Hanzline R. Davids
Jon Qwelane, the late columnist and ambassador, wrote an opinion piece, “Call me names – but gay is not okay”, in the Sunday Sun in 2008, equating being gay with bestiality. As a result, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and Press Ombudsman received complaints from the public and human rights groups. In 2017, Qwelane was found guilty of hate speech. However, the Supreme Court of Appeal set aside the judgment stating that section 10 of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (PEPUDA) was unconstitutional.
Freedom of Speech. No Hate Speech!
Through my work at Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM) for the last four years, I have sat in and led various conversations in faith communities around South Africa. These transformative conversations aim to reflect on the intersection of sexuality, gender and faith and how faith communities can move towards becoming more inclusive and affirming. As a result, I have often heard the derogative terms that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ+) people are subjected to because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).
Two remarks are essential. Firstly, within a dialogue conversation you do not want to restrict participants, yet at the same time you do not wish to expose LGBTIQ+ people to trauma. Secondly, a participant must ask LGBTIQ + people present whether they can use a derogative term to explain their thought process and why their thinking and behaviour have changed. This action/procedure happens because participants agreed to specific values to guide the conversation that reflect the nature of IAM’s transformative dialogue processes. These conversations are collaborative, where all partners contribute to and decide on life-affirming and transformative language.
Borrowing from feminist theory, this diagram below assists us in thinking through the complexity of power at work in these environments. I have noticed, for example, that an LGBTIQ+ person might allow the use of the word based on an established relationship, trust and respect for human dignity. This practice of waiting to receive permission before using language destabilises power-over and promotes power-with.
In the case of Qwelane, it is clear that he had power because of his social status and gender as a man. Power coupled with hate speech is violent. Therefore, Qwelane’s freedom of speech suppressed the rights of persons with less power.
So why should the constitutional ruling on Qwelane matter to faith communities?
Various denominations are having heated discussions around LGBTIQ+ SOGIESC, solemnisation of LGBTIQ+ marriages, and the ordination of LGBTIQ+ people. The Constitutional Courts’ unanimous decision penned by Justice Majiedt says the following about hate speech:
“Speech is powerful – it has the ability to build, promote and nurture, but it can also denigrate, humiliate and destroy. Hate speech is one of the most devastating modes of subverting the dignity and self-worth of human beings.”
Freedom of speech is a right and a privilege for Christians. As a right and privilege, it is an instrument for good, a means of proclaiming the truth and encouraging justice. It does not mean that everything that comes out of our mouths is holy. What we do have is an ethical and moral responsibility to speak the truth. We have no ethical or moral right to denigrate, torment or insult. What we need is a new language.
Using language to create life-affirming faith communities
In IAM’s Dialogue for Transformation: A Toolkit, people and groups are invited to engage with their language. Transformative dialogue needs to engage with the language we use in conversations. Language creates realities that are life-affirming or life-denying. Life-affirming realities celebrate the human dignity and diversity of all people. Life denying realities are based on our biases and stereotypes. Bias often moves individuals or groups towards the person who has power in a conversation. Stereotypes reduce individuals to a preconceived idea of a single characteristic. Faith communities and leaders should note that using abusive language to denigrate, humiliate and destroy LGBTIQ+ people is a human rights violation. We need speech where people discover their power-to and power-within to promote, build, and nurture a society and faith communities free of hate speech!
As Christians, the time has come that we embody Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:12: “do to others what you would have them do to you ….”