The discussions empowered me, I had information and they had bigoted dogmatic ranting, the ones who were not entirely stupid learnt something; Khosi even borrowed my book and actually read it! Their questions became smarter and deeper and our discussions more interesting over time, they sought me out every lunch time and begged me to have lunch with them at the Arena so we could explore the subject further. Mostly they just wanted to hear stories of my conquests, of which I regaled them to no end.
I still had to contend with the one question they all seemed to be totally enthralled by; how did we do it?! I gave them graphic details, explained the human anatomy to them and charged them with the task of exploring their bodies more.
I didn't always have the courage to be so openly and visibly gay, before coming out, standing up for myself was not always easy, I remember this one time about two years before my job at the restaurant, I worked in a hair salon. It was more like movie meets reality in that space. This woman who used to come in occasionally kept giving me the look; you know the one right? I knew she was into me, thought she was quite cool too. Then the whispers began; Eva – my manager pulled me aside one Saturday afternoon and asked me to watch out for THE lesbian! I wanted to laugh in her face, if only she knew!
I thought of taking the easy way out of course; laugh loudest and call her names behind her back to prove how homophobic I was to the rest but thought I couldn’t live with myself if I did; the shame and self-hate would be too much to bear so I decided to stand up for her. Whenever someone made a homophobic comment, I defended her, mostly with a pounding heart and sweaty palms but what choice did I have?
They said maybe I was like her, I retaliated with; would that be so bad? They knew me you see, I wasn’t some faceless creature they could hate and imagine to be all sorts of hideous things. Some went home thinking and re-thinking, telling me that perhaps gay people were people too on their next visit for a wash and style, I was proud of myself. I had maybe made the world a tinsy bit better, maybe.
Discrimination in the workplace can be challenging, especially when coming from those superior and in positions of influence and power. If one is lucky, the environment allows for feisty comebacks, unfortunately this isn't always the case and it might not necessarily be the best route to take.
If however the environment permits and one is able to stand up for themselves and the LGBT community, it is possible to come out feeling empowered and good about oneself, having done the community at large a service, however small.
Jennifer Ayebazibwe is a student of life, a wife, a mother, a writer who considers herself a narrative activist and strongly believes in the importance of documenting lesbian stories and experiences.
Stop acting like a boy: verbal abuse at work
Tebogo Makha Makhalenela
I decided to change jobs after experiencing never ending verbal abuse, at a clinic in the Vhembe district where I worked as a counsellor. I was tired of being told: “stop acting like a boy”. I found work in a construction company believing it will be better there because people understand that women of today are more involved in the engineering field. I really thought that at a construction company I would be free of any interrogation about my sexuality.
At first, for about two months, all was well - I did my work, engaged with colleagues, built relationships and cooperated with everyone. In no time people started to realize who I am because of how I dressed. Things started to get bad. My site manager started to give me harder and harder work but each time he found out I could do it without any problem. I was excellent at my work.
Then one day I was allocated to work in the roof department with three men who immediately started discussing me. They talked about how our culture does not permit women to work on roof tops. Only one man disagreed and said we live in a new democracy wherein women are encouraged to be involved in the construction industry.
It wasn’t until this year that I decided enough is enough. I told the site manager about the verbal harassment and the discrimination. I demanded that he explains how my sexuality makes me different and why it matters at work. I demanded that this be discussed professionally. The Community Liaison Officer (CLO) decided to inform the owner of the construction company. Although the owner of the company came to the building site, he did not discuss the issue directly he just told us that he wants people to work in peace without fighting. Since that day no one said anything to me. But, is that good or what? Why did they not discuss it properly?
To be a homosexual is still a big issue that people are failing to deal with it and accept that it is not a disease and that we have to treat everyone with respect and dignity. We all have a right to work and not to be a target of discrimination and stigma.
Tebogo Makha Makhalenela is a proudly lesbian short story writer and activist fighting for the rights of LGBTI people, PLWA and migrants. She is a fellow at the Vhembe forum of the TAC.